A month ago I had a powerful experience. I spent two days with 45 mostly-young people in a training workshop on “Undoing Racism”. Almost 30 of the 45 were Bread employees or Board members – black, white, mixed, and Asian-American – and were there as part of Bread’s commitment to racial equity.
The program was run by a venerable group, based in New Orleans, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB). It was founded over 35 years ago to address pervasive issues of institutional racism. As Bread’s Board Chairman I had traveled with our CEO, George Jones, our Medical Director, Randi Abramson, and another Board member, Dorothy Hawkins, to New Orleans to study several health clinics; our trip was managed by PISAB, which had deep connections to the area’s clinics. During that visit, we heard an enormous amount about PISAB’s efforts to engender racial equity. It became clear to all of us that this was training that our staff and board needed to have, particularly since over 90% of Bread’s clients are African-American.
To be clear, this wasn’t a training about racial prejudice or people’s attitudes to one another. This was, to me, all about consciousness raising. This was about having the white attendees start to see the world through black people’s eyes and having the black attendees confront a step-by-step analysis of how Eurocentric racism formed our economic, social and governmental institutions.
All of this was hard, hard to hear, hard to confront, and hard to accept. But the evidence was overwhelming and incontrovertible, and it damns our society from the perspective of social and economic justice. It is important, however, to emphasize that these conclusions were the culmination of two days’ hard work. We were cautioned not to talk about the conclusions because they were so inflammatory, and so difficult to accept without understanding the build-up, that people hearing them without having gone through the training would reject the premise. But these points are too important to our future as a society to leave them unsaid without reliance on a training workshop that relatively few will attend.
It is not a surprise to learn that the financial net worth of whites in America is higher than the financial net worth of blacks. What is a shock – but shouldn’t be with our history of racial discrimination – is that the median wealth of whites is 13 times the median worth of blacks. That, according to the Pew Research Center, the median net worth of a black family in America is just $11,000, compared to white net worth of over $141,000. (Washington Post, 12/12/14). This disparity doesn’t even address income inequality or the disproportionate accretion of wealth by the top 1%.
The Undoing Racism training tracked the formation of economic, social and governmental institutions that consistently discriminated against African-Americans, relegated them to second-class status (if that) and fostered an economic exploitation that has formed what is often called the economic underclass.
But to dismiss it solely as an economic phenomenon is to ignore its genesis in a calculated effort to oppress blacks and exploit them. The education, wealth and health outcomes that are the product of that economic, social and governmental oppression and exploitation are the burdens that we face every day at Bread for the City. And for those of us who are steeped in white culture, assuming the privilege that just seems to accrue to us, it was eye-opening and, more to the point, deeply troubling to begin to understand how our African-American friends and clients confront – on a daily basis – a world that seems calculated to diminish them and undervalue them.
Those without economic power are thus trapped in multiple ways, and while Bread for the City is a safety net for those mired in poverty, we would not be pursuing justice if we did not seek to address America’s racial inequities. The Bible commands us, “Justice justice you shall pursue.” Raising consciousness of our society’s inherent racism so that we can change the way we think and act, and move the next generation into a more equitable world, is an important first step. And I am very proud that Bread for the City is in the forefront of that effort.