The Next 50 Years: Time for Culture Change on Racial Justice

Today's America looks vastly different from the one that ushered in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet these demographic changes may not mean much to uplift communities of color without updated anti-discrimination laws.
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This week, four U.S. presidents and thought leaders are convening at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The agenda includes discussions around immigration, criminal justice, voting rights and economic inequality from the standpoint of women, people of color, the disabled, and LGBTQ communities. While there has been much progress in addressing civil rights violations in employment and housing contexts over the past 50 years, there have also been regressions (for example, with voting rights) as well as new civil rights frontiers that have emerged. As we look ahead to the next 50 years, we need to develop a racial equity framework that reflects the dynamics taking shape in our country today.

Today's America looks vastly different from the one that ushered in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It's evident that our schools, workforces and neighborhoods are becoming increasingly diverse as America transforms into becoming a majority-minority country by 2040. Yet these demographic changes may not mean much to uplift communities of color without updated anti-discrimination laws, honest public dialogues about the impact of both systemic racial disparities and individual implicit biases, and solidarity building between communities of color. Here are a few starting points to guide the development of a framework that reflects America's new racial landscape:

From Legal Change to Culture Change
Anti-discrimination laws and policies, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fundamentally changed the legal responsibilities of employers, educational institutions and governmental agencies. But a culture change in the way we treat and perceive one another also needs to happen in order to combat racism effectively. As our country's demographics shift, the level of racial anxiety is also rising. We will likely hear false and divisive narratives such as "We are losing the true America" to "We no longer need to address racial inequity because we are truly post-racial and color-blind." In order to shift these narratives, we need to change the ways in which communities of color are perceived in society. Our political leaders, including the four presidents speaking at the Civil Rights Summit this week, can set the tone for such a culture change to occur. They can raise our level of civil and political discourse to one that respects communities of color, and sets expectations about how we treat each other.

Race-Plus, Not Just Race-Only
Traditional race-only approaches and solutions to racism do not reflect the complex ways in which communities of color experience inequity and discrimination. In the post-9/11 environment, for example, Sikhs and Muslims experience profiling because of their national origin and religious status -- in addition to race. LGBT individuals of color face discrimination at the workplace because of their race and sexual orientation. Working class women of color encounter greater disadvantages due to their gender, class and race. Our laws and policies must address the multidimensional ways in which discrimination occurs.

Beyond Diversity to Equity
Cultural competency trainings and diversity plans have been staples in workplaces and schools for decades now. While these strategies help us better understand each other, they cannot by themselves address systemic racial disparities that exist. We must also confront the root causes of racial disparities, whether they occur at workplaces or whether they keep people of color from accessing health care, education or jobs. Using racial equity assessments is one strategy to help prevent institutional racism and address disparities.

Solidarity Across Communities of Color
For decades, communities of color have been focused on building our own houses in order to confront the impact of systemic racism. But, we have more in common than we might believe. Successful multi-racial organizing efforts in the taxi driver, restaurant and domestic worker industries have shown us that we must come together across racial lines in order to secure basic rights for all. In a majority-minority America, preserving racial privilege and constructing racial hierarchies will be detrimental to our ability to build power.

The Civil Rights Summit in Austin this week gives us an opportunity to learn from the past 50 years -- and to imagine how racial justice in our country could look and feel, in the next 50 years to come.

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