NEW ORLEANS – The nation’s leading social justice and civil rights advocates pledged last Thursday at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s (WKKF) America Healing grantee conference to work together for racial healing and racial equity across the country.
Leaders of diverse organizations representing African Americans, Latinos, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and all low-income communities across the U.S. acknowledged they face obstacles ranging from a conservative-leaning Supreme Court to new laws aimed at suppressing the minority vote.
Benjamin Jealous, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) noted that the NAACP had worked with the Tea Party to get 12 progressive criminal justice reform bills signed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and that Connecticut had enacted a law abolishing the death penalty in the state.
He said, “There are issues out there – and especially within criminal justice – where we can actually get consensus between the left and the right and get great things done in this moment that’ll drive down the incarceration rate and reform draconian sentences.”
In addition to Jealous, other panelists included Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League; Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza; Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of National Congress of American Indians; Rinku Sen, executive director of the Applied Research Center; Kathleen Ko, president and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum; Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project; Ralph Everett, president and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; and Philip Tegeler, president and executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.
The group applauded WKKF’s America Healing goal to provide equal opportunities for vulnerable children throughout this country, while promoting racial healing and addressing structural bias in health care, employment, education, housing, the environment and other factors.
Murguia reminded participants of the enormous opportunity that has been building to bring people together around changing the current trajectory for all our children in this country.
“When we can come together in this modern era and understand that it’s not just about our separate struggles, but it’s about Dr. King’s words – words that he wrote to Cesar Chavez at the height of his fast. He said our separate struggles are really one – the fight for justice, for humanity and for dignity,” she said. “We’ve got to come together. We’ve got to stay together and understand that together we will move forward and conquer these difficult challenges.”
She referenced a recent Washington Post article that quoted the architects of anti-immigrant bills as saying that in crafting the legislation they wanted to find the way to “create the most pain and make people the most uncomfortable.” Murguia continued saying that people have a right to say what they believe, but that they have the right to engage themselves selves and place a value filter on those assertions.
“Right now, we’re under attack,” she said. “I can’t sugarcoat it…we held a rally in front of the Supreme Court when they heard the Arizona law, S.B.1070 – a law essentially requiring law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone they stop in Arizona. There’ve been other efforts across the country to mimic this law. We’ve seen pain and suffering in the lives of many families, particularly in Latino and immigrant families. And the civil rights nature of these laws is getting lost. That wasn’t an immigration case they heard yesterday. That was a civil rights case.”
Morial cited the Arizona law, as well as an array of obstacles to racial equity, calling it “the worst of times” for social justice in the U.S. But he quickly cited the unity of civil rights and social justice leaders, and shifted gears, saying, “But they’re the best of times. And one of the reasons why they are the best of times is because I look at this stage, I look at all of you, and I see the seeds of the future.”
Everett noted another sign of progress. In 1970, when the Joint Center opened, he said there were less than 1,500 black elected officials in the country. Today, there are more than 11,000.
“As part of our Place Matters Program funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we are about to release a study that shows how your zip code determines how long you live. In fact, the release will show a 25 to 30 year difference in some cases,” said Everett.
Tegeler, meanwhile, reconnected to the theme of working with vulnerable children. He reasoned that segregated communities were preventing integrated schools, which would have dire consequences if not addressed.
“As long as we’re keeping white children and children of color apart, I think we’re going to perpetuate the divisions in this country,” Tegeler said. “You know, we’ve heard over and over again at this conference that racial and economic segregation is the driver of racial disparity – racial disparity in health, in education, in employment, in income, in incarceration. It’s an underlying structure that feeds disparity and division.”
Johnson Pata said, “Policies of empowerment that really make self-determination work can counter paternalism,” she said. “We can actually have our tribal leadership help make decisions about our school curriculum and not have the state government guide what cultural activities are acceptable for our communities; then we could actually have the governmental tools like other states and other communities – governments, so that we could have tax-exempt bond financing to stimulate our economic development.”
Browne-Dianis steadfastly raised the need to save the children. She cited instances where young minority children were arrested as if they were adults. And she noted the vast differences in resources between her child’s school in a predominantly Black county in Prince George’s County MD and the school where the child of a friend attends in a white community of Fairfax County, VA.
“We as a country cannot allow the mistreatment of our babies,” she said. “We have got to reform our schools, but not in the way in which we’re going. The trajectory of education reform in this country is wrongheaded. We are going down the road of privatization, which means that there will be sorting-out of our children, sorting that will disadvantage children of color for centuries. You may have heard in the past few days, in Philadelphia they have announced the dissolution of their public school system. How are we allowing this to happen?”
The panel concluded with a discussion of what can be done to continue to move the racial equity conversation forward.
Sen said, “I want to suggest that one way we can deal with a range of policies is to establish a pattern or practice in government that requires racial equity impact analysis to be done on any of the policies we are considering putting in place.”
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