BY ALEXANDER HU
Earlier this month, the Hudson Institute organized a panel discussion titled “Race and Racism in America: Are We Now a Color Blind Society?” The panel included representatives of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—President and CEO Sterling Speirn and Vice President of Program Strategy Dr. Gail Christopher—Harvard Professor Stephan Thernstrom, and political strategist Ron Christie. Aside from a thoughtful monologue by Mr. Christie, the main thread of discussion centered on the Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing Initiative, a five-year, $75 million program that was recently launched last May, 2010. The initiative has provided grants to 119 organizations across 29 states and the District of Columbia that “are working to promote racial healing and eliminate structural racism.”
Sterling Speirn began the discussion by stating that, through the foundation’s outreach and connecting with community members nationwide, he had witnessed a “great appetite for people in this country to come together and talk about race” and for people to have “courageous conversations… in a way that helps people work toward solutions.” He made the case that the demand and need is there for initiatives such as America Healing, and that the American populace is increasingly eager and receptive to having open dialogue and organizing efforts concerning issues regarding racial inequity.
Dr. Gail Christopher provided further support for the initiative, stating “there is power in story,” and outlining the importance of community efforts to share experiences and discover the past’s connection to the present. She expressed bluntly that to believe that ingrained racial attitudes can disappear in less than a century and that they would do so without intentional action is “simplistic and misguided; naïve at best.” Highlighting the program’s focus on at-risk children in minority populations, she connected America Healing to the Kellogg Foundation’s core objective of serving children, stating “we are not yet a society that fully values our children” and “we have to hear the different perspectives and see if we can’t do better on [their] behalf.”
Professor Stephan Thernstrom served as the voice of criticism on the panel, questioning the need and efficacy of such programs such as America Healing. Following the Kellogg Foundation’s launch of the initiative last year, Thernstrom published an article in the Wall Street Journal that asks whether racism is truly the culprit of the social inequities that the foundation seeks to tackle and whether an approach that overtly addresses racial dimensions is necessary or misguided. To be sure, Mr. Thernstrom does not deny the stark racial nature of the achievement gap– it is nearly impossible to– and advocates for improved schools and teaching for disadvantaged children.
Is Professor Thernstrom right about the frustratingly “protean” quality of institutional and structural racism? Yes. Even the Kellogg Foundation acknowledges its effects as often being “subtle but hardly inconsequential.” But, just as we do not deny the existence of wind for its invisible nature, the oft-nebulous quality of institutional racism does not prove that it is nonexistent, is without tangible effects, or that it is not felt. Indeed, just as the wind blows and moves objects as an invisible force, so too do persisting effects of past racism and segregation act to shape and mold socioeconomic circumstances and life experiences in unseen, but tangible ways.
Mr. Thernstrom is right that some of the foundation’s language about the initiative is vague; but he should also remember that the initiative is on a five-year timescale and that one of its main objectives is precisely to instate a system by which to measure and publicize its impact and outcome. Let us be patient and eager in seeing what the foundation and its grantee organizations can come up with and hope that it is something powerful, effective, and replicable. I would bet that we will be pleasantly surprised.