systems thinking and racial equity

Professor john powell (he does not capitalize his name) gave a webinar recently through our colleagues at the Leadership Learning Community.  In the webinar, a recording of which is available on line, powell talked about how systems thinking and a structural lens can inform our work for racial justice and deepen our understanding of racial disparities.

Some of the many points he makes:

  • “Colorblindness” assumes that the major problem in our society is race, not racism. Attempting to ignore race is not the same as creating equality. Racism has effects on a systemic level even without individual racists or racist behaviors.
  • Disparities (in income, health, employment, education) can’t be understood in isolation. They are embedded in systems in which there are many interactions and feedback loops.
  • Segregation is a system of rationing opportunity by race. Neighborhoods with high proportions of African American residents have many fewer opportunities for healthy food, good health care, quality education, safety, etc. And this lack of opportunity maintains the system despite interventions that only target one of these issues in isolation.
  • In an interesting example, the GI Bill is often characterized as a quintessential policy that created a strong American middle class. But it was introduced in a time of racial segregation when almost all soldiers were white men, so very few others had access to the college funds and mortgage assistance the GI Bill provided. As a result, it actually increased inequality between the races. By 1984 when those mortgages had mostly matured, avg white household wealth was 10 times that of black households. 
  • “A rising tide lifts all boats” only works if everyone starts out with roughly similar boats, or even having a boat at all. Yachts rise faster than leaky rafts, and some without boats will drown in rising inequality.
  • Equality, not total wealth, is the best indicator of a healthy society. As inequality increases, health and life expectancy decrease, even for the wealthiest class. (cf the book, The Spirit Level).
  • When Americans talk about race and racism, we almost always talk about African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos, sometimes Asian Americans, but we rarely talk about white people (the privilege of being the “generic” category, which is a result of culture and power). But the “flipside” of disparities is the distribution of opportunity to white people, as in the GI Bill, whether or not it is intentional, not just the withholding of opportunity from people of color.

How to address all this through systems thinking? See the webinar and upcoming posts for some of powell’s suggestions.

This entry was posted in achievement gap, Bias, Changing the Discourse, racial equity, Structural Racism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to systems thinking and racial equity

  1. Uncle Sam says:

    You are right on target. How do we get Black people to look inwardly and create power within the group to counter the external forces. This is called leverage. I think the small study group which emphasizes reading and studying of systems thinking concepts in children would be one long term approach.

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