Can a person, by their very existence in this country, be illegal? Or is an action to cross a border without proper documentation the law-breaking act? On the flip side, does using the terms “illegal immigrants” or “anchor babies” mean a person’s entire viewpoint is clouded by racism? Broadly speaking, are we all responsible for an unequal system that justifies racial profiling, even if we don’t overtly employ the practice ourselves?
Race is a fraught topic in American politics. There are no easy answers to its age-old questions, and the discussion is all too easily derailed by accusations of ignorance or racism. Rinku Sen, president and executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Race Forward, is attempting to change the dialogue about race in the United States. Bringing her immigrant background and a journalist’s reliance on facts to the conversation, her seminars and stories in Colorlines, Race Forward’s daily news publication, teach people to see the structural inequalities — in education, law enforcement, housing and employment — that are an everyday reality for minority populations in America.
“People have a really narrow definition of what racism is. In most Americans’ minds, racism is always individual, it’s intentional and it’s overt. The thing is, that racism takes on an astonishing number of forms. Many of them are unconscious, and they’re systemic and they’re hidden,” she says. “The question that we start with isn’t, ‘Who’s a racist?’ The question that we start with is, ‘What’s causing racial inequity?’”
Sen’s family arrived in the States from India in 1972, when she was only five years old. They settled in Ellenville, a small community in upstate New York. “There were no other Indian immigrants. It was a really white existence,” she recalls. “In order to survive and make it through, I had to suppress most notions of myself as a person of color.”
That self-effacement of her ethnicity lasted until her sophomore year at Brown University, when a racial incident the first week of school in 1984 sparked her interest in activism. “My friends wanted me to go to the rally [the day after the incident], and I said no. They said, ‘Rinku, you’re not a girl anymore; you’re a woman now. And you’re not a minority; you’re a person of color,’” Sen says. “The next day I went to the rally, and for the first time since we had immigrated, I felt like I was with people that I belonged with.”
Sen translated that energy — and her newfound pride in her culture — into three decades of work focused on race. For half that time, she worked as a community organizer before beginning to feel that her work focused on the wrong areas. “Even though I was proud of many of the things that we had won locally, I felt like we had really lost influence on big issue areas: policing, education, housing,” she says.
She became more involved in Race Forward, where she was already working as communications director, because so many issues seemed to link back to structural inequalities based on race. After attending journalism school to hone her ability to “change the way the public thinks about something,” Sen instituted her theories of social progressive action — focusing on equity, rather than diversity.
“Diversity only speaks to variety and the kinds of people that are in the room. It doesn’t actually speak to power and what people are able to do once they are in the room,” she says. “We are in a strategy where we really have to reboot how the movement talks about and thinks about racism.”