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Unexplored history, economic realities and demographic trends underscore need for racial healing

Michael K. Frisby

Jamaal Young

NEW ORLEANS—As the United States continues to wrestle with racial inequities, research on the past, present and future is providing insight into how a dialogue on racial healing can ensure an equitable economic recovery for vulnerable children and their families across diverse communities.

On last week’s closing day of the America Healing conference—the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s (WKKF) second annual racial healing conference—historical, political and demographic scholars took the stage to make the case that Americans need to understand past injustices around race and ethnicity in order to work collaboratively on solutions to inequities for communities of color that have persisted across generations. 

WKKF is one of the nation’s largest private foundations and has made racial healing a core component of its mission of improving the lives of vulnerable children in diverse communities across the US and internationally.  This long-term strategy, called America Healing, supports community dialogue, thoughtful research and systemic change to policies in health, education and financial security that create inequities and limit opportunities for children and their families.

Historian Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, a book and subsequent PBS special that explores how forced servitude of African Americans continued long after the Civil War and right up till World War II, stated, “Most Americans – black, white and otherwise – don’t fully understand what really happened in that period… just how terrible things were in so many places, how catastrophically people’s lives were wrecked or limited…millions of people whose ambitions were circumscribed against all of their valiant efforts to achieve and…be a part of American life.”

Adding to the idea that racist ideology continued to negatively impact African American families was Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president of program strategy for the WKKF and the lead of America Healing.

“If the actual application of [racist] beliefs existed through 1940 in its most overt form, imagine the residual beliefs that are still with us today in terms of how we view one another, and more deeply and probably more significantly, how we view ourselves as human beings in America.”

Adding to America’s history of racial inequity is the very real sense that current economic pressures may be erasing important gains made by communities of color in the last several decades since the height of the Civil Rights movement.

Heather McGhee, vice president of the policy and advocacy think tank Demos, asserted, “One of the ways that I think that we can help to create that true feeling that we are all Americans in this country is to address the economic inequalities and call up the racial divisions – because it doesn’t make sense to people otherwise.”  

McGhee reminded the audience that economic inequity was having a deep impact on the “most diverse generation in American history,” the so-called Millenials.

“We have an unemployment crisis in my generation. We have a situation in which the country is saying, to an entire generation, we don’t need your labor. We desperately need the labor of my generation.”

According to McGhee, that call for young people’s labor could take the form of a “massive public works program” for people under the age of 30 that goes beyond just “shovel-ready jobs” to include work that helps to meet the needs of children and families such as employment in day-care centers, public parks, and senior centers.  Doing so would mean that her generation would be “working side by side and moving into different neighborhoods to do this work, traveling across the country to be placed in communities [and] to deeply integrate” with the communities in which they serve.

McGhee’s point that economic opportunity for the racially-diverse millennial generation needs to be emphasized is made all the more pressing by demographic changes soon to be upon the U.S. It is estimated that by 2042, the majority of all Americans will be racial minorities, or persons of color.

“What’s interesting about that…is that when you are a minority group, you have to practice coalitional politics,” said Manuel Pastor, a demographer and director of the Environmental and Regional Equity Program and the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. “Because you have to learn what other people’s interests are, what other people’s values are, what the common ground and uncommon common ground is for you to get together with folks.”

The nearly 500 leaders of community-based organizations, civil rights groups, academic research institutions and members of the media that took part in last week’s four-day racial healing event in New Orleans responded enthusiastically to this call for collaborative action.

In closing, Christopher added, “Today, the majority of all children born in the US are of color and the majority of those will grow up in low-income families and face structural challenges that impact their health and well-being, education and financial security. Americans across the board must not only recognize the historical causes of these challenges but also understand this is a great opportunity for America to lead the world when it comes to lifting up current and future generations of all our children.”

For more information about America Healing, visit www.AmericaHealing.org.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create the conditions where vulnerable children can realize their full potential in school, work and life.

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Mich., and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti.

New Orleans was chosen as the site of this second annual grantee meeting because the foundation considers New Orleans a priority place for investments and has several grantees in the city involved in the conference.

In bringing together nearly 500 diverse participants – leaders, scholars, advocates, Tribal and community members, and a host of organizations from around the country to  America Healing, we do so in respect to acknowledging different opinions and beliefs, in hopes all participants bring an inquisitive and open spirit of understanding, on their journey toward racial healing. Comments expressed before, during and after the conference about the topics, presenters and themes discussed do not reflect those opinions of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Queen Chief Warhorse of the Tchufuncta Nation, Chahta Tribe – was invited to open the conference in New Orleans, to tell the story of her ancestors and their place in the history of the land (where the conference was being held) within our United States of America. And like many, history has been changed and boundaries created in ways that have not honored all of the peoples who had been in this country when others arrived.
Many WKKF conferences throughout the country have been opened by a Tribal leaders offering remarks, an historical presentation and/or a blessing. Most recently, in New Orleans, and also in Tunica, Miss., Seattle, Wash., and Ashville, NC, WKKF extended invitations to Tribal leaders to open its convenings in the spirit of honoring Native people, without regard to federal recognition status of itsTribe.

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