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"Unearthing and Undoing the Lethal Belief in Racial Hierarchy,"

by Dr. Gail Christopher January-March 2016 issue of Poverty & Race

Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation

As the airwaves have been flooded with news of shootings and the killing of unarmed people of color by armed police officers during the last year and a half, many have had to search their hearts and revisit the reality of our nation’s legacy of racial division. For most of us seeing these apparent injustices repeatedly promotes outrage and engenders empathy. For many it ignites and refuels deep-seated memories of personal and family loss and trauma. My earliest intimate exposure to racial violence as a fact of life occurred when I was a still a teenager. I use the term intimate here because it affected my heart, as violence always does. My first cousin—she was like a sister to me—was shot and killed by a white thrill-seeker in our segregated neighborhood. I recall that we buried her that week, while he on the other hand was enlisted in the military and left the city that same week. It was the first funeral I ever attended. Despite all the joyful moments my cousin and I shared growing up together, my only lasting recollection is of her body lying in that casket.

Have we ever, as a nation, really even imagined an America that has honestly faced its divided legacy and united behind creating equitable economic and educational opportunities for all of our children, no matter where they happen to live? These challenges have always been framed as political or partisan rather than as human and community priorities. Today’s changing demographics coupled with recent exposures of violent inequities are now driving public opinion towards a tipping point on the need to address racism. According to a CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll covering August through October 2015, 82 percent of Americans now think racism is a problem in America and 49 percent of those (almost half) think it is a big problem. Will we respond to this moment with the wisdom of Native Americans and create a healed America for our grandchildren and seven generations yet to come?

In July 2015, the board of directors of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) approved support for the design and implementation of an adapted Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the United States of America. Informed by over 40 TRCs implemented in other countries, and by various related efforts in the United States, this U.S. TRC adaptation, Truth Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) enterprise, will create private opportunities for truth telling and racial healing as well as public platforms for fact gathering and examining of major public policies, systems and issues of importance to equity, and human rights in our diverse democracy. The goal and ultimate purpose of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation enterprise (TRHT) is to engage a critical mass of diverse Americans in a meaningful process that builds the collective will and capacity for facing and ultimately transforming the racially-divided legacy and current reality of this society, which was built on a belief in a false taxonomy and hierarchy of human value. The transformed America will know and honor our shared histories and respect the inalienable right to equitable opportunity for all.

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing

Around the same time that the WKKF Board of Directors was green lighting this expansion of its America Healing/racial equity investments in the form of the proposed TRHT, on July 16, 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) published a final rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). The belief in a hierarchy of human value based on perceived physical characteristics—racism—is most indelibly expressed through residential segregation. Although the Fair Housing Act declared that “it is the policy of the United States to provide, within constitutional limitations, for fair housing throughout the United States,” patterns of residential segregation and concentrated poverty persist today. The Fair Housing Act not only bans discrimination, it requires communities to affirmatively further residential integration and address the racial disparities that are created by segregation.

The recent AFFH rule creates a new planning process under which jurisdictions and agencies that receive HUD funds must use data provided by the federal government to guide their planning activities. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data on segregation, racially concentrated poverty, access to education, employment, transportation and environmental health will enable communities to take a regional view of inequities, needs and resources. They will be better able to “map opportunity infrastructure” within communities and more fairly plan for the future of children and families. Professor john powell, then of the Kirwan Institute (now Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society), first presented the idea of opportunity mapping to the WKKF Board and Battle Creek community in the mid 90s. His work and that of Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, creator of the Diversity Data Projects, provided the striking visual representations of racial disparity and segregation that helped WKKF to move toward its commitment to becoming an effective anti-racist organization that promotes racial equity through our program funding and organizational culture. This commitment was formalized in 2007 and since that time programming dollars supporting racial equity have exceeded $200 million. We have learned critical lessons about achieving racial equity and sustainable change. These insights are captured in our America Healing body of work and will inform the TRHT. We applaud the progress reflected in the new HUD rule and view it as a potential core component of the design and implementation of the TRHT commission and process.

Racism is a Social Determinant of Health

Creating a United States that has truly unearthed and undone its long-held belief in racial hierarchy requires building regions without residential and school segregation. It requires building communities that optimize the distribution of opportunity for social mobility for all racial and ethnic groups. Social mobility factors parallel the well-documented social determinants of health and well-being. Access to quality and affordable child care, education and transportation. Access to safe and affordable housing, health care and food. Safe and nondiscriminatory policing and law enforcement. Living wage employment and higher education. Clean and safe air and water. But missing from this list is the undergirding human need for being valued equally, for belonging and not being marginalized and continuously subjected to denial of worth through systematic and individual conscious and unconscious assumptions of superiority and inferiority based on perceived physical characteristics—in another word, racism.

Epidemiologists have documented the association between social factors and disease incidence for many decades. The World Health Organization added tremendous power to the discussion through their commission on the social determinants of health 2005. Philanthropy led the way on this emerging debate in the United States. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded a Salzburg Seminar on the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) in the early 1990s and supported the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies to create a Health Policy Institute to elevate the SDOH emphasis within local communities of color and nationally in early 2000s. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsored a U.S.-based Commission on the Social Determinants of Health in 2008. This Commission’s recommendations helped to inform related legislation and policy priorities of the incoming Obama administration.

It is only in recent years, however, that the biological epigenetic and biochemical pathways are being elucidated to show how and why our zip code can determine our state of well-being. Concepts such as Life Course Perspective, weathering and childhood adversity have emerged and are converging to show that daily or chronic exposure to environmental stressors literately changes how our genes express themselves in metabolic, neural and immunologic systems. When our children live in unstable families in high stress neighborhoods they develop elevated inflammatory hormonal reactive states that make them more vulnerable to illness in childhood and well into adulthood. Clearly the imperative for changing how we invest in the well-being of all of our children and families and in their neighborhoods becomes more urgent in this 21st Century.

How will the TRHT Unfold?

Since there have been many TRC efforts by governments and organizations within other countries, and related efforts by states and past presidential administrations in this country, the natural question is, how have these efforts succeeded or failed and how will the TRHT process be different? Outlined below are the initial steps of the TRHT along with a brief description of the anticipated scale and pace of the process.
  1. After receiving Board approval and CEO authorizations, our initial step was to commission a report that analyzed related international and domestic efforts. A summary of this report and analysis is available at Racial Equity Resource Guide, http://www.

  2. At the same time, we initiated efforts to identify potential partners for the work that will assure a multi-sector, multi-racial and ethnic and community-based approach to both the design and implementation of the TRHT commission and process. To date approximately 50 organizations have expressed willingness to participate in the co-design process; and 12 working groups have been organized. This initial design phase will take four to six months beginning in February of 2016.

  3. While Honorary Co-Chairs of the formal commission have been identified, national and local commission members will be named during the collaborative design phase with input from the diverse participating partners. 

  4. Memoranda of Understanding are being developed with partnering organizations, to bring clarity to how these groups represent a broad coalition of stakeholders and how the TRHT aligns with their own organizational mission, vision and strategies. 

  5. There are many national efforts such as the HUD AFFH rule and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Common Good: Humanities in The Public Square initiative that may provide opportunities and community structures for deeper engagement. Efforts are underway to leverage these opportunities and increase community engagement. 

  6. While WKKF is providing initial funding, this effort is envisioned as a five to ten year process with multiple funding partners.

  7. The four to six month design phase will be followed by an implementation process that begins in fall of 2016. 

Leveraging What We’ve Learned

This unprecedented moment could mark the beginning of a healed and transformed America, one that has put racism behind us because we no longer believe in it consciously or unconsciously, nor do we allow it to continue to shape our communities, our economy and our democracy. Racial bias is an often unspoken part of the American fabric. Through the ages, America has attempted to address racism. Strides were made when slavery was abolished with the legislation of freedom, the era of Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The sovereignty movement for Native Americans demonstrated progress. The apology and reparations for the Japanese internment in World War II began a healing process. But these measures and eras met great resistance and were only brief episodic moments in our nation’s long history. They did not delve deeply enough into racial healing or try to uproot conscious and unconscious beliefs in racial differences and racial hierarchy. The legacy of racism still affects diverse children, families and communities. Yet, we know and have demonstrated over the last decade through our America Healing network of grantees that Americans can come together and change attitudes and beliefs. We can hold each other accountable and begin the hard work of racial healing in our homes, schools, media, neighborhoods and places of worship. The TRHT process will provide more opportunities for this healing and transformational work.

There is tremendous learning, as well as the potential for healing divisions and inequities in our society within the true story or narrative of how we came to be the America that we are today. We must explore this largely hidden story together and find answers to critical questions. We must learn from history so as not to repeat or perpetuate past errors. How did what we now know to have been absurdly wrong, the idea of a taxonomy—a human hierarchy based on superficial physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture become a central organizing principle of our democracy? Why was it allowed to persist for centuries? What reinforced the idea that some people deserved basic care and human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while millions of people were treated as if they did not deserve these same rights? How has this belief shaped our public policies and systems including housing, immigration, justice and education? To what degree was and is this embedded belief still used today both consciously and unconsciously to justify conditions that foster poverty, segregation and continued relegation to struggle for so many in this country as they try to achieve innate desires for freedom and worth?

Today most of the children born in the United States of America are children of color. They deserve to know the answers to these questions. Moreover, they deserve to grow up in a country that has truly jettisoned that historic taxonomy of human value; the belief in a hierarchy of worth which would relegate them to a lesser place in society while affording automatic privilege to others? Racial healing activities help to generate the public will at both individual and community levels to unite and work together to create more equity. There is much work that remains to be done to uproot the legacy of racial hierarchy and assure the resources and protective factors that all children need.

WKKF racial equity/racial healing investments and grants have generated insights, such as the mechanisms of unconscious bias, and the power of narrative to shape perceptions, the efficacy of healing circle methodologies in building trust and relationships, while helping to alleviate internalized racial anxiety, adversity and stress. These and related tools and mechanisms can now be leveraged to design an appropriate racial healing process for this nation. In addition, the WKKF approach to racial healing is an inclusive approach. By focusing on our humanity, the approach engages many diverse communities: Native American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, African American, Arab American and white. The proposed racial healing process for the United States would engage all of these groups within local communities across the nation and focus on developing the capacity to embrace our individual and collective humanity. Healing experiences would not be designed as a forum which emphasizes victims or perpetrators, it would be designed as a way to change deeply held beliefs and to address their larger consequences.

There is a growing recognition of the basic human need and desire for peace. Today’s, as well as previous, generations of war refugees and those seeking freedom from terror and instability provide a palpable reminder that as a species the human family is driven to escape from conflict, oppression, and suffering. We are also reminded that cruelty will not be tolerated forever. Experiences of compassion, empathy, love and kindness are not only human needs, they are human rights. The concept of healing is at its most fundamental level an expression of this reality. To heal is to relieve suffering, to foster wholeness and well-being. Racial healing acknowledges the suffering, protracted inhumanity and cruelty caused by adherence to the belief in a hierarchy of human value. Racially-based denial of the full humanity of millions of people has persisted for centuries in the United States. This belief and ideology was legally sanctioned, violently enforced and culturally normalized despite its absurdity. But the human spirit will not be defeated. The system was met with courageous, determined, and continuous resistance by diverse groups of people. Our true history is filled with stories of cooperation, compassion and solidarity across racial and ethnic groups. These responses led to tremendous progress, resilience and landmark victories that affirm human and civil rights. The true story, the narrative about the creation and maintenance of, as well as the resistance to and ultimate (but yet to be realized) demise of a racialized culture in the United States is a collective story of our shared relationships. It embodies the true American history as one of diverse groups that “people” the United States and sovereign Indian Nations. This narrative, with all its nuanced implications has yet to be fully told, embraced or understood. It must become the curriculum for our country and be a narrative that affirms our journey toward the realization of true democracy.

The Business Case for Racial Equity

Tragic shootings in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015 led to a call for removing the confederate flag from that state’s capitol building. The confederate flag symbolizes adherence to past ideology. It also represents an embedded belief in a hierarchy of human value upon which South Carolina’s, as well as America’s, foundational legal systems, public policies and economic strategies were built and sustained. The legacy of this belief is represented today in persistent patterns of inequality which cannot be allowed to continue if the United States is to remain economically viable. According to the publication “The Business Case for Racial Equity” (https://www.wkkf. org/news-and-media/article/2013/10/the-business-case-for-racial-equity-quantifies-the-cost-of-racism-in-the-us), if the average incomes of minorities were raised to equal their white counterparts, total U.S. earnings would increase by 12 percent or nearly one trillion dollars. The earnings gain would result in 180 billion dollars in corporate profits. Closing the education gap between African-American and Hispanic students and white students would have increased the U.S. GDP by two to four percent in 2008, representing between $310 billion and $525 billion.

By closing the earnings gap and educational gap, businesses, government and the overall economy stand to see great economic growth. While the economic gains would be measureable and concrete, moral and ethical leadership benefits outweigh economic gains for the United States on local, national and global scales. A large scale racial healing process is an important foundational step to producing needed societal changes.

The Urgency and Opportunity of Now

If we are as a nation to finally jettison the theory of humanity as a hierarchical taxonomy, what are we to replace it with? We must replace the 18th century view of humanity with anew capacity to see ourselves in the perceived “other.” Doing so will drive more empathetic, compassionate responses and help to foster healing. The good news is that the late 20th century and the 21st century offer us new insights into human genomics, neuroscience and social sciences that are extremely helpful as we transform our understandings and ways of relating to one another. For example, when we say race is a social construct that has no basis in biological science we can also assert that there is more genetic difference within previously defined racial groups then there is between them. Human genome research has established this as fact. There is also now solid evidence about the geographic origins and historic migration patterns of the entire human family. There is scientific consensus that we all trace our beginnings back to the continent of Africa. But if history is any predictor we know it can take decades sometimes more than a century to replace an archaic emotionally charged idea with a new concept that shatters institutional and individual biases. Today’s information technology can be used to leverage rapidly evolving insights in the field of neuroscience to help us identify and overcome our biases. Organizations such as local police departments and public defenders are now using computerized implicit association tests to identify and reduce their own biases. This kind of work must be taken to scale as part of a comprehensive national racial healing strategy.

America must finish this unfinished business. We cannot just acknowledge, or merely use, recent tragedies to raise awareness of the problem; we must heal the cause. Healing must include all races and all social and economic classes. There must be a solemn commitment to this work, to unifying our nation, to rejecting racism, to finding strength, not resentment, in our differences. Our children, and collective futures are at stake.

America has an opportunity to become a world leader in racial healing. There’s an urgency to address this issue today. The changing demographics demand that something be done— most children in our near future will be kids of color, and too many will live in poverty. It creates an imperative for the nation to change the future now. We cannot wait another 100 years.

Dr. Gail Christopher is vice president for policy and senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Parts of this article were adapted from an essay by Dr. Christopher that appears in the 2016 Annual Report of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, available at

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