How to Have That Tough Conversation About Race, Racism and Racial Identity


The nation—and the world—have been glued to their televisions over the sadness and anger following the death of George Floyd. Scenes unfold of multi-racial crowds of people wearing masks in the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Their hands are raised, they chant “we can’t breathe,” and they carry signs reading everything from “Black Lives Matter” to “Am I Next.” Then there are the images of the many demonstrators being tear-gassed, and others of looting and burning, and still more of both protestors and police officers alike being injured and in some cases killed. It has been heartbreaking, and terrifying.

“I think what I am feeling is that it is an important statement for our community to make about the way we have been treated, about the way we worry about just traversing this society, and the worry that somehow we might be singled out because of our color” says Spencer Crew, the interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, when asked by CBS Radio News how he is feeling personally.

“I think with many others,“ Crew continues, “I am frustrated by that being a norm in society, and I am really hopeful that the kinds of frustration people are expressing will have an impact on those in leadership and help us move forward in terms of the kind of society we should be.”

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the African American History Museum, earlier this week released a searing statement referencing the long list of people of color who have died at the hands of police and others, made even more poignant in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has been disproportionately killing blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in this racially splintered nation.

“Not only have we been forced to grapple with the impact of a global pandemic, we have been forced to confront the reality that, despite gains made in the past 50 years, we are still a nation riven by inequality and racial division. The state of our democracy feels fragile and precarious,” Bunch wrote. “Once again, we struggle to make sense of the senseless. Once again, we bear witness to our country’s troubled history of racial violence, from Freddie Gray and Eric Garner to Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin. Once again, we try to cope as best as we can, whether suffering in silence, participating in protests, or engaging in conversations that evoke all our emotions. Once again, we try to explain to our children that which cannot be explained. Once again, we pray for justice and we pray for peace.”

In the middle of it all, the museum launched the online portal, “Talking About Race,” to help people, educators, communities and families discuss racism, racial identity and how these concepts shape every aspect of our society from politics to the economy to the nation’s culture. The site is chock-full of digital and video tools, exercises and a host of multi-media resources. Crew thinks it will help drive discussions that are clearly critical at this juncture in history.

“The Talking About Race portal is for anyone in a learner stance,” says Candra Flanagan, the museum's director of teaching and learning, adding that there are tools there for anyone who wants to begin or deepen their knowledge and ability to speak about the role of race and racism in this nation.
“The Talking About Race portal is for anyone in a learner stance,” says Candra Flanagan, the museum’s director of teaching and learning, adding that there are tools there for anyone who wants to begin or deepen their knowledge and ability to speak about the role of race and racism in this nation. (Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I think what we know of our work at our museum over many, many years, is that one of the issues that worry people or challenge people the most is the idea of how do you talk about race? . . . We believe our portal will provide tools and guidance and a way of beginning to have those conversations because they are tough conversations,” Crew says.

I think people have a hard time figuring out how to enter into them, how to do them in ways that are fruitful, to do them in a way in which people don’t have to be worried about being judged for what they have to say, but can allow us to grow and to know each other better.”

The portal features eight foundational subjects, among them: “Community Building,” “Bias,” “Historical Foundations of Race,” “Race and Racial Identity,” “Self-Care,” “Social Identities and Systems of Oppression” and “Whiteness.” Crew thinks one of the most important offerings is the section called Being Anti-racist, defined as a “conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily.”

“What it does, is suggest that we all carry biases,” he says, “but we want to be aware of those biases and begin to try to live our lives in a way in which we don’t let those control how we treat and interact with others.”

Anna Hindley, the museum’s director of early childhood education and the education department, along with the museum’s director of teaching and learning, Candra Flanagan, led a team of educators that spent years building the foundation of this portal.

“The work started with some separate experiences both Anna and I were involved in, . . . as we were thinking of how we wanted to bring the stories and the mission of the museum to life,” Flanagan explains. “We both began to come to the conclusion that we really needed to explicitly talk about identity, to talk about pride and love in one’s own identity. . . . And both of us also, we’re looking at the need for explicitly talking about race and identity in age appropriate ways within our own different target audience demographics.”

Hindley says she thought deeply about what race means for young children and their parents, and how this is a lifelong journey that begins the minute a child is born.

“Children are not color blind, and silence keeps children from understanding and learning so we must have these conversations throughout childhood,” Hindley says. “A good first step is to acknowledge and name what children see, which is people come in all different shades of brown. Black and white are labels that are given in our racialized society. For young children, these labels can be confusing when no human is black like a crayon or white like a crayon, but these labels have significant impact on a person’s life.”

“Children are not color blind, and silence keeps children from understanding and learning so we must have these conversations throughout childhood,” says Anna Hindley, the museum's director of early childhood education.
“Children are not color blind, and silence keeps children from understanding and learning so we must have these conversations throughout childhood,” says Anna Hindley, the museum’s director of early childhood education. (Getty Images )

The portal includes published research from a variety of activists, historians and thought leaders ranging from Audre Lorde to Julie Olsen Edwards to Tim Wise and Jerry Kang. Flanagan says she was touched by the work of the prominent anti-racist educator Enid Lee.

“She really has spoken to the educator population about how to do this in the classroom, and that has been really impactful in helping me think about how to continue to support educators and what they’re thinking about,” Flanagan says, “because they are dealing with a lot of different home background cultures that are coming into one space and then having to also speak within a system of their own and having to elevate this somewhat challenging conversation.”

Hindley thinks that the “Self-Care” section in the portal is not only important, but illustrates the fact that she and Flanagan worked on it together and were able to depend on each other in ways that might help so many people of all races deal with the fallout from the continued attacks on people of color as well as the protests that have ensued. Rest and rejuvenation, both women note, make it possible to sustain the continued work on these issues.

“It truly was a complete collaboration where we sat together, just hours and hours and months and months working on each (subject). It came out of our lived experiences of running workshops and facilitating the workshops in person,” Hindley explains. “It was something we identified from the beginning as critical so there would not be burn out, so that’s the self-care and community care piece.”

There is even something to be learned here, Flanagan says, for a white supremacist who might want to reflect on the lens through which they view race.

“The Talking About Race portal is for anyone in a learner stance,” Flanagan says, adding that there are tools there for anyone who wants to begin or deepen their knowledge and ability to speak about the role of race and racism in this nation. “I think there’s absolutely moments and opportunities for someone who might consider themselves very firmly in the white supremacy camp to come and do some learning and some thinking about what these historical foundations of race have been for this country, what the impact is, how the aspect of whiteness and white dominant culture shows up again and what that means.”

This week as charges have now been filed against all four Minneapolis police officers involved in the death of George Floyd, and as protests continue around the globe in the midst of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, both women have deep feelings about how to move forward.

“I feel even more committed to this work,” Hindley says, “and more inspired to continue it and continue my own learning and to think about what I could do as a white person to continue to fight for equity and to uplift black voices and do the work that’s really played out in this portal.”

Flanagan says she feels inspired to want to do more and continue to add to the portal as well as provide more resources to the public at this critical time. “And then as a black woman,” Flanagan says, “particularly with young black male children, thinking about what I need to do and say, and what kind of care our community needs right now to endure these moments.”

Allison Keyes

By : Allison Keyes

Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can currently be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts.

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Coronavirus Pandemic Reveals Our Economic Inequality


The coronavirus crisis reveals deep fissures that have long existed in our country. “Economic Dignity,” a new book by Gene Sperling, a former national economic advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, provides important insight into some of those chasms related to economic inequality. In a vivid and timely way, Sperling’s book highlights the “dissonance between our nation’s labeling of workers as ‘essential’ and ‘heroes’ and their limited wages, benefits and ability to organize.”

The numbers Sperling presents tell some of this story. Almost half of nurses and home health care workers don’t have a single day of paid sick leave, and a million health care workers lack health care coverage themselves. Nurses and orderlies, including those treating Covid-19 patients, are risking their lives every day for an average hourly wage of $14.25. Home health care workers are paid much less, averaging only $11.63.

The concept of dignity is an essential element of the modern human rights landscape. The core international human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 under Eleanor Roosevelt’s bold leadership, starts with “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Though not an explicit part of the U.S. constitutional tradition, human dignity has been invoked as central to our conception of rights by several Supreme Court Justices in the modern era, including William Brennan and Anthony Kennedy.

Sperling’s test for economic dignity rests on three common sense pillars. First, the ability to care for one’s family without economic deprivation or desperation. Second, the opportunity to pursue one’s potential with a sense of purpose and meaning. Third, the ability for each of us to contribute and participate in the economy with respect, free from domination or humiliation. This third pillar, in particular, deserves much greater attention in our world, where economic inequality has become the order of the day.

Many forces contribute to the significant gap between rich and poor. Automation, for example, has displaced millions of mid- and low-wage workers here and abroad. The outsourcing of labor is also a major driver, both in this country and through ever-expanding global supply chains. While both strategies yield significant cost savings to companies and consumers, and can offer jobs to workers around the world, businesses often fail to dedicate sufficient attention and resources to offsetting the negative consequences. Limited government oversight and regulation has contributed to the wealth gap as well. And so has the gospel of shareholder primacy.

Shareholder primacy holds that the central purpose of any business is to maximize shareholder value. Though it now drives investment and business decision-making, shareholder primacy didn’t dominate until the 1970s, when Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago asserted its centrality as a part of the Chicago School’s broader free-market economic ideology. They premised their arguments generally on the belief that markets are fundamentally efficient and, to the extent they fail to maximize broader social welfare, these are problems for governments to solve. Over the last 50 years, shareholder primacy has become the organizing principle of American business, codified in laws that effectively impose on corporate officers and directors a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder returns.

While prioritizing shareholders’ interests may make sense in theory, the coronavirus pandemic should lay to rest any doubts about the inadequacies of Friedman’s mantra in practice. The pandemic has shown us that some of our most valuable workers are also our most vulnerable and least compensated. This is partly because the principal drivers of our financial system are not individual investors but huge institutional intermediaries, like the major investment firms and public pension funds. Many individual investors, for example retirees, would favor long-term, socially valuable business practices. But too often institutional investors focus on the more readily measurable dimensions of corporate performance, such as quarterly earnings, which may also serve their own shorter-term investment priorities. The current economic crisis presents an opportunity to address this disconnect and rethink the role of corporations in our society.

This shift was already beginning—at least rhetorically—before the pandemic decimated our economy. In August 2019, the Business Roundtable, a group of 180 CEOs of the largest corporations, called for a “modern standard of corporate responsibility” reflecting “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,” not just shareholders. Before that, investor Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon, the Chairman and CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, rejected what they termed “an unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term strategy, growth, and sustainability.” In 2017, the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum wrote that “society is best served by corporations that have aligned their goals to serve the long-term goals of society.” And Leo E. Strine Jr., the former Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, has advocated for a more nuanced understanding of shareholder interests and responsibilities than Friedman’s doctrine has come to represent. According to Strine, “to foster sustainable economic growth, stockholders themselves must act like genuine investors, who are interested in the creation and preservation of long-term wealth, not short-term movements of stock price.”

For all of this to change, law and policy must shift. Legally, corporations must be protected from lawsuits when they pursue the long-term interests of the company, its workers, and society, even at a cost to near-term shareholder returns. As Sperling suggests, making decisions “for the welfare of the workers and surrounding community” should not be “damning evidence in a lawsuit” charging a violation of fiduciary duty to shareholders. As he rightly observes, the current structure guarantees that “virtue will not go unpunished.” Instead, virtue must be valued.

To that end, institutional investors will need to be more ambitious in how they evaluate companies and represent the diverse interests of the individuals whose money they invest. So-called ESG strategies that seek to integrate a broader set of environmental, social, and governance concerns offer a promising approach. But the social category needs to be fundamentally re-conceptualized to better measure companies’ efforts to address economic inequality.

In the midst of this horrible health crisis, we have a golden opportunity to reassess our market systems and usher in a new era of longer-term stakeholder capitalism. We owe nothing less to those on the lower end of the economic scale, including our heroic essential workers.

I am the Jerome Kohlberg professor of ethics and finance at NYU Stern School of Business and director of the Center for Business and Human Rights. I served in the Obama Administration from September 2009 until March 2013, as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Prior to that I was the longtime executive director and president of Human Rights First, a U.S.-based human rights advocacy organization. I also was a visiting lecturer at Yale and Columbia law schools. I played a major role in shaping U.S. policy from inside and outside of government on issues ranging from refugee and asylum law and policy, to national security and human rights, to Internet freedom, and most recently on a range of business and human rights issues. I chair the board of the Fair Labor Association, which addresses supply chain labor issues in the apparel, athletic footwear and agriculture sectors.



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