Still Much Work Ahead on Racial Justice

By Agustin V. Arbulu, Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights

Published in the Detroit News on July 27, 2017 

On a warm July night in 1967, my father, then a young surgeon, got a call from the hospital.  “Doc, we need you.” Papa told me later that police escorted him all the way to Detroit Receiving. He was gone for days.

When he finally came home, he was exhausted and shell-shocked. He told us about the never-ending stream of wounded and dying in and out of his surgery. I will never forget what he said. 

“Agustin, there were bodies everywhere.  It was like a war zone.”

I was 17 and had just graduated from Dearborn’s Edsel Ford High. We had immigrated to Detroit from Peru four years earlier. Mixed with my Hispanic heritage is DNA from Africa and Asia; I did not look like most of my classmates. In my new Michigan home, I experienced first-hand the bias and racism that people of color in Detroit had spent their entire lives immersed in.

As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of those explosive days, it would be wrong to argue that little has changed, or that the poverty, racism and the lack of opportunity that helped spark the Detroit rebellion have not improved.

But just how successful have we been in narrowing the gaps between white and black?  Research tells us it’s a mixed bag.  Differences in household income, wealth, and homeownership are as wide or wider today than they were in 1967. The incarceration rate for black men is more than six times higher than that of white men, and slightly higher than in 1960. But the gap in high school completion rates between blacks and whites has narrowed, as has the difference in life expectancy.

Two troubling indicators stand out. Since 2007, the gap in income and wealth between blacks and whites has widened. And the difference in the poverty rate between black and white families has increased since 1984, the year researchers began measuring it.

Analyzing 16 indicators of racial equality and integration, a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center ranked Michigan near the bottom of all the states: 45th overall, 44th in employment and wealth, 38th in education and civic engagement, 46th in health.

We have a lot of work yet to do. I believe if we want to build a multiracial, pluralistic society, we must focus on 3 key principles.

  1. Make equity our goal.  We cannot focus solely on diversity and inclusion; we must shift our attention toward equity.  If equality means everyone has the same resources, equity means everyone has the resources they need to compete on an equal footing. The playing field is not level under all of us. Policies and practices long in place have gouged out the ground on which some of us stand. We must target ways to fill in those holes.
  2. Recognize unconscious, or implicit, bias. The human brain is efficient, making instantaneous judgements based on stereotypes and past conditioning that directly affect our actions. We all have these unconscious impulses, we all act on them, and we are almost always unaware that we do. But implicit bias does not have to be permanent. We can reprime our brains over time. Awareness is an important first step toward reducing the power implicit bias has over us.
  3. Focus on racial impact, not racial intent.  If everyone is motivated by unconscious bias – actions and reactions based on conditioning that operates outside of our awareness – then looking only at racial intent makes little sense. Most people don't want to be racists and don’t believe they are. While we must stand up to overt racism whenever it appears, we must also focus on changing the structural and embedded policies, processes and practices that lead to racially-disparate outcomes in areas such as education, housing, employment and health.

We live in challenging times, especially when it comes to issues of racial justice. To do the work that remains, we must build up our emotional muscle. For people of color, the recent flare up of racial hatred and the reflection on a dark time 50 years ago touches on some very old, very deep wounds. Rumi, the great Muslim poet, said, “The wound is where the light enters you.”  As I remember the painful events of 1967, I am determined to look for the light. I hope you will as well.