Tag Archives: racial justice

Kansas City Equity Profile

I am excited to be collaborating with the folks working on the Kansas City Equity Profile, a data-driven examination of racial disparities in the Kansas City region.

I would encourage you to read the six-page summary, but I have some highlights and insights here. It really is an honor to be able to contribute to this critically-important work.

I was reflecting the other day on how lucky I have been to have my career dovetail with really significant demographic and social changes, allowing me to feel as though I’m practicing ‘on the leading edge’ of what society is dealing with. Hopefully every social work advocate feels this way, but I think that I have landed in particularly well-placed positions.

Like when I started my career advocating in aging, when organizations and policymakers were really taking notice of shifting demographics and the political and economic imperative to develop cost-effective responses to the needs of a growing older adult population. Or when I was getting into immigration policy around 2000, when new U.S. Census data opened many people’s eyes to the realities of an increasingly diverse U.S. population.

Or now, when the tremendous divide between rich and poor is the dominant imperative in many policymaking circles (and even mayoral campaigns), and my work on assets and poverty and inequality allows me to be part of those conversations.

It’s a wonderful life.

But we have a lot of work to do.

  • I appreciate how this Equity Profile starts out with demographics of population make-up, but not from a ‘numbers are destiny’ conceit, but, instead, in recognition that, with growing presence of people of color, the region ignores inequality at its own peril.
  • The Equity Profile doesn’t focus just on people in poverty, but it doesn’t ignore them either. It is critical that we talk about what’s happening to the middle class in the United States, but, if we only bemoan the threats to those previously economically-secure, we run the risk of missing the forces ravaging those long-mired in deprivation. The root causes are the same, and the fates are linked.
  • There is a connection to policy woven throughout the report, particularly related to the education and health disparities that are both cause and effect of the divides. Recognizing this mutual causation and committing to policy changes capable of disrupting these linkages is essential to building a more equitable society, and I am glad that the authors didn’t shy away from prescriptions.
  • The recommendations is where my work and interests intersect this effort. We need to build communities that facilitate relationships between young people of color and older white Americans–not constructed, programmatic relationships, but authentic connections, borne of shared spaces, that drive home the reality of a common destiny. We need good jobs and pathways that link people to them. We need investment in public infrastructure. And we are unlikely to get any of these things without a more diverse governing class, so we need broad representation among policymaking bodies.
  • Not reflected in the report, but critically important, is the accompanying action strategy, with organizations convening events and organizing campaigns and conducting 1:1s around these priorities and this vision of a more equitable region. This isn’t ‘just’ a report; it’s an example of trying to use information to outline the parameters for a movement. And I am thrilled to be part of it.

I would love to hear about other regions’ similar efforts to focus on equity, and I am very interested in responses to this one. What is on your equity agenda? What do you think needs to happen in order to galvanize a policy conversation about equity, in a way we have not yet?

The dangers of mainstreaming hate

History repeating itself.


Some of the books about the Holocaust that I read this summer made the point that, in comparison with the really violent anti-Semitism pervasive in much of German culture during the 1920s and 1930s, the Nazis’ initial overtures into that crowded field seemed, well, rather ‘reasonable’.


And, yet, as outrageous as that sounds, with today’s benefit of hindsight, it’s a dynamic that repeats itself.

When there are really hateful and dangerous voices on the scene, even other, only slightly-less-hateful voices can sound, somehow, less so.

In immigrant rights, this is dramatic and visible and really concerning.

When one legislator is advocating shooting undocumented immigrants from helicopters like feral pigs, calls to ‘just’ kick immigrant students out of college seem almost tame.

When some national political figures calls for mass deportations, plans to make life so miserable for immigrants that they will ‘self-deport’ back to their countries of origin seem like novel ideas worth exploring. Sort of.

When one anti-immigrant organization alleges that Mexicans are having babies in order to ‘reconquer’ U.S. territory, others’ pseudo-academic ‘studies’ about the negative environmental impact of immigration actually get included in congressional testimony.

Oh, actually, those are both part of the same organization, a twist on the ‘moderate by comparison’ approach.

And this is part of why paying attention to the margins matters so much: they’re not really marginal, because they drive not only what happens on the edges but also what ends up in the middle.

Then, and now.

The Legacy of Brown: We Must Not be Bought

Not long ago, I stood with my oldest son at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in front of a photo that contrasted a segregated school for African Americans in South Carolina (one-room schoolhouse with sagging shingles and missing boards) with a rather opulent school (large brick building) for white students.

The “unequal” part was obvious, and even more glaring than the “separate”.

Looking at those pictures, I remembered a section of The Race Beat, a book I read recently about journalists who covered the civil rights movement, that described the efforts of some segregationists in both the North and South who were eager to spend more on schools for children of color, especially in the lead-up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Because they were willing to pay a lot to maintain the status quo.

That’s how much maintaining an oppressive system was worth.

Holding hands with my son, who started Kindergarten in public school this year, I was thinking about those brave parents, the ones whose names are on the collection of lawsuits that, together, became known as Brown v. Board. And wondering whether they were ever tempted, as I would have been, if my child had been in that rickety schoolbuilding, to take the money.

Even knowing what it cost.

Obviously, our entire country has benefitted tremendously from their refusal to be bought. They understood that separate could never be equal, and they knew that their little boys and girls deserved integrated schools and the access to power and full participation that only integration can bring, rather than a spiffed-up segregated school, with better-paid teachers and textbooks in the classrooms.

They were right, and they were patient in that impatient about injustice but amazingly able to wait for real solutions way, and their intransigence was a witness that sparked the greatest movement for social equality our country has ever seen.

And the next thing I thought, as my son’s attention moved on to the next part of the exhibit, was…

I hope we can be as brave. And as tough. And as smart.

Times are tough, these days, for social service nonprofit organizations and for many of those we serve. We’re perennially out of money, and in begging-mode, and we are confronting serious challenges in a political context that’s often impervious to our sufferings.

That’s a dangerous combination, because it can breed a desperation that can push us to accept compromises that we know take us backwards, concessions that violate our most honored principles.

I see it when private organizations join together to pay for public services that the state has abandoned–we’re reaching for a Band-Aid because the need is so urgent, but we’re excusing public abdication of responsibilities core to our social contract.

I see it when organizations scramble to align themselves with even objectionable programming opportunities (“marriage promotion“, anyone?), because they’re trying to find ways to stay afloat, and to curry favor with government officials.

I even see it in myself, when I’m reluctant to take an Administration on on one front because we’re still negotiating on another–no, it’s not money at stake, but something arguably more valuable–my integrity.

I’m sure Linda Brown’s parents wanted her to go to a nice school. They may have even been approached with offers of upgrades, if they would just “be quiet”.

We need to all be thankful that they did not.

And we must, in the words of the song to which my 3 oldest kids and I danced in the gallery of the Brown site, in what used to be a school only for children with a certain color skin, we must not be moved.

Or bought.

Truth and the cult of objectivity

This is going to be one of those not-quite-fully-developed posts, where there are just too many ideas in my head to say something terrifically cogent. As usual, that’s where you all come in.

But my core message (in case it doesn’t come through clearly!) is this:

We can’t let our obsession with objectivity, and our equation of it with “fairness” or “even-handed treatment”, obscure our search for truth.

I thought about this the other day when I was internally railing against coverage of our nation’s ongoing immigration debate. I was reading yet another article that quoted some immigrant students’ stories of their own lives and hopes for meaningful reform in the coming year, followed by a few quotes from a restrictionist group about how the “pro-illegal immigrant” groups were hoping to blackmail members of Congress with electoral threats related to the 2012 elections and the rising prominence of Latino voters. Or some nonsense like that–I kind of stopped reading.

And it reminded me of part of The Race Beat, where some of the reporters charged with covering the civil rights movement found it increasingly difficult to do so to their editors’ satisfaction, because the issue had crystallized to such an extent that, truly, there wasn’t a legitimate “other side.” In their quest to provide the balance that their newsrooms demanded, they were giving voice to actors who truly didn’t have a real place in the debate, morally or politically. I mean, people of color were being killed for trying to register to vote, and we’re somehow supposed to give credence to an alternative explanation–something other than the evil of racism? Really?

I’m not arguing that we’re in exactly the same place with immigrants’ rights. I don’t get into the “whose injustice is worse?” game. Ever.

But I do think that we’re beginning to find ourselves facing some of the same quandries, at least with elements of this debate. Who do you find who is a legitimate voice arguing that amazingly bright and hard-working immigrant youth should be rounded up and sent “back” to a foreign country? Who represents the “other side” in a question about how we should handle the deportation proceedings of mothers with young U.S. citizen children? Where do you put a shrill nativist voice clamoring for sealed borders and harsh detention conditions? And why can’t we have this national conversation without including them?

Truth obviously means being open to inquiry, curious about alternative views, and willing to engage in an earnest dialogue, including with people who disagree with us. But, in order to fuel the knowledge on which we rely for those conversations, I just don’t think there’s any rule that we should have to try to give equal time to those whose views masquerade as opinion, when they are really dangerous attempts to dress hatred up as dissent.

Objectivity is just not necessarily a virtue.

Our values are a valid lens through which to view our world.

And giving more attention to those voices our values compel us to heed does not mean that we’re so hopelessly biased that we cannot think.

That might make me a terrible newspaper editor.

But I think it serves me fairly well as a seeker of truth.

Let’s talk about…race

*I can’t find the exact statistic, but I read in a parenting book the other day about how few white parents talk openly with their children about race. In our family, it’s a fairly frequent topic, both intentionally on our part and because my oldest son has a real interest in history, which includes slavery and the civil rights movement (his book about Ruby Bridges, who desegregated a school in Louisiana, was an early favorite). He knows that we’ll answer his questions, and he’s learning about our values, too. Talking isn’t going to end racism. But I still think it’s better than a silence that breeds complicity.


I guess that I spend more time thinking about race and racism than most white people. Almost every time I see someone pulled over by a police officer, I hope that it’s not someone being harassed for his/her skin color. In class, I find myself thinking a lot about how I’m including the perspectives of people of color in my social commentary. I try to choose authors and blogs with an eye towards ample representation of voices of color, so that I’m not getting only ‘whitewashed’ news. And I talk about race a fair amount, with students and friends and colleagues and mentors like Lenny.

I would bet, though, that even people who don’t usually think about race much have had a hard time ignoring it over this past year. Slightly more than a year ago, an African-American man was inaugurated as our nation’s President, and people were tripping over themselves declaring that “racism is dead” or some other such clever-sounding, idealistic, and thoroughly nonsensical thing (what, “post-racist” is the new black? Or Black?”). Before the stage was even disassembled, the racist invectives, white nationalist zeal, and thinly-veiled mainstream prejudice seemed to permeate every aspect of our political institutions. It became painfully obvious that, while perhaps slightly wounded in some parts of the country and among some parts of the electorate, racism is anything but dead.

And, so, as I often do, when I am somewhat obsessed about something (my husband is probably glad I’m out of my whole Czarist Russia craze!), I started reading about race. A lot. I read about slave-owning families and the Civil War and slave labor under the Belgian colony and about Reconstruction and Marian Anderson and debt peonage in the post-Civil War South and Dixiecrats and Barry Goldwater and about racial divides in Chicago neighborhoods and the 1964 Freedom Rides and W.E.B. DuBois. I read about Obama himself, the rise of white nationalism, school segregation, anti-racist organizing, unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, and about the connection between race and immigration.

Of course none of that reading held any firm answers to the difficult questions that surround the uniquely pathological relationship that the United States has with race and racism. But I remain convinced that we all need to be a little bit obsessed with racism and its vicious and insidious nature, a little bit overwhelmed by its persistence and wickedness, a little bit maddened by its permutations and sneakiness.

And, so, in an attempt to infect others with the bug by which I was bitten after reading a white nationalist group’s email rejoicing at Obama’s election (because now it would become obvious to all of the apathetic would-be ‘racial patriots’ that Blacks have ‘stepped out of bounds’ and that a full-on ‘racial holy war’ is the only answer) and realizing that they probably WOULD see an uptick in recruitment after the inauguration, here are some of the thoughts that I have been mulling over for the past several months.

If anyone wants additional texts from the informal reading list that I pulled together for myself, just email me or leave a comment. And I’m always looking for new suggested titles, too!

It’s obvious that we can’t legislate love–meaning, in this context, that we can use social policy to regulate people’s behavior but not their attitudes. In the racial justice arena, this means that, for many, when the gains of the civil rights movement meant that African Americans and other people of color had legal claims to the same rights, whites trying to protect their privilege sought other means of social distance through which to insulate it. So, as William Julius Wilson illustrates in There Goes the Neighborhood, when schools were integrated, white families moved to other neighborhoods to keep their children from going to integrated schools. Community development initiatives become little more than dressed-up gentrification, aimed at keeping undesirable (Black) households out. As an obvious believer in the power of social policy, this is particularly vexing. How can those of us not patient enough to wait for slow ‘soul changing’ work win more secure gains in the status of people of color, as long as these techniques for avoidance thrive?

Pervasive throughout much of what I read is a kind of ‘leave it to the children’ approach, a belief that somehow racism is the exclusive purview of previous generations that will slowly die out as those cohorts do. It’s a sad and unfortunately untrue mischaracterization of the motivations for yesterday’s racism and the likelihood of improvement tomorrow. I don’t mean to suggest that we haven’t progressed as a nation within the past few decades. It is undeniable that we have. But I believe that most of that progress is attributable to the courageous and visionary agitation of people of color and their allies, not from some inexorable transcendance of racism. Far from it. At the park one day last fall, as the high school was letting out, my three-year-old asked why all of the Black kids were sitting at one table. Indeed.

Something else that has been thrashing around in my mind a lot is the nexus between class and race. Wilson quotes several Chicagolanders talking about how people of color in their own neighborhoods are ‘fine’ (read: of the same social class), but that their concerns lay with those they deemed deviant. There has been a lot of talk about how we need to learn from the lessons of the New Deal in dealing with today’s recession. And that makes me think about the rampant racial exclusions and accepted double standards that were part of the foundation of our modern social contract. How can race and class ever be untangled?

One of the best points in Wilson’s work, in my opinion, is his analysis of the ways in which the rapid demographic changes in some neighborhoods combined with the decline in traditional collective organizations as the primary mechanism through which people interact with each other. Taken together, they suggest a further decline in interracial contact–think, for example, about your Facebook friends. How often, in that realm, do you have meaningful encounters with those of other races (working together towards common goals, dealing with conflict)? Compare that to the workings of a multiracial labor union, a neighborhood group in a multiracial area, a Parent-Teacher Association in an integrated school. Will more advanced technologies give us better tools with which to excise race and racial difference from our lives?

Perhaps the most stunning sentence from my months of reading on race is this, from Slavery by Another Name: “the prolonged economic inferiority and social subjugation of African Americans that was to be ubiquitous in much of the next century was not a conclusion preordained by the traditions of antebellum slavery” (p. 85). Really, immediately post-Emancipation, there was a tremendous political and practical opportunity to reap significant gains for Blacks in the South. Tremendous. There is, perhaps, no more compelling or more tragic example of the importance of policy implementation than this–that we had a real chance to atone for the deep sin of slavery with a true reconstruction that would create equal opportunities and correct, through policy, for at least much of the harm that had been wrought. Instead, malicious exploitation and malignant neglect combined to destroy those intentions and trap people of color in law and practice that enshrined white nationalism as the operating principle of our social policy.

That same book also reaffirmed my belief in the need for a strong federal government. In today’s context of new federalism and continual denigration of ‘big government’, we can use reminders of the federal government’s decisive triumphs, particularly when it attempted vigorously to defeat racism and racists. It took World War II and the fear of having Jim Crow laws used against it by the fascists to get the U.S. government to move more aggressively to dismantle the many layers of codified discrimination that the mantra of ‘states’ rights’ had preserved.

And, finally, all of this has made me think a lot about “unpacking”–unpacking the stories that we tell ourselves to feel better (that people of color have had since slavery to get ‘caught up’), unpacking our collective responsibility for the oppression of people of color (when it’s clear it was/is systematic, widespread, and intentional, not accidental or incidental), unpacking the ways in which racism continues to injure all of us. And in this case, it’s only in unpacking that we can get somewhere.

History will see this as injustice, too

Yesterday, December 1, was the 55th anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Despite my oldest son’s obsession with her (in part, I think, because he lives in constant hope that he’ll get to ride a bus to school some day, so he gets it that boycotting bus rides is a really, really, really big deal), and the fact that I can never resist that picture, this isn’t a post about Mrs. Parks, or the role that she played in the civil rights movement, or even about that movement itself.

It’s really more of a promise broken, on my part, I guess–a promise, after I read Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s completely spot-on and utterly amazing editorial about Arizona’s racial profiling law (SB1070), that I wouldn’t write a post about it, since that really deserved to be the last word.

But the anti-immigrant atmosphere that has infected our country (and our policies, and our elections) has been foremost on my mind every single day for the past eight months or so. And when I read in The Political Brain about how campaign after campaign shows that racist candidates lose when their opponents shine a light on their racism (but prevail when they’re allowed to fly under the radar), and when I stood in solidarity with young NAACP members at a pro-immigrant protest, and when my 84-year-old grandfather-in-law pointed to a headline about Arizona and said, “they’d probably arrest me down there”…

it just has to be said: The way that we are treating immigrants in this country is wrong.

No surprise to any of you, I know.

But what really made me break my vow of silence on this is perhaps more of a revelation:

it will, I truly and fervently believe, be judged to be wrong, too.

The same way that majority opinion and public law about equality for African Americans is vastly different in the United States today (even though, quite obviously, we’ve yet to reach real racial justice) than when Mrs. Parks sat down so others could rise up, one day people in this country will look back on the actions we’re taking against immigrants today (not just Arizona, but the abuses in detention, the inhumane workplace raids, the long family separations) and think, for shame.

My friend and former Kansas state senator David Adkins said during his passionate defense of gay marriage, “I’m confident I’m standing on the right side of history,” and those of us standing up for immigrant rights today can take the same comfort. Just 6 years after he was excoriated for his courageous position, he’s being proven correct (again, it bears mentioning that the struggle continues), if not yet in our state, then with actions elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world.

I don’t know exactly when, or exactly how, the tide will change. But then, of course, neither did Mrs. Parks.

I still have a dream

In my Human Behavior in the macro social environment class this semester, we’re watching Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech two weeks from now, in the unit on social justice (thank you, YouTube!). I wanted to start pretty early with this idea, because I believe very strongly that talking about community organizing, group formation, and organizational development absent a context of social justice and empowerment is not just boring, it’s dangerous.

I’m looking forward to the discussion and, of course, to watching it again. But this isn’t a holiday about looking backwards, as much as that may bring us inspiration. And it’s not a holiday about sleeping in or taking a day off work. It’s about working even harder, at the things that really matter, and standing up boldly for that which is right.

For you, maybe that’s standing on the corner with an anti-war sign (like a guy I know, Marvin, often does on this day). Or maybe it’s volunteering with youth like the folks at NCCJ did for years. Or maybe it’s going to a church service or attending a vigil or registering some voters or planning for the legislative session. Whatever it is, make it about the dream. And make his dream yours.

Here it is. Happy Martin Luther King Day. Go out and DO SOMETHING about the dream.

Blood and Politics

My Dad and I were talking about this upcoming event the other day. “You know,” he said, “you meet a lot of really interesting people in your life, some who even really impress you, but you’re lucky if you meet even one Lenny.” I thought that was a pretty good way to put it.

I am not an unbiased reporter on this topic; Lenny Zeskind is a very good friend and someone who has been an inspiration and support and comfort to me during some of my lowest moments. But I am confident that others will find his book, his stories, and his example as completely jaw-dropping as I do.

I first read a draft of Lenny’s book back in 2003, when it was still on 8.5×11 sheets of paper (lots of them–it’s not short!). At first, I really thought that it must be a kind of pseudo-fiction, embellished with some rich detail to make it more readable. And then he told me one day that it was with the publisher’s attorneys, so that they could do fact-checking and be sure that the company would not be vulnerable in court against the almost inevitable lawsuits to come from organizations, both those viewed today as extremists and those whose tenuous hold on the mainstream will be seriously jeopardized by the revelations in the book. I think that’s when it dawned on me that when he talked about what a specific white nationalist leader had on his wall, it was because he had really been there and really seen it.

Lenny is really, really smart, and he has an almost maniacal obsession with ending organized racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism in the world. He challenges people, including me, to question what I think I know about hatred. He is willing to confront anyone with allegations of racism, and he has a moral authority that makes it almost impossible to object. At this point in his life, I think Lenny is kind of impatient, because we really haven’t made as much progress against these forces as we might like to claim, and also a little tired, because chasing Holocaust deniers and anti-immigrant zealots masquerading as environmentalists and neo-Nazi music promoters around the country would tend to wear down one’s spirit. He’s also generous and funny and a little mischevious and very kind.

I’m excited that his book is finally ready, and I can’t wait to read the finished version. At least a few of my family members will be receiving it as Christmas gifts this year (Merry Christmas, Daddy!). But it would be a disappointment and a dishonor to Lenny’s life work–as an organizer in the steel industry, as a campaigner against the Ku Klux Klan, as a McArthur fellow recognized for his tireless and creative and often successful work against racist extremism in all its forms–to view this as simply cause for celebration.

One of Lenny’s core messages is that we are always at risk, and that we need to be vigilant about the racism in our own lives and our own institutions, but also smart about the real dangers posed by the organization of bigotry into a movement that has resonance with a not insignificant minority in our nation. It’s not about ‘teaching tolerance’; it’s about exposing hatred, calling it by name, and attacking the conditions–funding, media legitimacy, political support–that allow it to flourish.

Lenny will be signing copies of his book and answering questions on Wednesday, May 27th, at the Plaza Library at 6:30. The flyers said that you had to rsvp, but I bet if you call the library they can still find room for you. Or you can buy the book from Amazon here (available May 12th). I know that I am looking forward to asking him about his article from the Huffington Post, particularly about his analysis that the argument that the economic crisis is to blame for the spike in racist violence just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. We know, though, that public opinion about immigrants, in particular, tends to dip in recessions; is it just that the more hard-core anti-immigrant activity, which sparks the violence, is more impervious to these economic effects? What can we expect to see, in terms of white nationalist recruiting, in the wake of an Obama presidency? And what does he think about organizations of people of color who are touting 2050 as the tipping point–the year when white Americans will become the minority. I’ve never liked those ‘demographic imperative’ arguments, but I wonder what his advice would be.

Mainly, I’m grateful, especially on behalf of my kids, that there’s someone brave enough, and even a little crazy enough, to care and to do what Lenny has dedicated his life to doing. And it makes me want to be a little braver, a little smarter, and a little crazier (for justice) myself.