“The killing of Michael Brown is a problem we all share.”

I work for a civil rights organization; an old, established one with a formidable reputation.  I do research for them; I get paid to make sense of the inequalities that exist in our country.  I am a middle class, well-educated white male and constantly struggle with the fact that I’m in a very privileged position to be able to do what I do for a living.  The killing of Michael Brown has affected me tremendously, in ways that I have yet to even fully comprehend.  Maybe it has to do with the idea that I like to think that what I do makes a difference and that fighting the good fight matters; I guess it does on some level.  The fact remains that there are stark inequalities between races in this country.  These disparities aren’t some sort of modern day Darwinism played out within the confines of our society – they have been purposefully designed and implemented to move the advantaged further ahead at the expense of the disadvantaged.  We don’t, by any stretch of the imagination live in a “post-racial” world; race has almost everything to do with, well pretty much everything.

Understanding and more importantly accepting the fact that public policy over the past (at least) 100 years has purposefully oppressed people based on skin color is the first step to understanding why the killing of Michael Brown is a problem we all share.  Inequality abounds in the natural world; faster or more alert or more naturally cautious little fish grow up to be bigger fish; sluggish, less alert or less cautious fish become dinner.  Fish however, at least as far as I know, aren’t prone to public policy that dictates whether they become dinner or get to grow up.  Humans are a different case; we impose rules, regulations and public policy rooted in the retention of power rather than the expansion of equity and morality.

I’m not an expert on constitutional law, sociology, law enforcement, or race relations. I am an expert in civil rights research and data analysis.  I have conducted exhaustive research on the impacts of public policies on our urban areas, from the discriminatory practices of the Home Owners Loan Corporation which dictated where private home loans would be insured by the Federal government, to the impacts Brown V. Board of Education had on the fabric of our society.  In Richmond as in many other cities across the Country, bus lines don’t extend into job-rich suburban counties, educational infrastructure is crumbling, public housing policies ensure that poverty is deeply concentrated, disparities across the board are rising. The mortgage lending debacle that lend to the collapse of the economy was centered in the communities most unable to weather the storm.  In Richmond, those neighborhoods with the highest rates of African American homeownership also experienced the highest rates of foreclosure.

Much of the work I do leaves me enraged.  It should enrage you too.  I believe that every life matters.  I believe that all people want a better life.  I believe that the inequalities in our society are no longer sustainable.  Part of me would like to see the outrage in Ferguson increase and spread to every city across the country.  However, the sensible side understands that the system we have all had a hand in creating can be changed.  It took hundreds of years of purposeful intent to get to where we are; it will take as many years to make things right.

Most of you are not engaged in the type of work that I am. Most of you do not spend time thinking about the tangible as well as intangible privileges you have or haven’t received due to your skin color. Frankly, it doesn’t matter.  I believe we all have the ability to change our system and this is my challenge to you: take a deep, hard look at your personal biases, try to understand from where they came and change them.  Until we, as a collective society, are able to see people as they truly are we will continue to prevent valuable lives from reaching their full potential and that, my friends, is an unfathomable travesty.

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Brian Koziol is Director of Research at Housing Opportunities Made Equal.

The Monster in the Closet

Recently, the news has been consumed by coverage of Donald Sterling’s racist comments caught on tape and the NBA’s swift and decisive condemnation. This seems to denote a turning point in race relations in the United States. We’re tempted to declare that the Civil Rights Movement has been a success, open racism is no longer acceptable, we’ve won! And it’s true, overt racism is frowned upon today and few proudly proclaim their racist ideals anymore. Even the Ku Klux Klan no longer claims to be an “enemy” to minorities (but they aren’t particularly friendly, either).[i] Yet, in 2003 when Donald Sterling was accused of housing discrimination against current and prospective tenants in his apartment complexes, nobody batted an eye. This accusation has only resurfaced to be used as one more piece of evidence to prove that his recorded remarks were made with racist intent. To me, this proves that open expressions of racism and being perceived by the public as a racist are undesirable in America, but policies and practices with racist effects, as long as they are hard to see, are somehow acceptable. America is not post-racial, our country continues to rest upon invisible and systemic racism, but we make ourselves feel better about it by condemning those who make their racism known.

Possibly the best thing to come out of this Sterling controversy is a great article at CNN from Rinku Sen, the publisher at Colorlines.com and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. In the article, Sen identifies three things that need to be done in order to achieve racial equity: “talk explicitly about race; focus on the impact of policies and practices and the intention behind them; and support power-building in marginalized communities.”[ii] So far, none of these things are happening on a regular or highly effective basis at the national level. They are, however, happening at the local and regional level, and with much success. Sen goes on to detail a few instances in which groups have explicitly looked at the racial impact of policies and practices, which might on the surface seem benign, and made changes which had positive impacts for racial equality.

I’d like to continue what Sen started with a discussion of HOME and the ways we try to combat racism using Sen’s framework. HOME has been engaged in ensuring equal access to housing for all people since 1971. We’ve always had a focus on combating racism, as this is one of the biggest barriers to fair housing. We work both at the individual and the systemic level and the examples I’m about to give have to do with both internal efforts amongst staff as well as our external programs.

  1. Talk explicitly about race: In February of this year, HOME had an intentional staff-wide discussion of racism and white privilege. We spoke about the ways we as individuals and as an organization experience and confront racism in our daily lives and work. We challenged each other to use white privilege, if we have it, to confront and disrupt racism when we see it. Additionally, we decided that as an organization we need to do a better job of not only confronting racism but being real about the ways it influences us as an organization both internally and externally. As a result of this discussion, we’ve begun to set aside intentional times to engage openly and honestly with one another about racism and inequality once a week during what we call “Brown Bag Lunches.” Racism informs our work, in fact, it drives much of it. We have committed to the ongoing process of talking intentionally and explicitly about racism and inequality so that we can clearly name it and interrupt it when we see it.
  1. Focus on the impact of policies and practices and the intention behind them: As an organization with a specific emphasis on research and advocacy, HOME regularly engages in identifying and investigating the racial impact of state and local policies as well as policies of private companies. Our interest is in the ways these policies and practices impact access to housing and the credit to obtain housing. We regularly investigate the policies and practices of private and public entities within the housing industry and conduct independent research such as our recent project, “Mapping RVA: Where You Live Makes All the Difference.” These research endeavors are then used to change the practices and policies of the participants and serve as valuable educational tools for others who are interested in making better policies for the future.
  1. Support power-building in marginalized communities: Finally, we empower low-to-moderate income families in the Richmond Metro Region to take advantage of the opportunity to build wealth by purchasing their first home. 84% of these families are minorities. None of them could have purchased a home when they did without the support of HOME’s program for first-time homebuyers. Owning a home is one of the best ways to provide not only economic but social stability for a family and the larger community. A low rate of homeownership among minority groups in the U.S. is one of the biggest contributing factors to the wealth gap between whites and minorities. By providing low-to-moderate income families with the opportunity to become homeowners, HOME strengthens minority communities and enables these families to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible.

America is not post racial. Racism permeates every facet of society because our society has not learned to confront or even effectively talk about racism and the ways it works in our world. This stops us from reaching our highest potential as a nation.

Yes, it is something to be excited about that someone with as much power as Donald Sterling can lose it all with an ill-timed racist remark, but invisible, systemic racism abounds in our society and we are letting it happen. Rinku Sen and I have given you a few examples of ways people are working to eliminate this proverbial monster in the closet, but it can’t be completed without a visible and systemic effort at the individual, local, regional, state and national levels. We have to condemn the covert as well as the overt acts of racism. All the anger and indignation over Donald Sterling will mean nothing if people are still denied full membership in society simply because of who they are.

 

 

 

[i] http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/local/chesterfield/chesterfield-residents-receive-kkk-fliers/article_ed60e60e-78ec-55f4-a6ef-0d579292069f.html

[ii] http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/07/living/race-sterling-identity/

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Morgan Barker is serving with AmeriCorps VISTA at HOME. She is a Richmond native with a passion for social justice.