Cracking Open the Race Conversation

I’m not supposed to have much useful to say about the subject explored on this page. I’m a middle-aged white guy.

I haven’t escaped all of life’s traumas, but I am privileged in just about any way you want to cut it. I head a foundation. I’ve had the opportunity to devote 15 years of my life to earn a Ph.D. studying something morally important but not directed at making money, and I’ve had the enormous luxury of being able to align my work and my values.

Even on my privileged white path – what on the surface would look like a path free of any racial restrictions we see around us – the subject of race has had an enormous impact on my life. When I was growing up, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and the subject divided my parents. The debates, given my dad’s temperament, were loud. And to my young ears, they seemed threatening to a stable home, and they seemed constant.

That family tension so affected me, I’ve devoted the last 15 years of my life trying to understand that impact on myself and how it stands in the way of our making the world a better place.

Now, I have the good fortune to be working on several efforts at understanding how race, class and power affect our environment, the way we build our cities and our philanthropy.

These experiences lead me to many places where we see these issues played out in everyday life. Sometimes these places are struggling neighborhoods in American cities. Sometimes we play these issues out in “places” that are not physical spots. They are in the minds of the very good people that I get to work with or are explored around a dinner table with friends.

It’s a topic that many whites – even those of us eager to see injustice righted – usually aren’t very comfortable talking about.

I don’t pretend to have completely escaped my Ohio upbringing or the racial beliefs so baked into our culture. But in that limitation rests an opportunity.

These blog posts from time to time will tease out some of the issues that arise publicly and in our intimate conversations surrounding race in America.

Right now, I’m sad after a very public discussion that never got to the real core: last week’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.

That case is filled with the kind of questions that will arise here in future posts and conversation. What are some of the ways that we use race to devalue some of our citizens? And since few of us consciously believe we “devalue” some citizens, how does that happen? How do some laws, like Stand Your Ground, create racial biases even if the lawmakers who wrote the law did not intend to focus on race? (For six-minutes of video that upends the law’s “race neutrality,” see this John Oliver clip from The Daily Show and make sure you watch to the end. If you crave data now on this topic, read this post.)

This isn’t navel-gazing. Trayvon Martin’s death shows us that these questions are about flesh-and-blood. In that young boy’s death, we lost a precious life.

And I will work with you, dear reader, as we, in conversation, lurch toward a fuller understanding. I welcome your thoughts.

Join The Conversation.

  1. Michelle Knapik says:

    Todd – thank you for utilizing story, culture, and analysis to keep us focused on one of the most critical intergenerational issues in the world.  My personal belief is that we will need these varied energies and perspectives to move us toward great social justice actions and solutions. I am also moved by the Race Card Project and NPR’s coverage of 6 word essays on race or cultural identity that invite personal expression on this issue: http://www.npr.org/series/173814508/the-race-card-project. We are all negatively affected and impacted by our inequitable, biased systems (from interpersonal to societal), be the mechanisms overt, covert, or unintended. Yet we stand a chance for critical course correction if we awaken to and become conscious of the system impacts – something I feel we must “do” from a sense of personal responsibility and then “drive” through individual and collective action.  

  2. Look forward to hearing more about what you’re doing. Race, equity and the environment are indeed connected. Environmentally blighted areas are generally economically disadvantaged and residents have little recourse. We’re seeing this in Texas now with oil shale development bringing toxins that rural communities have no ability to control or escape.

  3. Willow Russell says:

    Wow. The end of that John Oliver clip made me cringe and filled me with such sadness. Despite that, I am grateful that you shared it with us, Todd. Thank you. I find myself often wanting to turn away from such things, because they are so upsetting, but that is not the answer. I look forward to a continued conversation. And I agree, Michelle, the Race Card Project, is incredibly moving and illuminating.

  4. Willow Russell says:

    Also, just one other thought that really struck home recently. It was from one of Vu Le’s posts: “This system that exists, where the loudest voices win, is culturally incompetent and has been perpetuating inequity in education and other areas for decades.” It’s not directly related to the points you shared above, but it’s been rattling around in my head and makes me grateful that we are taking a hard look at the way we do our work at SVP.

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