Kellogg challenges the colorblind consensus

By Alan Bean

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently launched a $75 million grant-making program dedicated to racial healing.  “We believe that all children should have equal access to opportunity,” the foundation’s website reads.  “To make this vision a reality, we direct our grants and resources to support racial healing and to remove systemic barriers that hold some children back. We invest in community and national organizations whose innovative and effective programs foster racial healing. And through action-oriented research and public policy work, we are helping translate insights into new strategies and sustainable solutions.”

In an article written for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Dr. Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy, addressed the issue squarely:

The vision that guides the work of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is clear: we envision a nation that marshals its resources to assure that all children thrive.  What may be less self-evident to some is the pernicious and self-perpetuating way in which racism impedes many children’s opportunities to do so.

Then Dr. Christopher got specific:

Today, a number of factors–mass incarceration rates among young males of color, persistent residential racial segregation, concentrated poverty, school failure and extreme poverty, school failure and extreme unemployment within a disproportionate number of communities of color–are combining to create a blatant racial/social caste system in the United States.

Either Dr. Christopher has been reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, or the two women have reached a similar conclusion independently.

When Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom learned of Kellogg’s new racial healing program, he was outraged.  In a scathing indictment in the Wall Street Journal, the seventy-seven year-old neo-conservative challenged the notion that racism is to blame for the struggles of minority youth.  This extended excerpt will give you the gist:

What evidence convinced Kellogg that racism is such a clear-and-present danger to the children of America today? Foundation officials point to racial and ethnic disparities: Hispanics and blacks, for example, have much higher poverty rates than whites, and are far less likely to have completed college.

Well, yes. We did know that. But is it self-evident that these economic and educational differences are simply or even largely “the consequences of racism?” Might these disparities perhaps have something to do with the fact that many millions of Latino immigrants with an average of only eight years of schooling have flooded into the U.S.? It is not exactly surprising that they typically earn much less than native-born Americans, and that very few of them can afford to devote several years to getting a high school and then a college education.

As for African-Americans, black students in their final year of high school have reading and math skills no better than those of whites and Asians who are still in the eighth grade. Their prospects of going on to graduate from college and to earn a decent income are inevitably not good. One obvious cause of the sharp disparities is the overwhelming preponderance of black single-parent families, a pattern that would not magically disappear if every scintilla of remaining racism vanished overnight.

For the past three decades, Stephan and his wife, Abigail Thernstrom, have made their way in the world by assuring conservative white people that poor minorities are completely responsible for their own problems.  The argument goes something like this:

  1. History ended in 1965.  While a solid majority of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, subsequent attempts to close the racial achievement  gap through affirmative action legislation have produced a nation of black and brown whiners.
  2. If young black males would get a job, get married and stop selling drugs and mugging innocent people, the achievement gap would begin to close.
  3. Any attempt to redress the suffering of poor people of color that doesn’t begin and end with a call to personal responsibility will make a bad situation worse.

This perspective, known to the cognoscenti as “racial realism”, passes for common sense in neo-conservative and libertarian circles.  If you don’t believe in social programs, it’s reassuring to know that they are invariably counter-productive. 

If only it were that simple.  In their 2003 book Whitewashing Race, Martin Carnoy et al presented a tightly reasoned refutation of racial realism:

Many conservatives are so preoccupied with attributing poverty to “bad behavior” that they neglect obvious economic causes and ignore the problem’s racial dimensions. Changes in family structure are much less important than employment and wages, both of which depend on robust economic growth and viable economic opportunities. Yet because of labor market discrimination and entrenched residential segregation, poor blacks have limited access to these opportunities. 

This is essentially the position of William Julius Wilson, the Harvard sociology professor who famously argued that social class, not race, has become the primary issue in American life and that programs designed to improve the lot of all poor people, regardless of race, will receive a better reception from the American public.  Wilson attributes the plight of the urban poor to the mass migration of unskilled urban jobs to the suburbs, the southern states and the third world.

Wilson has recently reformulated his position in response to the growing cult of colorblindness and the strain of gross racial insensitivity manifest in the Tea Party movement.  “The question is not whether the policy should be race-neutral or universal,” Wilson wrote recently, “the question is whether the policy is framed to facilitate a frank discussion of the problems that ought to be addressed and to generate broad political support to alleviate them.  In framing public policy, I not only feel that it would be a mistake to shy away from the explicit discussion of the specific issues of race and poverty but also that we should highlight them in our attempt to convince Americans that there is an urgent need to address them.  The issues of race and poverty should be framed in such a way to not only generate a sense of fairness and justice to combat inequality, but also to make people aware that our country would be better off if these problems were seriously addressed and eradicated.”

“I now see the need,” Wilson confesses, “in this atmosphere of “reactionary colorblindness,” to strongly emphasize both class-based and race-based programs, couched in a very strong and consistent message featuring a political framing that captures basic American values.

Wilson’s nuanced position overlaps considerably with Kellogg’s racial healing initiative.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Friends of Justice has received grant support from the Kellogg Foundation and William Julius Wilson served on our advisory board for several years.)

In an attempt to start a “courageous conversation” with its critics, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation sponsored a conference in Washington DC in which Dr. Christopher and Sterling Speirn, Kellogg’s President and CEO, could hash things out with Stephan Thernstrom and Ron Christie, a conservative African-American who once worked as an aid to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.  You can view the entire two-hour event here, but if you don’t have that kind of time I offer a brief summary and critique.

 Those who attended this event hoping to be exposed to new ideas or a frank exchange of ideas came away disappointed. 

Stephan Thernstrom’s vigorous critique of Kellogg’s racial healing approach in the Wall Street Journal stands in stark contrast to his labored, confused and uninspired presentation at the conference.  He frequently got tangled up in his own notes and spoke as if a mixture of scorn and derision should pass for honest intellectual engagement.  

After three decades of firing broadsides at anyone more progressive than Newt Gingrich, the father of colorblind ideology is running on empty.  The message, though garbled, was familiar enough: if black people would get married, get a job and stop assaulting law abiding white people all would be well.  When the Harvard professor finally took his seat, he was greeted with a smattering of polite applause.  The audience was clearly unimpressed.

Ron Christie faired little better.  He has recently published a book decrying the term “acting white.”  Christie, like his political mentors, Clarence Thomas and J.C. Watts, has prospered by being the black guy who says racism is dead in our colorblind America.  Regardless of the controversy, Christie pops up on television (most commonly on FOX News) insisting that racism has nothing to do with anything. 

During his remarks at the conference in Washington, Christie paid homage to Bill Cosby’s rant against the black urban poor before ridiculing the 90% of African-Americans who voted for Barack Obama.  You don’t see white people voting for the white candidate strictly on the basis of skin color, he said.

If not a single white person had ever been elected president, you can bet that 90% of white people would line up behind a white candidate.  But Christie, like most black conservatives, can’t admit that mainstream black opinion is ever rooted in historical reality.  His message is as simple as it is embarrassing: if black people would start acting like white people, their troubles would be over.

Having delivered his standard stump speech, Christie ducked out of the room.  He had to catch a two o’clock train back to New York, he explained, so he could pow wow with an important client.

The Kellogg Foundation’s Christopher and Speirn gave cautious, carefully worded presentations emphasizing the importance of honest dialogue, nuanced argument and balanced analysis.  Those who live and move within the advocacy community or sociology departments were doubtlessly hoping for a more combative approach.  B progressives easily forget that, outside our tiny circles of influence, the gospel of colorblindess drives American public policy in the legislature and the courtroom.  When a mainstream and eminently respectable foundation says no to colorblind orthodoxy, it is stepping outside the protective shell of the great American consensus.  That’s not a comfortable place to be.

The only fireworks generated by this “courageous conversation” (Speirn’s expression) came from members of the audience. 

Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise was first to the microphone.  Woodson is yet another black conservative who has prospered handsomely from his embrace of colorblind orthodoxy.  I first heard his schtick nine years ago at a conference in DC.  Then as now, he argued that poor black people have been transformed into a community of victimization by an opportunistic black elite.

In Woodson’s defense, he is plugged into the stark social realities of the inner city.  Consider this:

If you all you do is remove the children and try to change them, and externally alter the institutions in those communities, you fail to address the real substance of why young people, families and communities fail. There is a culture of failure that must be changed and overturned. Detention, suspensions, and other repressive measures do not work because these kids have been sanctioned all their lives. Many of them already are victims of abuse and neglect, and they don’t even fear death. As one young man said, “It is better to be wanted for murder than not to be wanted at all.” You cannot confront a value crisis like that through tutoring, or teacher training, or uniforms or class sizes.

“If racism were the problem in America,” Woodson asked Dr. Christopher, “then how do you explain black on black dysfunction. Washington DC leads the nation in 21 separate categories of poverty expenditures . . . we have the highest performing blacks coexisting with the highest mortality rate for our children, living in the same city? If racism were the issue, why are not all Blacks suffering equally? We have 3,000 blacks each month dying at the hands of other blacks, in violence. That’s like a 9-11 every six months. And they are failing at school systems run by their own people. We have five social service systems in some form of court-ordered receivership, incompetently served by people of color. They are being sentenced to jail by black prosecutors, judges. And so the question is, how would looking at these problems through the prism of race address that? If the perpetrators of the evil are people of color, explain how institutional racism addresses that.”

Realizing that Mr. Woodson (like most people who ask questions at events of this sort) was making a speech in the form of a question, Dr. Christopher asked him how he would respond to his own query.  Seeing this counter-question as an evasion, Woodson refused to respond.

“We could have a conversation about violence and what begets violence,” Christopher acknowledged.  “We could have a conversation about many social dislocations and what happens, personally, to put one at greater risk to do that. The prism, the context of poverty, the context of lack of opportunity contributes to that. We are not saying that racism is the only problem. There are many, many challenges to improving outcomes in all of our communities. We think that the legacy of racism is a factor to be considered. Most of what happens in our society today to solve social problems does not include that factor. And so we are bringing that factor to the array of dynamics to be considered.”

Asked if more legislation was the answer, Christopher gave another response reminiscent of Michelle Alexander’s position. “Do we need more laws against discrimination? . . . Our premise in this work in terms of America healing is that you can change laws, but until you change hearts you really aren’t going to change things.”

 This is a compelling argument.  The gospel of colorblindness controls the national consensus so thoroughly that legislative and legal arguments must be framed in race-neutral terms.  We either accept that fact or we work to change the consensus.  It appears that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has decided to move into the consensus-changing business and this likely explains the care people like Gail Christopher use in making their case.  When you are merely appealing to a well-defined basis you are free to trade in cliches and weary maxims; when you are trying to change the national consensus you have to find that delicate point of intersection between the truth as you understand it and the perceptions of your audience. 

We can only pray that other high-profile foundations will follow Kellogg’s willingness to challenge the cult of colorblindness.

2 thoughts on “Kellogg challenges the colorblind consensus

  1. Dr. Christopher gives hope that there may be an emerging generation of black intellectuals and leaders who have achieved enough stature and clarity to set aside the temptation to be seen as exceptional, who can pause on the mountaintop, look down at the path they have taken, and ask, “Where are the rest of us?” Woodson’s impassioned critique, though right wing in intent, is germane and needs to be taken seriously. As much as he would hate seeing it this way, its systemic description stands as a rebuke to the Bill Cosby/Barack Obama “step up to the plate” victim blaming of black men as failed fathers and by implication blaming the wanton black women they don’t marry for producing all those single-parent black child criminals. He is right to ask why there are black-run school systems failing their populations of black students, and social services incompetently served by people of color, and black judges, prosecutors, cops and jailers in a criminal justice system conducting a racially biased war on people of color. He might not like the answer, though. His questions ask in effect, is there a black middle class of overseers who have grown up in the time of affirmative action who need consciousness raising and leadership to engage the systemic nature of these oppressive conditions into which they have become conscripted? Is the post-civil rights black middle class a possible source for new agents of change to become part of the new solutions instead of part of the same old problem? People like Gail Christopher and Michelle Alexander allow us to hope so.

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