From the time I was a kid growing up on a farm in Nebraska, I was taught not to notice or comment on racial difference – to be “color-blind.” Not calling attention to differences was the way white people like me showed that we believed in equality – you are just like me. I carried this with me into college at Stanford. I already felt out of place among the students there. There weren’t many farm kids like me on campus. But then I met my roommate, Kenneth, who is black. It was there that I first realized that color-blind wasn’t the reality for Kenneth, and it shouldn’t be for me, either.
Over time, I began to see just how deeply rooted the idea of “color-blindness as goodness” is in our society. As I dug deeper into my work as a philanthropist, I met and worked with colleagues and partners who pushed my thinking, and had many conversations around the dinner table with my family that further pushed my perspective.
One of the people I have learned from is Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and the person I will share the stage with at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We started life in dramatically different places. He, a poor, black, gay man in the south. Me, a white, straight, middle class man in Nebraska. But we’ve ended up in similar places – leading foundations trying to reverse inequities. It’s hard to do. But I think one of the reasons it is so hard is that our society still aspires to color-blindness. As Darren said to me recently, “color-blind is a cop out.”
Because color-blindness is so entrenched as a value in our society, it’s tempting when you are a policymaker or a philanthropic leader to say you are doing what you are doing – supporting this policy or that one – to help “all kids.” After all, what kid doesn’t deserve a shot? But what I’ve learned is that if we do not look at the ways in which our systems like schools, justice, and democracy have discriminated against people of color and handicapped their shots at success, we aren’t going to make these systems work better for anyone. Black students graduate high school at a rate 13 percent lower than white students. Thirty-two percent of homeless youth are black, more than double the proportion of black youth in the population. This is not a coincidence.
Failing to address race head-on is counterproductive to making meaningful progress to correct these startling inequities. While it may be easier to avoid discussing race, it’s impossible to improve the systems that create these disparate outcomes if we don’t first recognize how they disproportionately impact people of color.
So people like Darren and me must use our resources to help the people furthest from opportunity. This isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Students of color are the majority in the public school system. It’s imperative school systems recognize structural inequities, include people of color and from diverse backgrounds in lesson plans, and rethink labeling students of color troublemakers as early as pre-school. There are massive ripple effects when we fail to show young people of color they belong, that they can achieve, and that we see them.
I was particularly struck by the moving speech made by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, responding to the backlash against his removal of confederate monuments from the public square. Landrieu quoted former President George W. Bush’s remarks celebrating the opening of National Museum of African American History and Culture: “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
At the Raikes Foundation, we are trying to do this work better. We are pushing ourselves and setting big goals, and it starts with focusing our work on the populations that have been served the least well by society. We are early in this journey, but are eager to share with others what we learn, and to learn from the experiences of others.
But no foundation, no nonprofit, no government is going to fix this on its own. All of us – especially people who look like me – have a role to play in advancing the dialogue about race and equity in this country. Color-blindness is a flaw – a misconceived notion that blocks progress. Let’s correct it.
The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.