I recently returned from Tulsa, OK, with my colleague at Hope in the Cities, Tee Turner. For the past four years we have delivered workshops at the national symposium hosted annually by the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation. Tulsa, like our hometown Richmond, is working to overcome denial of its racist past, in particular, the 1921 destruction of the black business community by white mobs – often described as the worst act of domestic terrorism in US history.
This year’s conference focused on the structural inequities that persist in America and which are largely the result of racial history. David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute opened the event with a powerful data-based illustration of discriminatory policies that have led to separation and inequality. Blatt focused particularly on the wealth gap (as opposed to income). Starting with the seizure of resource-rich Native American land though Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act, “US history is replete with state sanctioned efforts to appropriate wealth from people of color," he said. He went on to note that, beginning in the 1930s, the government introduced a national appraisal system that explicitly tied mortgage eligibility to race.
A clear message of the symposium is that “wealth is where opportunity lies and we must reduce the barriers to raising assets.” One graphic statistic: In Oklahoma, 40% of Hispanics, 23% of blacks, and 6% of whites are “unbanked.”
Peter Edelman, who served in Clinton’s administration and who teaches law at Georgetown University, emphasized the dramatic growth of poverty in the US over the past decade. How is it possible that 46 million people rely on food stamps in the richest country in the world? Without the current government programs, another 40 million would be in poverty. A major factor is the steady reduction in jobs that pay a living wage as well as the breakdown in family structure. A single parent with a low paying job results in a child living in poverty.
Edelman made it clear that an attack on poverty must be multi-dimensional: “Anyone who says it's all about structure is naive, and anyone who says it's all about personal responsibility is naive.” He also reminded us that the majority of poor people are white, so the remedy for poverty must be across the board. This supported Blatt’s key thought that "changing the equity gap can no longer be thought of as only a social justice or minority issue.”
The workshop that Tee Turner and I presented described the Unpacking the Census project in Richmond, VA that connects history to data as a means of educating and mobilizing broad support for action to address poverty and to correct the effect of public policies that have tended to divide people by race, class and political jurisdiction.
Tee and I attended a workshop by Jessy Molina, whose Atlanta-based organization. Welcoming America, works with “receiving communities” to build relations with immigrants. Welcoming America uses story-based dialogue to break down stereotypes. One participant reported that “putting a name and a face to an issue changed everything for me." Jessy says the dialogues encourage people to “lean into discomfort” rather than avoid it.
A highpoint of the symposium was a public town hall conversation between James A. Forbes, Jr., senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City, and Donald W. Shriver, Jr., emeritus president of the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The two eminent theologians – black and white southerners – reflected on America’s racial journey as seen from a lifetime’s experience.
They reminded us that the Civil Rights Movement and consequent federal legislation brought enormous economic benefit to whites and well as to blacks in the South. Yet, today, said Shriver, “the parts of the country with the poorest people have the governments with the least intention to do anything about it." I was struck by Shriver’s call for “research on how segregation was the cause of soul impoverishment for all.” Forbes remarked that “a whole lot of white people were suffering post-traumatic stress after Obama’s election.” He concluded, “We need to commit to America being a place where all God's children have a place at the table.”
By 2018 “minority" children will be in the majority in the US. There is a significant increase in multiracial Americans. For me the most inspiring part of the symposium was a panel of talented and visionary young leaders from many racial and ethnic backgrounds who discussed their experiences and hopes for the future. In their view, everyone is needed to build the new America. Said one, “You wouldn’t build a house by only consulting a carpenter.”