In Fight Against Racism, Money Talks

In Fight Against Racism, Money Talks

Story tools

A A AResize

Print

 

WASHINGTON—Tears of joy were shed the night that America elected its first African-American president. It was fresh evidence the historic civil rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s had been worth the fight, that blood had not been spilled in vain. And across the nation, the words “President-elect Barack Obama” uplifted young and old, urban and rural, well-off and poor.

But the next day the invisible barriers created by structural racism still haunted our society: Latino workers tended crops for low wages in California, Native Americans awoke jobless on reservations and African-American mothers-to-be worried about losing their babies. The election was a historic moment, an unprecedented one in fact, but it didn’t suddenly end racism in America. There is no “post-racial” America or “colorblind” America -- not yet.

Clearly, those descriptions don’t apply when the National Center for Children in Poverty reports that 61 percent of African-American children, 62 percent of Latino children and 57 percent of Native- American children live in low-income families, when infant mortality rates are twice as high for African Americans as for whites, and when Hispanic youth are incarcerated at rates seven to 17 times higher than whites in such states as Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Latino Youth Initiative to Address Longstanding Racial Divides in Tucson
By Jacob Simas, New America Media

Two years ago, when Sarah Gonzales began visiting high schools and middle schools in Tucson, Ariz., on behalf of the local YWCA, talking to students about bullying and hate crimes, she was shocked by what she observed playing out every day in the cafeterias, yards and hallways.

Given that the schools she visited on Tucson’s south side were majority-Latino, Gonzales -- director of racial justice programs at YWCA -- expected the student body would be fairly unified. What she found instead was a “we versus them” mentality between immigrants and non-immigrants, as well as between different ethnic groups, that seemed to permeate throughout the entire school system.

“Every group had their area at lunch,” said Gonzales. “When I asked them about it, they used language like, ‘They don’t speak English,’ or ‘They can’t speak Spanish,’ or ‘They dress funny.’ Then you had the white supremacist groups in the school, too. So I became very interested in looking at programs that would heal that racial conflict.”

Now, having received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, Gonzales will be developing a new program -- Nuestra Voz (Our Voice) -- to do just that for young people living on the south side of Tucson, where a large percentage of children have at least one parent who is foreign born or undocumented. YWCA expects Latinos will comprise 80 percent of the young people served by the new initiative.

The agenda and curriculum of Nuestra Voz will be developed by young women from the community, and will draw on Tucson’s past in order to plot its future.

“We have a unique history here in Tucson,” said Gonzales, who recalled the displacement of Mexican families after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, and the targeting of undocumented Mexican immigrants for removal during “Operation Wetback” in the 1950’s. In the 1970's, 47,000 south side residents -- the vast majority of Mexican descent -- were exposed to contaminated drinking water due to industrial waste, resulting in abnormally high cancer rates that plague the community to this day.

Gonzales believes the intra-ethnic tensions that exist today between young people in Tucson are rooted in this very history. After decades of enduring environmental and institutional forms of racism, she said, youth on the south side have internalized a negative image of themselves and their community.

“A lot of the youth who are struggling with different issues, it’s easy for them to feel like they’ve failed,” said Gonzales. But when they learn the history, she said, young people can put their feelings into context, which may help eliminate the all-to-common impulse to undermine others in order to feel a little bit better about themselves.

“All of a sudden, they don’t have to tear themselves down,” Gonzales said of her hope for the initiative. “There is a system there that they can fight against.”

Unfortunately, said Gonzales, the past often intersects with the present in Arizona, making that “system” a current as well as an historical reality. “It’s not just SB 1070,” she said, referring to the controversial Arizona immigration law, reminiscent of Operation Wetback, that critics fear will lead to racial profiling and police harassment. “There is so much going on here. Just a day before the bill was passed, there were raids here. [Law enforcement agents] were wearing ski masks, pulling people off the bus. Harassing students. Now we’re eliminating ethnic studies in schools. It’s never-ending.”

Over the next two years, Gonzales said, the YWCA will use the grant from Kellogg to create dialogue and develop solutions around all of these concerns, using a three-pronged approach of social service programming, research and public policy.

“That’s the third spoke,” said Gonzales. “Ultimately, for change to happen, policy needs to change.” And with a community presence going back to 1917, the Tucson YWCA has the local and regional pull to bring policy makers to the table, she said.

But healing racial trauma and addressing issues of environmental and institutionalized racism, she said, must begin with young people. And based on her conversations with students, the time is right for this type of project.

She may well be right. Arizona youth have a history not only of oppression and discrimination, but also of collective action and powerful advocacy for their own rights and those of their neighbors. As recently as 2006, thousands of youth took to the streets of Tucson in what was then the largest rally for immigrant rights in the city's history, and many more youth were among the thousands of people who gathered last week in Armory Park to protest the adoption of SB 1070.

“This is something we need,” Gonzales said of the newly launched racial healing initiative, “because we’re really hurting right now. The youth deserve this. They’re hungry for it.”

Thus, the election was merely a beginning, an opportunity to move toward the post-racial nation that most Americans so badly want to exist.

At the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, our mission is to serve vulnerable children and help propel them to success regardless of their race, religion or color. But our board boldly recognized that to succeed at that mission we had to address structural racism in America or we couldn’t provide new opportunities for children and create environments conducive to helping them succeed in communities across the country.

Structural racism has to end so that children have equal opportunities to flourish. Racism is rooted in our society as a privilege based solely on physical characteristics; it's a systematic privilege strung throughout public policies and private practices. Racism is antithetical to the concept of E Pluribus Unum. Many Americans seek a country of many races, religions and ancestries transformed into a united people and nation, but only with persistence and determination can we get there.

Since the very beginning of the American democracy, various groups of people have been denied resources and opportunities. It has impaired generations. The barriers often dictate where people live, the quality of their environment, the medical care available to them and what schools their children attend. Many people feel powerless to overcome the obstacles. The inability to cope in a world tilted against them can have unhealthy outcomes—studies cite relationships between the stress of everyday life for people of color and shorter life expectancies and higher rates of infant mortality, diabetes, heart disease and other physical and mental ailments.

It took centuries to build this system of privilege based on the myth of racial differences. And it would be naive to think it could be dissolved in a few decades, or with one election.

But the fight must be engaged. The Kellogg Foundation has stepped to the forefront in confronting structural racism with our America Healing initiative, which will spend $75 million over the next five years improving life outcomes for vulnerable families and children while promoting racial healing in their communities.

The first phase of the initiative includes grants totaling $14.6 million to 119 projects that will specifically improve race relations in those communities. Other phases of the initiative will seek to curtail racism in the media, environment, education, housing, health and criminal justice, with an emphasis on expanding opportunities for children.

What’s so heartening about the racial healing phase of the initiative is what it says about the American people. Many are willing to take the next step, to work and create an America where there is equality. The RFP for grants was on our Web site for 60 days, and we were stunned to get about 1,000 applications, asking for nearly $300 million. The news media report on a lot of ugliness and divisiveness in our society, but there is also a groundswell of goodwill. People want to move beyond conversations about race relations and address the hard issues.

Our grants will help Native-American families and children heal the wounds from the decades-old policy of removing Native-American children from their homes. In Michigan, efforts will be made to heal the wounds still being suffered by Arab Americans after 9/11. Asian-American students will form a youth network to better interact and understand the culture of other youths. In Greensboro, N.C., African Americans will gain assistance in reconciling with a history of oppression in a city where three-quarters of African-American children are impoverished.

Similar activities will take place throughout the country - in white and ethnic communities. But the main story isn’t the programs; it’s the people who want a better America, the extraordinary number of people with a willingness to work with their neighbors to find common ground. They are forming a silent movement about to be unleashed, about to change America. Eventually, the progress they make will shake the hold that structural racism has on our society and emerge as a far bigger story line than the divisiveness frequently on the airwaves.

As the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts once vowed, “...the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Dr. Gail Christopher, a noted author and nationally recognized leader in health policy, is vice president of Programs for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.