By Anne Price, President

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Photo: Justice Not Jails

The issue of race, public space, and who belongs was at the forefront this week when Starbucks closed its 8,000 U.S. stores for an afternoon to provide unconscious-bias training to its employees. The large-scale training came about in response to an incident in Philadelphia where two Black men, who were waiting for a business associate without having ordered anything and had asked to use the bathroom, were arrested after an employee called the police.

Some see Starbucks’ anti-bias training as an important first step to address racial profiling. But there is also a danger. Anti-bias or unconscious-bias training rarely goes beyond curbing individual behavior and thus can actually reinforce negative stereotypes instead of exploring the structural nature of racism.

Cyndi Suarez, a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Quarterly, reminds us that “in system thinking language, this would be akin to solving the problem at the same level at which it was created, which, as we know, does not bring systems change, but in fact reinforces the system while appearing, to the white person, to be making change.”

Adding to this conversation, Christopher Petrella and Ameer Hasan Loggins describe how “racial-bias trainings, therefore, often fail to ground their curricula on the historical and contemporary systems, practices, policies, and ideologies that produce, sustain, and legitimize white supremacy.” The better alternative? Anti-racist education, which “seeks to challenge the way white supremacy organizes meaning, access, worth, and history through time, space, and memory,” and, importantly, “understands that history does not pass; it accumulates.”

Implementing a racial equity approach allows us to better address the root causes of racial profiling and race. By focusing on systems rather than individuals, such an approach requires us to reassess and reimagine the rules, policies, and narratives that uphold white supremacy and rob those who are most affected by injustice of their power and self determination. It also challenges us to reexamine how resources are allocated.

A racial equity approach would reach beyond good intentions, the status quo, and tweaking policies and programs where racism is deeply entrenched. It would require bold, intentional, and sustained action.

One of the first steps is to reckon with local and national racial histories and the narratives that shape those histories. While we have a long way to go, I am inspired by local efforts that have moved past conversations of diversity and inclusion to tackle structural racism.

Minneapolis, for example, conducted the first comprehensive map of racial covenants. The city’s recently proposed housing plan seeks to undo some patterns of racial segregation. San Francisco is moving toward becoming the first county in California to eliminate ten common criminal justice administrative fees associated with items like court-ordered alcohol testing, emergency medical response, and electronic monitoring. In Boston, a working group is addressing racial wealth inequities by examining its racial wealth history and focusing on narrative change.

These are vital steps toward acknowledging the power of systems, and weight of history, that shape today’s inequities. They reflect a broader lens that looks beyond the coffee shop, or corner store, or neighborhood park. We look to these cities and counties as examples of responsive leadership, genuinely committed to building engaged communities, empowered to fully participate and bring their full selves to our diverse nation regardless of zip code, race, or gender.

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