Understanding Racism as a Structural Issue Serves to Promote American Values



             The topics of race and racism have hit the headlines in the last few months, in both electoral politics and philanthropy, providing an opening for a national discourse that we seldom have in our country.  Yet too many of those discussions have been sensationalized and divisive rather than constructive.  In the current political season, race has been at the forefront of many media conversations but, with the notable exception of Senator Barack Obama’s landmark Philadelphia speech and the observations of a few other thoughtful commentators, it has rarely received the sober treatment that it so desperately needs. 

William Schambra’s op-ed in the May 15th edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy titled “Why Are Foundations Supporting Racism?”* is an example of how inaccurate and inflammatory the conversation can get. The way in which we frame race and racism can make all the difference between making progress toward our national ideals of equality and justice and deepening the divisions among us, particularly the divisions along lines of race, place, class and citizenship. 

With the historic possibility of an African-American candidate becoming our next president, some take comfort in the idea that we have achieved a post-racial,“colorblind” society. The philanthropic and non-profit sectors that have played such an important role in promoting racial justice ought to know enough to avoid this false assumption. Moreover, they must be vigilant about and confront those who would cast as “racist” or “un-American” any effort that tries to understand the causes of continued racial disparities and takes up the hard work required to eliminate them.    

Despite the meaningful progress we have made to root out blatant discriminatory practices, people of color are sinking faster into poverty from middle class status. Between 1964 and 1973, 24% of African-American families were in the bottom of the national income distribution. This proportion grew to about 39% over the next two decades.  The median net wealth of African American and Latino households stands at less than 10% of the median net wealth of their White counterparts.

             Why is this?  What can we do better to achieve real equity and equality of opportunity?  Simple, single-cause approaches may be appealing but will do little to address the problem.  Evolving, yet persistent, racialized poverty is the result of a complex set of interactions between institutions and public policies that have accumulated over time. With greater understanding of these dynamic interactions, we are more apt to identify proper interventions in one area that could have a positive effect across others, changing the life opportunity for impacted groups.  Foundations, notably the Ford, Mott, Annie E. Casey, Kellogg, Akonadi Foundations, the Open Society Institute, and Atlantic Philanthropies have supported a number of grantees, including those who have joined to write this letter, to develop and apply a comprehensive, structural race analysis to help identify such solutions.

These organizations have shown how structural racism today is manifested in seemingly neutral and benign public and institutional policies and practices that many of us take for granted.  They recognize that one of the main ways in which structural racism operates is through the interrelationships among critical opportunity-shaping sectors like education, employment, home ownership, and criminal justice. 

Personal choices obviously matter. But structural racism recognizes that, while personal agency is an indispensable element of success in America, the ways in which some individuals and communities are positioned in the wider society can also seriously undermine their prospects for getting access to or benefitting from the opportunities they truly merit.

The subprime lending crisis, an issue of concern to many foundations, provides an excellent example of how the lens of structural racism enables us to see the ways in which public policies and institutional practices interact to reproduce racial disparities and, if left unaddressed, result in negative outcomes far beyond communities of color.

            African Americans and Latinos still live mainly in segregated neighborhoods; these Americans and these neighborhoods are being hit especially hard by the foreclosure crisis.  In 2006, African Americans and Latinos in the United States were twice as likely as Whites to receive high-cost loans, even after adjusting for loan amount and borrower income.  The historical legacy of redlining policies, which has denied loans to applicants within certain areas, and the scarcity of bank branches in minority communities today, have limited minority access to standard financing options, and predatory lenders have filled the vacuum.  An analysis of 34 high cost loan companies in Cleveland in 2006-2007, for example, found that they were responsible for 20 percent of mortgage loans in minority communities and only 4 percent of such loans in white communities.  The securitization of the mortgage market, which shifted lending services from local savings banks to investments banks and avoided the regulations placed on traditional lenders, has increased the volume and short-term profitability of adjustable rate mortgages. 

This complex of interrelated policies, institutions, and practices together produce racial disparities that further depress the wealth and wellbeing of minority communities, and therefore exhibit structural racism. 

The disproportionate impact of subprime mortgage foreclosures on racial minorities is clear: Foreclosure means a loss of the wealth invested in a home, the abandoned buildings cause declines in neighborhood property values, and the vital asset wealth that minority homeowners have long sought is lost.   The structural racism analysis does not assert that any individuals involved in mortgage finance were motivated by prejudice or bigotry. Rather it suggests that the cumulative effect of regulatory policy, institutional practices, and self-interest has been to harm minorities disproportionately – but to ultimately impact society more broadly.

Having located the causes of racial disparity in the subprime crisis, we can consider possible remedies.  For example: greater regulation of mortgage finance would prevent the proliferation of high cost loan products which precipitated the crisis in the first place; financial education in poor minority communities would minimize the capacity of predatory lenders to mislead their clients; municipal efforts to manage abandoned foreclosed properties would prevent neighborhood decline.  The contention of the structural racism analysis is that as we explore these and other viable policy solutions, we must specifically consider the problem of racial disparity, and how new policies and programs will reduce that disparity. 

Acknowledging the problem of structural racism in this way does not malign fundamental American values, virtues, or accomplishments.  On the contrary, America’s values of democracy, equality, and liberty are best served by our willingness to understand, confront, and dismantle structures that undermine those values.  America’s historical legacy shines brightest in our struggle against racism, from abolition to the Civil Rights Movement.  But our past successes must serve as encouragement for future gains, not as an excuse for complacency and inaction in the face of persistent racial inequalities. 

           More foundations and nonprofits must make the distinction between colorblindness as a desired outcome and colorblindness as a strategy.  Colorblindness is a desirable endpoint, but a colorblind strategy ensures that racial disparities will continue.  Conversely, policies that flow from the structural racism analysis as applied to education, health care, incarceration, and more, target racialized disparities and by this means benefit Americans of all races.  Moreover, as we have seen with the subprime mortgage crisis, problems that incubate in communities of color can become national epidemics when we ignore our structural interconnections.  A structural racism perspective simply reminds us that all Americans are still affected by our nation’s past, must work together in the present, and share linked fates in the future.


Rinku Sen, President and CEO, Applied Research Center www.arc.org; Anne C. Kubisch, Director, Roundtable on Community Change www.aspenroundtable.org, The Aspen Institute; Maya Wiley, Director, Center for Social Inclusion www.centerforsocialinclusion.org; john powell, Executive Director, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity www.kirwaninstitute.org, The Ohio State University; Lori Villarosa, Executive Director, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity www.racialequity.org; and Dan Petegorsky, Executive Director, Western States Center www.westernstatescenter.org. 






 * The outrageous title “Why Are Foundations Supporting Racism?” appeared in the print version, which landed on thousands of desks across the country.  Even Schambra objected to it and it was changed online. The Chronicle deleted this reference from our letter — which was submitted as an op-ed under the mistaken notion that they might respect some parity of placement and headline to offset the misrepresentative and incendiary piece they had run the week ahead.