A Signature Moment for Advancing Racial Equity in America’s Cities

A Signature Moment for Advancing Racial Equity in America’s Cities

Despite the current tone of our national electoral politics, we are seeing more and more cities, institutions and individuals explicitly committing to advancing and achieving racial equity. The essays in this series speak to what we can learn from the past and how, together, we can do this.

At Living Cities, we envision America’s cities as places where all citizens have equal access to economic opportunity. This has been our vision—and contributing to it has been our mission—since our founding 25 years ago. As a collaborative of leading foundations and financial institutions, working together, we have been able to help build hundreds of thousands of homes, grocery stores, and schools; shape billions of dollars in local and federal funding programs; and improve the lives of millions of low-income people. But, it is only in the last three years that we have been explicit about just who remains disproportionately disconnected from opportunity.

In 2013, as people and institutions reflected on our progress in the 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech and the declaration of the War on Poverty, a multitude of studies were released that illuminated how dramatic a role race continues to play in determining people’s life chances in America. This data, along with events of national significance such as the Trayvon Martin case that sparked a huge amount of conversation, debate, and media coverage around issues of race, also registered intensely within our own organization. Members of staff began to question our race-neutral approach and mission statement, and raised these concerns with senior leadership. After a period of internal dialogue, we began to pore over the data and to explore the issues publicly on our blog, through social media, and through a learning agenda, including examining how institutions like ours have sustained inequities. This self-interrogation was not comfortable. The process has, at times, been challenging and messy. It has required us to surface some difficult truths about the past, to work hard to better understand present realities, and to consider how we, and all institutions working for a more equitable world, must change to meet the needs of the future.

Past: Successes and Challenges

We are incredibly proud of the successes that we and others in the community development field have accomplished to date. But, in terms of ensuring equitable access to opportunity, this work has been necessary but not sufficient.

“[W]e knew that, to get better results, we needed to integrate opportunity, geography, connectivity and systems innovation.”

By 1991, the year of Living Cities’ founding, America had made a great deal of progress in terms of civil rights and social justice. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s led to the end of Jim Crow; secured the outlawing of racial discrimination in education, employment and housing; and ensured the right to vote for people of color. Yet, despite profound improvements in educational attainment and economic opportunities for people of color, a substantial race gap between white and non-white Americans remained. Racial inequities persisted across all opportunity indicators, including education, jobs, criminal justice, housing, public infrastructure and health. Meanwhile, the world was changing in dramatic ways. Notions of community were redefined by revolutionary forces of change— primarily, globalization and the internet—that reshaped the world and America’s place in it. Despite the heady successes in the community development sector, our work did not have the effect that many of us intended: a material impact on the number of Americans living in poverty. Our focus had been on a singular strategy and unit of change—the community—but we knew that, to get better results, we needed to integrate opportunity, geography, connectivity and systems innovation.

Current Realities

In 2007, acknowledging these forces, Living Cities made an extraordinary pivot, shifting from a core focus on community development to a multidisciplinary focus on both neighborhood and system transformation. The organization adopted a broader, more integrative agenda that was focused on harnessing what we had learned to build a new type of urban practice, addressing a range of both physical and human capital issues, from affordable housing creation along transit corridors; to reimagining education, cradle to career; to youth recidivism,entrepreneurship and workforce development.

“But, inequities in America are not natural. Nor did they happen by accident.”

This shift addressed the pressing need to focus on systems rather than programs, on cities rather than just neighborhoods as units of change. However, it did not address the racial gaps. It did not even explicitly acknowledge racial gaps as a problem yet to be solved. But, inequities in America are not natural. Nor did they happen by accident. The racial opportunity gaps are not the result of inadvertent faults or flaws in our systems. Rather, they have been created and perpetuated by our governments and society. During the Civil Rights Movement, laws and policies were passed that outlawed overt acts of discrimination, but the consequences of history are difficult to erase and structures and systems replicate insidious patterns of exclusion. Our country’s history of redlining and discrimination in mortgage lending has kept millions of low-income people of color from building wealth through home-ownership. And unfortunately, the many successes of the community development industry in scaling affordable housing have been offset by ongoing rental housing discrimination.

The fact that the the racial wealth gap has widened rather than narrowed since the 1960s is particularly troubling given that we cannot end inter-generational poverty without ensuring that low-income people can grow wealth. The Pew Research Center reports that the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of African-American households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. And, this gap exists regardless of education level — the median wealth of African-American families in which the head of household graduated from college is less than the median wealth of white families whose head of household dropped out of high school.

It is abundantly clear that we have not achieved a “post-racial” society, and race-neutral or ‘color-blind’ approaches enable racial inequities.

This is the conclusion that our staff came to after grappling with our history and the reality that we are standing on the precipice of a transformation to a majority-minority nation. In fact, this transformation has already occurred in many of our cities and metropolitan areas, where two-thirds of our citizens live. There, the under-18 population already achieved majority non-white status as early as 2008. If we do not dramatically change current trajectories, that majority will be significantly poorer, less educated, and less free (due to mass incarceration) than today’s majority. This will have far-reaching implications for our nation’s economic growth and security. Explicitly addressing racial inequities is the only way forward.

If we do not dramatically change current trajectories, that majority will be significantly poorer, less educated, and less free (due to mass incarceration) than today’s majority.

The Future

So, what will it take to change our deeply racialized systems and to expand opportunity for the next generation? We believe that there are three key changes that institutions—public, private, and philanthropic—can and must make:

Apply a racial equity lens to everything we do.

At Living Cities, we completed a racial equity assessment of our core operations, policies, practices, strategies and investments. This meant taking a hard look in the mirror and considering how we were inadvertently perpetuating inequities or placing undue burdens on people of color. Racial equity cannot be an ‘add-on.’ It must be core to who we are and what we do. This work is never finished and must be carried out with rigor. It means clearly articulating and understanding the intersecting forces of implicit and explicit bias, and individual, institutional and structural racism. And, it means making the use of racial equity tools course-of-business as we consider new partnerships, grants, investments and hires. One tool, developed by Race Forward, that we have made use of consists of asking these five questions consistently:

  • Are all racial/ethnic groups who are affected by the policy/practice/decision at the table?
  • How will the proposed policy/practice/decision affect each group?
  • How will the proposed policy/practice/decision be perceived by each group?
  • Does the policy/practice/decision worsen or ignore existing disparities?
  • Based on the above responses, what revisions are needed in the policy/practice/decision under discussion?

Every institution is complicit in creating and sustaining racial inequities. Applying a racial equity and inclusion lens supports institutions to make the changes necessary be part of the solution.

Be data-driven.

Disaggregating data to understand disparities enables institutions and communities to make informed decisions so that we are not just raising the bar, but also closing the gaps. It’s crucial then, to collect good data, disaggregated by race. While this insight might seem self-evident, the road to taking an explicit focus on disaggregating data by race is not always easy. Data is often not available. People might be scared to make it public as it has often been used as a way to punish rather than to continuously improve. The scale of inequities, once revealed in plain numbers, can feel overwhelming. But, we must hold ourselves accountable to doing it despite the difficulties. It is the difference between aspirations and impact. For this reason, we have worked with our partners, StriveTogether, to make a focus on eliminating disparities, including publicly disaggregating data, a non-negotiable for communities that want to become “proof points” to demonstrate the power and promise of the StriveTogether network’s cradle-to-career collective impact approach to transforming education systems.

Partner broadly and engage community.

At Living Cities, as a collaborative of eighteen leading foundations and financial institutions, collaboration is in our DNA. We believe that those working for social change should not see other institutions as the “competition.” The competition is poverty and inequality. Therefore, we work closely with our member institutions, our grantees, and many other strategic partners to capitalize on the strengths and expertise of our networks. For example, our initiative, Racial Equity Here, resulting from a Living Cities task force convened in response to Freddie Gray’s death, brought together cross-sector leaders from our member institutions to create a new vehicle for action against the still-present effects of structural racism in U.S. cities. Racial Equity Here is a partnership with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a project of the Center for Social Inclusion and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, that is providing technical support and coaching to five cities – Albuquerque, Austin, Grand Rapids, Louisville and Philadelphia – as they analyze how their operations impact people of color and devise actionable solutions. And, more and more, we are intentionally seeking a new way forward for working with the communities we serve. We are excited about the growing public will and movement building to create the environment that enables large-scale change. Today, there is a growing intolerance for our nation’s racialized inequality of income and access to opportunity – and a willingness to act that is reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement. From Black Lives Matter, to the fights for minimum wage, this is a signature moment in history. We must seek ways to partner with, support, and supplement these efforts.

Despite the current tone of our national electoral politics, we are seeing more and more cities, institutions and individuals explicitly committing to advancing and achieving racial equity. The essays in this series speak to what we can learn from the past and how, together, we can do this.


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