Moving America Forward

Can You Really Improve Race Relations in a Country Divided?

September 12, 2016
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Can You Really Improve Race Relations in a Country Divided?
Members of MoveOn.org Political Action stand up against the hate, racism, and incitement of violence that have proliferated in recent years. Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for MoveOn.org Political Action
It sounds impossible, but community organizers and other experts say yes. Here are six ways you can help enact change.

A video surfaces, showing the harrowing killing of an African-American at the hands of police. Black Lives Matter protesters take to the streets, where demonstrations sometimes turn violent. It’s a narrative becoming all too familiar in early 21st-century America, where recent polls show 69 percent of citizens believe race relations are generally poor; that’s among the highest levels of pessimism on the issue since the Los Angeles riots in 1992. In this environment, improving race relations might seem an impossible task. But the good news is that there are easy, practical steps we can all take to help bridge racial divides in our communities. We asked some of the most knowledgeable experts on the issue to show us how.

Educate yourself

“I think step one is for people to spend some time learning about the historical timeline, going all the way back to slavery and beyond, so they can really begin to understand why disparities exist in the first place. And I would recommend that people take more time to just listen, rather than just defend themselves around these issues. Talk to people who have lived in this skin every day — people who have first-hand experience with the obstacles that an unjust criminal justice system places on our communities.

“It’s also important to critically assess any organization that plays a part in these issues. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and some organizations perpetuate that misinformation and the horizontal divisions within our communities. Where does a particular organization’s money come from? What are the arguments and materials it is putting into the community? How does it engage with marginalized populations? What are its tactics and what is off-limits for the organization? What does the organization’s staff look like? And look at its success rate: What have they done? Have they had real impact on the issues they are fighting for?”

— Alex Landau, survivor of a 2009 Denver police assault, co-founder of the Denver Justice Project, and community organizer with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition

Foster new relationships

“Oftentimes, when I think about the circle of people I associate with, it’s people who look a lot like me. The only way that is going to change is if we are intentional about it. All of us need to ensure we have real relationships with people who are different from us, not just racially or culturally but in terms of sexual orientation and other ways. We need to feel comfortable talking about our differences and across our differences.

“It demands a bit of courage to take the first step. Maybe it’s meeting the neighbor down the street you see leaving each morning and coming home each night. Maybe it’s visiting a church that is more racially or politically diverse, or going to a different kind of social event or sporting event or neighborhood event. Or volunteer somewhere. The situation demands us to take affirmative action.”

— Paul Schnell, chief of police in Maplewood, Minn.

Churches can play a large part in bringing together members of a community.Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Reach out to the right people

“You have to start by looking at whom has been in charge of repairing race relations in the first place. The people who are always at the head of the table always look the same. When talking about race relations and restorative justice, we need to get people of color to the head of the table. The people who are facing oppression and who have been overcoming these challenges their entire lives are going to be the ones who will know how to repair the damage and prevent more from happening in the future.

“It’s as simple as extending that invitation. You go to the communities that are most impacted and let the people there know that you want them to be part of the conversation. You go into public housing or the projects and knock on doors and say, ‘We are going to be talking about mass incarceration and restorative justice, and we want to invite you to this meeting.’ And if you can’t contribute your time, give $20 a month to ensure people who are knocking on doors have lunch every day.”

Brandon J. Holmes, organizer at New York Civil Liberties Union

Work to diversify local institutions

“If you are trying to address institutional inequities, think about the institutions you work with. One place to start is by analyzing how race plays out in your workforce. Does your workforce represent the demographics of your community, and does diversity spread across all positions in your workplace? Also, churches and faith-based places of worship are among the most segregated institutions. So have conversations at your church about why this is. You have to look at why people feel welcome in some places and not others.

“Finally, create something like a racial-equity action team at the schools your children attend, where parents and teachers can come together. Eighty-five percent of teachers in the United States are white. That’s demographically different than what we see in our communities. That is not something that we can change overnight, but all children do better when they have a racially diverse set of teachers.”

Julie Nelson, director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity

Support smarter policing

“Most of the solutions to reduce or stop police brutality need to happen on the local level. For example, study after study shows that if you require police to have as little as a two-year degree or as much as a four-year degree, police brutality goes down by 8 to 10 percent. The reasons are really basic: If you have a four-year degree, you have spent four years around a wide variety of people. Your analytical skills are better, your writing is better — there are all these downstream effects.

“Several studies suggest as many as 25 percent of police forces struggle with alcohol dependence, and 10 to 12 percent are struggling with drug addiction. Police should be subjected to random drug testing, like NFL players, and any use of force should trigger a drug and sobriety test. Every police officer in America should have at least three nonlethal weapons on their body, namely a Taser, pepper spray and a baton. And local prosecutors should not be allowed to try brutality cases involving local police, because police and prosecutors are the left hand and right hand of the same body. We need independent and special prosecutors who don’t work with police on a daily basis to investigate these issues, whether it is corruption or cases of police brutality.

“These are really reasonable solutions to advocate for. Each of them will likely only reduce police brutality by 2 or 3 percent. But when combined, it could equal some real changes.”

Shaun King, senior justice writer for the New York Daily News

Bolster the watchdogs

“Help support your local police oversight agency. There are only about 140 of them in the United States, which means many communities don’t have an agency, but most large urban areas do. So ask your oversight agency, ‘What do you need in order to succeed?’ And then you organize. You talk to like-minded people, you canvass like-minded neighborhoods. And you get the attention of your legislators and government leaders, and make sure they are giving the program the tools it needs to succeed. For example, in Denver, people are working to add the Office of the Independent Monitor, which provides civilian oversight of the police department, to the city charter where it won’t be threatened by political whims.

“If you don’t have a police oversight agency, lobby for one. Look to established civil rights organizations like the ACLU to see who might be willing or able to take on that role. If you are just trying to knock something down, you will not have the same voice as if you are working to build something up.”

Richard Rosenthal, former independent police monitor for British Columbia, Denver and Portland, Ore.

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