How do we embed racial equity in our future vision of the good society?

“Our visions for racial equity are so small that we’re asking only to die at the same rate as others”. This unsettling truth from our most recent webinar encapsulates how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep racial fault lines in our societies, including entrenched inequalities that have led to disproportionate health and economic impacts on minority communities, with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Groups more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts in the UK, and the same being true for African-American and Hispanic communities in the United States.

The brutal murder of George Floyd captured this tragic interplay both visibly and symbolically, from the systemic police violence that physically killed Mr. Floyd through to the desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe” echoing out during a global pandemic targeting the respiratory system. This sparked global protests and reinforced the Black Lives Matter movement that has for many years been highlighting the historical and structural nature of why disproportionality exists in the first place, with the Dean of Harvard University’s School of Public Health stating “racism is a public health issue”. So just how we do progress from what feels like a historic inflection point and create a good society that truly embeds race equity at its heart?

People hold up a Black Lives Matter banner as they march during a demonstration against racial inequality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Erin Scott

We brought together experts and practitioners from across the globe to help us interrogate this question — to explore how racial equity is being addressed in different contexts and across different sectors. They included: Dr Mathew Mathews, Head of the Institute of Policy Studies Social Lab at the National University of Singapore specialising in social cohesion and inclusion in Singapore; Mark Gonzales, Chair of the Department of the Future and a coordinator of the EmbRACE LA project that led to the creation of the Los Angeles Office of Racial Equity; Tebussum Rashid, Deputy CEO at the Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG) in the UK, a national charity delivering programmes for young Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people to reduce racial disparities; and Mbongeni Allan Magubane, Deputy Headmaster at St John’s College Johannesburg and co-founder of the Centre For Being & Belonging in South Africa.

As the example of South Africa teaches us, nations grappling with racial equity is nothing new. Allan Magubane talked to the country’s deeply divided history: from its colonial past through to its apartheid system that preserved an economic, political, and social order along racial lines. We were reminded that the avoidance of civil war was largely thanks to the transformative leadership of figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Nelson Mandela, who helped create one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.

Despite this, the country remains deeply racially divided and part of the reason for this according to Allan Magubane is the ‘cold war between the black political power and the white economic power”, which is upheld by a racialised class system. Invoking Martin Luther King’s infamous “beloved community” as an ambitious societal goal, Magubane passionately advocates for a qualitative change in our souls through education and the teaching of racial literary and social justice to young people and their families, whilst continuing the quantitative change in our lives that South Africa has seen in the form of structural reform, affirmative action, social cohesion and social-economic support.

Members of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — including Dr. Alex Boraine (second from left), deputy chair; Archbishop Desmond Tutu (centre), chair; and Rev. Bongani Finca (right), commissioner — at the commission’s first hearing, April 1996, East London, S.Af.Benny Gool — Oryx Media/Desmond Tutu Peace Centre

This emphasis on education was repeated by Tebessum Rashid, whose organisation sees high quality and inclusive education as a foundational bedrock to embedding racial equity in British society. BTEG also tackles racial inequalities in employment and the criminal justice system through a twin-track approach of supporting minorities navigate and challenge systemic obstacles, whilst also working with the organisations and employers that comprise the system to become more equitable in their practice and processes. It was noted how this has also highlighted the need to combat the excessive use of racialised language across society — from marketing campaigns to depictions of characters in the arts — as they allow narratives and stigmas to form that no amount of unconscious bias training can reverse.

A powerful mode for organisational and sectoral reform was also conveyed: “to change inequality and to embed race equity, we need change all the way through and not just as add-ons in the way of equality and diversity, but something that’s at the core of every organisation and every sector”. We heard about a dual philosophy to this change, with the usual top-down systems and policies approach being balanced with a co-produced bottom-up approach that gives equal credence to lived experience experts and communities. The latter of these was especially important to enable difficult conversations around race and racism: to enable equal amounts of comfort and discomfort amongst participants; for trust to be built; and for everyone to be heard.

A BTEG Training Session

But how does one even go about starting a dialogue about race? Mark Gonzales shared with us his experience with the EmRACE LA project, a city-wide conversation about race and racism that in 2019 led to the formation of the Los Angeles Office of Racial Equity. Some of core mechanics of the design process included: how to support a city to learn dialogue skills and to help residents build civic responsibilities that aren’t taught in public schools; how to connect with information and individuals that residents weren’t already in agreement with; and how to move beyond photo opportunity optics and really explore recalibrating social norms and reshaping policy.

Working in partnership with partner Community Coalition, a first step was to respond to people’s wanting to have conversations but their feeling untrained to do so. So they identified individuals who could train in dialogue methodologies and then custom-built a website that encouraged Angelinos to sign up to and express whether a dialogue about racial equity is something they wanted to be a part of; more than 3000 people signed up for 1200 slots in less than five days. This then resulted in 100 dinners being hosted across 15 districts, including parts of the city that historically felt left out, over a four-day period — which was then carefully curated to talk about what people love about their city, how they felt heard by their city, and how race had shaped their love and pain in the city. This was then used as a place of honest and authentic engagement about what the roadblocks were that prevented Los Angeles from being the city everyone wanted it to be.

A group of Angelenos participate in a embRACE L.A. in downtown Los Angeles. Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

One would be forgiven to think that after the creation of an office of racial equity, with even an expressly stated political commitment to racial equity, the hard work might be done. But as we found out from Dr Mathew Mathews, despite racial equality being a foundation pillar in the formation of an independent Singapore and the city-state being well known as a global model for racial harmony, “it’s still not a multicultural nirvana”. Discrepancies still exist for non-Chinese minorities in the country — with 30% reporting that they have been discriminated in an employment setting — suggesting a glass ceiling, whilst minorities are also known to have higher incidences of incarceration for drug issues.

Fascinatingly, Singapore’s commitment to multiculturalism can be seen through its national ‘regardless of race, language and religion’ pledge, which is recited by children every morning in school. The commitment to racial equity has also evolved into government interventionism, for example through the country’s successful Ethnic Integration Policy, an enforced quota mix for public housing — which incorporates 80% of Singaporeans — that seeks to prevent the ethnic ghettos that started appearing in the 1980s. As a result, Singapore’s neighborhoods are richly diverse, as are the schools that surround them.

This intrusive approach to racial equity is embedded across the administration of Singaporean public services, and it has worked; less than 10% of minorities feel they are treated differently in the dispensing of public services. Crucially, the Singaporean government continues to monitor differential outcomes based on ethnicity and where it feels there is a problem, it will intervene on racial lines. Whilst some might argue this approach negatively accentuates the significance of race, it also shows that one form of embedding racial equity is not to hide away from it but rather call out the racial differences across society and be interventionist in dealing with it. But do the costs justify the benefits in this quest particular question for racial harmony?

The full webinar is available on YouTube.

by Nizam Uddin, Co-Founder and Co-Host at Good Society Forum

The Good Society Forum is a community of change-makers around the world with a common quest to building the good society.

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