The new census data provides the core for this update of a book written by the authors in 2002. They aptly point out that with the changing demographics in our country, the opportunity has emerged for a frank conversation about race and racism. Uncommon Common Ground urges us to have that conversation and suggests that philanthropy might have an important role to play in both nurturing the discussion and in enabling a much-needed social movement.
The book begins with a provocative comment: “We can’t help but wonder what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought of an America that elects a black man to lead it but still fails to graduate over one-quarter of its young black men from high school.” It continues, “ … have Americans merely watched one remarkably gifted and fortunate person of color vault spectacularly over a wall and concluded, mistakenly, that the wall is no longer there?”
It is this juxtaposition of accomplishments of some and hardship and lack of opportunity for others that underlies the book’s examination of social equity, race and racism. The authors clarify that legal changes have guaranteed some protections for all Americans – racial equality -- but it is within the arena of policies and practices that the authors see ongoing, embedded discrimination -- racial inequity – that causes thousands of Americans to be left behind. It is equity that the authors name as the “uncommon common ground” that they are urging leaders to seek.
The authors note that when people of color point out these discrepancies they are often dismissed as “playing the race card” or the successes of a few are applauded and the unstated message is, “Gosh, you got the presidency, what more do you want?”
The magnitude of the lack of understanding between people in the majority population and those in the minority is of a level that is very difficult for whites to understand. Consider this very revealing passage from the book:
“According to a 2008 New York Times/CBS News poll on the state of race relations, almost 60 percent of black respondents said race relations were generally bad, compared with 34 percent of whites. Four out of ten blacks surveyed said that there has been no progress in recent years in eliminating racial discrimination; however, fewer than two in ten whites said the same thing. And about one out of four white respondents said they thought that too much had been made of racial barriers facing black people, while half of the black respondents said not enough had been made of racial impediments faced by blacks.”
This research reveals a distinct and notable disconnect between the minority and majority populations, one that many whites seem to be unaware of and one that African-Americans often temper for fear of trying to engender a conversation that leads to a weighty silence in the room. “Not again.” “I thought we had gotten past that.” “I understand all of these issues. I’m not the one that you need to be talking to.”
So, you must start the conversation yourself or be open to a different view about race relations in America when someone else starts the discussion. Remember: you don’t walk in their shoes. But your leadership role gives you a platform to encourage, enable and promote the discussion about race, racism and equity that can make a change in our world, a much needed change.
The closing section of the book takes me back to two other books that I recently reviewed in Giving Matters, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas and the Cultural Creatives. Blackwell, Kwoh and Pasteur note, “America is at a demographic, economic, and environmental crossroads. How we act today will determine whether we embrace our multicultural future, forge an economy that delivers for all, and save a planet threatened by our wasteful consumption. …. We must capitalize on a renewed enthusiasm for change to craft a bold vision for the country we want our children to inherit, and back up that vision with an action plan infused by our collective wisdom and creativity and by the fundamental American ideals of fairness and democracy.”
So to leaders across our region, I say that it is time for us to let go of the dead idea that people who look or speak different are drains on our country. They are indeed the backbone of our country. It is time to use all of our creative juices to forge partnerships across geography, gender, race, class and religion to achieve an even greater promise for America. Uncommon Common Ground reminds us of this and offers tools for moving forward. Well done.