Exclusive Commentary

A Discussion on Racial Equity, Healing, and Poverty – Part 2

Exclusive interview with Dr. Gail C. Christopher - Posted October 7, 2013


Dr. Gail C. Christopher is vice president – program strategy for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where she leads the foundation’s America Healing Initiative, a program that supports racial healing in communities and works to dismantle structural racism. Dr. Christopher is an expert on health policy, with particular expertise and experience in the issues related to social determinants of health, health disparities and public policy issues of concern to African American and other minority populations.

Following the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington in August, Dr. Christopher answered questions posed by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. This is the second of a two-part series to launch Spotlight’s Race Section, funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

Read part one here.  


Q. Didn’t the civil rights movement address racism in America?

A. Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement came up with solutions, but there was strong resistance to those judicial, legislative and policy initiatives. The resistance has ensured that those solutions haven’t been fully implemented. There was a Civil Rights Act and a war on poverty—initiatives that grew out of a deep understanding that people of color, mostly African Americans, were being overwhelmed by racial bias. But the nation didn’t dig deep enough to deal with the fundamental belief in racial hierarchy and the fallacy of that belief. Because we never dealt with  those in the population who are biased against others because of the color of their skin, our nation today has two divided camps—those who want equal rights for all and those who say, “I’m going to hold on to my right to be superior and to have more opportunities than others.” Our institutions including Congress, the business community, local governments, the healthcare system, banks, schools and employers remain influenced by individuals who have been outright racist. This is why so many disparities still exist. For example: 

          - During the height of the recession from 2007 to 2010, Hispanic family wealth
             declined by 44 percent, black family wealth declined 31 percent, and white
             family wealth declined only 11 percent.  
          - Only 15 percent of Latinos have a bachelor’s degree or above, compared to
             24 percent of blacks and 37 percent of whites.
          - Compared to white teens, diabetes rates are eight times higher for Native
             American teens, and three times as high for African American, Asian and
             Latino teens.
          - 23 million low-income Americans live a mile or more from the nearest
             supermarket.
          - The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households
             and 18 times that of Hispanic households.
          - There are more blacks in the correctional system today than were enslaved in
             1850.

Q. The original March on Washington was for jobs and freedom. If you were designing a national racial equity march today, what specifically would it be for?    

A. It would be for healing from racism. America has never dealt with the cause of the racism that has denied jobs, freedoms and the lack of opportunities, or the cause of slavery and its protracted existence for multiple centuries. We haven’t addressed the fundamental belief that some people deserved more while others deserved less. Despite its concrete victories, the civil rights movement didn’t deal with the absurdity of the notion that somehow certain people were less than human. It dealt with the consequences of this belief, but it never dealt with the belief itself. This country has supported human hierarchy based on racial differences. Now, we have to be of the business that we are one human family. We all deserve to be treated equally, to have equal opportunities. Once we agree to that as the full assertion to our humanity, we will figure out what has to be done to accelerate and realize that understanding and that vision. We don’t have the right vision as it relates to racism in this country. We keep debating the consequences and we don’t debate the fundamental issues. The 21st century requires that we address both the consequences of the legacy of racism and uproot the fundamental believes in human hierarchy.

Q. With gridlock plaguing Washington, what non-governmental pathways do you see advancing economic security and racial equity for our children and youth now and in the near future?


A. Gridlock may be plaguing Washington, but we have to look at the local opportunities. The question is not government versus non-government. I think the question is local and regional versus national because I don’t feel government can ever be taken out of the equation. Philanthropy and private sector can partner with government, but a local school system’s budget will always be a different scale than a philanthropic or a charitable budget. I speak with doctors all the time who run volunteer clinics for delivering medical services to the uninsured. But we cannot volunteer our way out of these dilemmas. The idea that people need to have healthcare should be a fundamental human right. The idea that children need to have quality education, preschool and K-12, and an opportunity for higher education that prepares them for careers, is what I believe is a fundamental right in a viable democracy. So while we do have gridlock in Washington that is adolescent behavior, we still have to make our government work. Our local and regional leadership has to demonstrate more maturity than our national and congressional officials. We need more partnerships and more creative solutions.

To print a PDF of this interview, click here.

Dr. Gail C. Christopher is vice president – program strategy for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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