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Facing the Facts

Like much of the country, communities in Northeast Ohio responded to the death of George Floyd, captured on video by bystanders, with a mix of disbelief, sadness and outrage.  His death galvanized the country and caused many of us to reconsider the state of racial justice and equity in the United States.  The Cleveland City Council passed a resolution citing racism as a public health crisis.  The Greater Cleveland Partnership asked its member organizations to join in making a pledge to address, and correct structural racism in our society.  Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging is among the organizations that made that pledge.

There is perhaps no more difficult conversation to have in the United States than discussions around race.  We have an ideal in America, that all are created equal.  That people are judged, as Martin Luther King said, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  It is something that we want to believe.  Discrimination is illegal in hiring, housing and the right to vote.  “We elected a Black President.” “Racism is a thing of the past.” But is it?

Recent events in the news remind us that we have far to go as a nation and society. Structural racism is “the public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity” (Aspen Institute, 2016). One does not have to be racist to be the beneficiary (or the victim) of structural racism.  That is part of the challenge.  How do we identify structural racism?  And once we can see it, what do we do about it?  It is a difficult conversation and one that is long overdue.  It is a conversation that should include all of us.

As protests took place across the country over the several past weeks, many people have invoked the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King is an American icon today, remembered as a powerful voice for freedom and justice, and the role of protest.  But during his lifetime, he was often a polarizing figure.  In 1963, an ecumenical group of ministers publicly rebuked his efforts to address racism in their city.  Sixty years later, his Letter from Birmingham Jail is still an eloquent call for change:

“…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.  Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.”

As a social services organization that works with older adults and family caregivers, much of our focus at Benjamin Rose is on vulnerable populations: people who are often unseen and unheard.  They are often poor. They experience chronic health conditions that make it harder to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) that others may take for granted. Language, transportation and technology barriers may make it difficult to access services or obtain benefits.  Benjamin Rose addresses these “social determinants of health” as we seek to improve the health, independence and dignity of folks at risk. Racial and structural bias is not the only factor affecting poverty, housing, hunger and health.  But it cannot be ignored. Legislation to prohibit racist and discriminatory practices are recent, and the laws, culture and norms they sought to address are deeply embedded in our history.   

Not all barriers are deliberate.  Not all bias is intentional.  That is part of what makes the conversation so difficult. Exploring structural inequality includes consideration of unintended consequences.  We must not be satisfied with good intentions.  We must strive to do better. We can begin that conversation by accepting that things can be better.  And, then, we can work together to make it so.