Breaking down barriers to racial equity — starting with children

Children's Alliance (Image courtesy Meizhu Lui)

Earlier this month, The Children’s Alliance hosted their annual awards luncheon and fundraiser at the Seattle Center. The Keynote speaker was Meizhu Lui, Former Director of Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative.

Lui, a long time labor activist and self proclaimed “trouble maker” is the co-author of “The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide.”

As I nibbled on my chicken skewer in between the obligatory table schmoozing, I waited with curiosity to see what tone would be set this year.

Last year Pramila Jayapal gave the keynote address and spoke at length about the disparities at play for children of color and what we as a community must do to advocate for them. She addressed the rationale behind the Children’s Alliance’s focus on policy advocacy specific to children of color and explicitly spoke to the concern that this focus would mean denying resources to white children.

This year’s address was just as raw and informative. In a presentation titled “Growing Up Together — Or Diverging Pathways,” Lui provided statistical data to support a depressing narrative that is an everyday part of life for most people of color.

Using several key milestones, Lui illustrated a disturbing pattern of how disparities in wealth based on race negatively impact children from birth into adulthood.

“You need the numbers to locate the problem,” Lui explained when I caught up with her after her presentation. “For Asians particularly we are always pushing for disaggregated data because without that it masks some of the problems and if you don’t see the problems you’re definitely not going to solve them.”

But rather than just leaving us with numbers, Lui took the time really explain how racism and our country’s historical tendency to keep people of color poor — from enslaving black people to stealing land from Native Americans and Mexicans, to the wage theft of many Chinese workers and the internment of Japanese workers.

Using the analogy of baseball, she compared what white children receive to what kids of color receive being like making a home run when starting from 3rd base as opposed to from home plate.

She explained how kids of color navigating their way to being successful (read: equipped to get jobs that will enable them to be economically self-sufficient) is simply a different process based on a variety of factors.

“I am just a huge believer in history and using history in our organizing because these people usually don’t understand the roots of our problems — because these problems didn’t start yesterday. They’ve been brewing a long time,” Lui said. “It’s easy to misdiagnose things if you’re only looking at the surface symptoms.”

Wealth Matters -- racial equity gap (Infographic by Andy Fountain / Center for Global Policy Solutions)
(Infographic by Andy Fountain / Center for Global Policy Solutions)

While I deeply enjoyed what she had to say, I found myself surprised by both Lui’s willingness to speak so candidly in a mixed audience and also by the positive reception she received.

There is often a difference between what we know as people of color and what we are willing to say in front of white people, partly because many white people do not want to hear that racism still exists.

There are some who seem to think that somehow having a black president is the magic reparation to heal any remnants of inequality. Moreover we enter these conversations from such different perspectives that we can sometimes unintentionally injure one another.

During grad school I took a course called Social Identity. During the course of a retreat we were asked to do an activity called the “privilege walk.” Participants start on the same line and are asked a series of question. If you answer one way you are asked to step forward, if you answer another you are asked to step back. Spoiler Alert: At the end of the exercise the people in the back of the room are mostly people of color, women, and people who grew up poor and at the front are all the rich white men.

I have done this exercise with a variety of different groups and the results are very consistent. The first time I stood there looking at the backs of my classmates I thought it was a perfect analogy for our perspectives. I could see them clearly. I knew why they were at the front of the room, but many of them didn’t understand it all.

It’s an exercise where learning comes at the expense of exposing the experiences of others. Those of us in the back of the room did not need an activity to tell us where we were, and I for one did not appreciate being used as a human catalyst for someone else’s learning process.

Though written in 1903 W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” still holds true. In it DuBois coined the term “Double Consciousness,” which is how he explained the way in which black Americans become fluent in the nuanced duality of our identities.

We are black and have our own culture and traditions, but we are also American and as white America has dictated so much of what that has come to mean we have learned to be fluent in whiteness as well. In fact understanding how white people operate has been at times in our history been a matter of life and death.

I would take DuBois analysis a bit further in that this double consciousness is not unique to black Americans, but rather is a daily experience for most Americans born people of color. But the reverse isn’t true.

One of the most powerful points of white privilege is that for the most part white people have been able to ignore the necessity to understand people of color. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some who haven’t gone out of their way to learn, but most white people — unless they live and work in or with communities of color — could live their whole lives without even needing to try.

Lui’s address this year laid out the reasons that this might be about to change. According to the U.S. Census Buerau, in 2018 the majority of children in the U.S. will be children of color. By 2030 our nation’s workforce will consist of mostly people of color.

What will it mean when white people are no longer the majority population in our country? It’s a conversation with serious implications.

“I think that there are quite a few progressive, majority white organizations who do talk about racial equity,” Liu said. “How can the Children’s Alliance — as much as they say they want racial equity and they believe in it — how can they make that more concrete in their messaging and in their day to day work?”

As for the Children’s Alliance — among their top priorities are making sure all kids get fed three meals a day and have access to early education, medical care, and dental coverage.

In choosing to address these issues that disproportionately affect communities of color, they are putting their values into action in a tangible way. If other organizations in the Northwest and around the country want to devote themselves to racial equity, that’s a model they should be able to replicate.

And while this is just one example of an institution intentionally addressing the issue head on, I wonder who else is engaging in these conversations and what the implications will be as we are all forced to get to know one another better across race divides.

“That’s the whole thing about racial equity, it’s not like it happens all at once,”  Lui said. “It’s a process.”

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