The Racial Injustice of American Highways

Thousands of peaceful protesters in the Twin Cities occupied Interstate 94 over the weekend as they marched from the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul to Minneapolis. For the region’s African-American community, which has been leading the ongoing protests over the fatal arrest of George Floyd and the use of police force on black Americans, the concrete they were standing on bears significant meaning.

It was this highway that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, tore apart the once-thriving neighborhood of Rondo — the heart of St. Paul’s largest African-American community — and helped spur decades of racial segregation in the region.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz acknowledged as much during a Saturday press conference. “It wasn’t just physical — it ripped a culture, it ripped who we were. It was an indiscriminate act that said this community doesn’t matter, it’s invisible,” he said. “This convenient place to put a highway so we can cross over this place and go from the city out to the suburbs.”

This kind of destruction and devastation are familiar to older African Americans in other cities across the U.S., whose communities were decimated by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. And as protesters take over major highways — from I-630 in Little Rock, Arkansas, I-40 in Memphis, Tennessee,  I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio — the symbolism has not been lost on some of those marching.

The relationship between highways and racial injustice exemplifies the kinds of systemic issues that many protesters are now seeking to challenge. Policies that on their face may have appeared to be about easing transportation barriers and revitalizing cities were — and still are — often rooted in longstanding racial prejudice, and carried with them cascading effects that worsened pre-existing inequalities.

“The cities were already segregated, and what happens is that these freeways can act as concretizing the barriers to integration that exist,” said Joseph DiMento, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the co-author of the book “Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways.”

Starting in the 1950s, state and local officials bought into the idea that highways would be welcomed as revitalization tools for struggling downtowns by reducing commuting costs and improving accessibility, which would in turn make those areas inviting to businesses. This interest in highway-building came around the same time as a movement for massive “urban renewal” projects that razed neighborhoods considered blighted. It’s no coincidence that many of these were low-income and black neighborhoods into which discriminatory housing practices after the Great Depression discouraged investment. Affected communities often protested proposals that demolished or tore through their own neighborhoods. But in many cities, protests couldn’t stop plans from barreling forward.

In St. Paul, when white suburbanites shifted from mass transit to automobiles and began calling for easy access into the Twin Cities and between their business corridors, running an expressway through the neighborhood of Rondo became the obvious option. It conveniently sat between the two cities’ downtown cores.

During the first half of the 20th century, Rondo residents were mostly middle and working class, and many owned homes and businesses. The neighborhood had an abundance of gathering places that helped foster a vibrant music, theater and sports scene. And as home to several black newspapers and to the city’s chapter of the NAACP, Rondo was also an active civil rights hub.

Black leaders objected to the highway plan, but without the same political influence as a white community, their concerns about the life of the neighborhood and the future of people in it fell largely on deaf ears. Construction began September 1956, just a few months after Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act that initiated the building of the highway system, and by 1968, a vast roadway spanning multiple lanes sliced down the middle of Rondo.

Local historians estimate that more than 300 businesses were destroyed, and more than 600 families lost their home. Some had little choice but to sell their property to the city at a fraction of its value, while those who resisted were forcibly removed. Thousands of residents were left to find a new place to live in a region where officials deliberately used redlining practices and racial housing covenants to restrict home sales to African Americans.

DiMento’s research documented similar costs to African Americans when highways tore through other cities. In Syracuse, New York, for example, many of those displaced were low-income renters whose buildings were condemned and razed for the development of I-81.“They weren’t welcomed in white communities and in suburbs, so their dispersion throughout the existing less economically viable parts of city took place,” he said.

In city after city, black residents who were left behind in their cut-up neighborhood were now walled off by these highways in “border vacuums” with far more limited access to job opportunities across town. “It’s just quite remarkable how little fluidity there is across these barriers.” DiMento said.

Between high rates of unemployment, population loss and lowered land values, the effects of racial segregation carried over to generations of residents. In the Twin Cities today, only 25% of black families are homeowners, a rate that remains almost as low as the years right after the opening of I-94. The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made housing discrimination illegal, has done little to mitigate the damage from segregation.

The U.S. continues to fund roadway expansion over public transit infrastructure — exacerbating the economic and health disparities among African Americans. As Governor Walz emphasized Saturday, the continual push for those projects still says to communities that they are, for all intents and purposes, invisible.

Taking protests to those very highways is in that sense a pursuit of visibility. It’s not just in the demonstrations for George Floyd, but in past uprisings over police brutality as well: Dozens shut down I-94 in 2016 after police killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in a Minnesotan suburb. And in 2014, mass protests stalled traffic on 101 freeway in Los Angeles and highways in several other cities to demand justice for 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 18-year old Michael Brown — both shot dead by white police officers in separate incidents.

“I don’t know how the decision was made to protest on the freeways but I think it has an interesting symbolic gesture,” DiMento said. “Freeways move people out of inner cities to the suburbs; freeways are escape routes from the lower-income areas. They represent decisions made by the powerful that have historically served people who didn’t live in the poor communities.”

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Racial Equity is a Marathon: Honoring Past Labor and the Work to Come

Across the country, we are seeing elected officials and career-long public servants rise to the challenges of COVID19 while centering the needs of their most vulnerable communities. Its important to reflect on their response and acknowledge the hard work that has happened pre-COVID to make an equitable response possible.

Mayors wasted little time in bringing attention to racial disparities of COVID-19’s impact on their community. In April, the 500 member African-Americans Mayors Association issued a letter to the President requesting race, ethnicity and supply chain data on testing and cases, PPE, and individuals losing company-sponsored health insurance due to job loss. In an interview with CNN, Philadelphia’s Mayor Kenney said, “Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes, and the like, and that is just as much a tragedy and as much as a crisis in this country, as the coronavirus is.” The Mayor moved testing sites into Philadelphia’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods to do “everything we can do and shows like this hopefully will also impact people to understand that this is really serious, and we don’t want to lose you.”

“Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes, and the like, and that is just as much a tragedy and as much as a crisis in this country, as the coronavirus is.”

Many mayors have been forming racial equity-focused taskforces. “In response to the shockingly disproportionate impact this disease has had on our communities, [Chicago’s] Racial Equity Rapid Response taskforce (RERRT) is working aggressively and in close collaboration with local leaders and partners to mount a public health response that addresses the specific and contextualized needs of our residents and families.” Mayor Lightfoot’s taskforce was first created to address the spike in cases among Chicago’s African American community. The taskforce is expanding their scope to address the surge of cases in Latinx neighborhoods with an equally potent response.

When Mayor Libby Schaff announced Oakland’s Racial Disparity Taskforce, she said in this news video “We must take this unprecedented pandemic to create an unprecedented justice for people of color and vulnerable residents.” Oakland’s taskforce is developing a COVID-19 Vulnerability Index measure to inform decisions. Meanwhile Pittsburgh’s Mayor Peduto has used a virtual bully pulpit to communicate his commitment to racial equity. This video is first in a series on COVID-19 and equity discussions with his staff. Recently, Pittsburgh’s council approved the creation of a racial equity taskforce.

[Similar Task Forces: Louisiana/Governor Edwards, Massachussetts, Greater Flint, Michigan and the state Michigan].

“People in the community are READY. They were further along than the city leaders …they were waiting for the government to catch up to where they are.”

Impressive as these commitments are, we must not forget to acknowledge that there are unelected leaders who have led many of our elected leaders to their current response. They are the career public servants who have been imagining what a racially equitable, just and prosperous society would look like, for the long haul. They are also the community organizers who have been trying to bring community needs and demands to the table for decades. “People in the community are READY. They were further along than the city leaders …they were waiting for the government to catch up to where they are,“ Christina Brooks, Chief Equity Officer of Fort Worth told us. Most equity officers have been working closely with community members who have proposed solutions in the past to racial disparities in health and economic opportunities.. They have also been working internally to train staff to apply a racial equity lens to decision-making and operations prior to Covid. Due to the work that was done prior to this crisis, public servants and their staff across the country are quickly discovering inequities in service delivery and are developing partnerships internally and externally to address them. In Minneapolis, the City has contracted with community health healers to support those who are “experiencing crisis and whose ability to receive in person help is either limited or not existent at this time.” The program manager for the City’s ReCAST Initiative noted in this Next City article that applicants who had been providing services to underserved communities “for a long time” were identified to receive the City’s Mental Health Fund which is focused on helping people of color, women, indigenous people, disabled people, and those who are undocumented. Other key partnerships across the country have also been with Chiefs of Staff who have been advising their mayors on operationalizing racial equity promises and championing strategies learned from their own teams and peers from around the country.

We have been learning from these policy and decision makers, sparkplugs, and programmatic staff as they respond to the pandemic and plan for an equitable recovery. They acknowledge that aspirations don’t become reality without a struggle and changes won’t happen overnight. Racial equity practice and promises are being tested as administrations around the country attempt to apply a racial equity lens to COVID-responses and recovery. Here are examples from three cities:

Through a partnership with the City of Austin’s Equity office, the Family Independence Initiative and 30 local community organizations, provided direct cash payments of $2000 to 1000 families. Recipients include undocumented residents who would not be covered by any other stimulus relief support.

San Antonio also created a Rapid Response Tool with a framework that encourages staff to “reach out to the City of San Antonio equity staff, the Community Health Workers, the organizers and activists who work with [BIPOC] communities daily, and pull them into decision making so that as we continue to make rapid-fire decisions, we know that critical voices are present in key roles.”

“Build Back Better Together: Now, Next, Beyond” plan is driven by the values of equity, compassion and trust. Metro Louisville is not only communicating with residents about what it is currently doing to help them and local businesses but they are soliciting input through a survey on what a complete and equitable economy looks like beyond the pandemic.

Covid-19 has opened a space for all of us to reimagine how to use our power and direct resources to directly affect the life or death of people of color. At Living Cities, we are using our convening and connective muscles to support public servants and their elected leaders who committed to closing racial income and wealth gaps: connecting them to one another, hosting conversations for them to consider centering race in their response to COVID, coaching them through challenging power dynamics, and sharing tools and resources developed by their peers, ourselves and our partners to support decisions they are making and programs they are implementing for an equitable recovery. This is the marathon we’ve been training for.

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Covid-19, Difficult Truths and the Urgency of Closing Racial Gaps

In less than two months, COVID19 has forced America to look at an honest picture of itself that it has been avoiding for a long time. It isn’t pretty. We are witnessing the costs of building a society where a large part of the population experiences extreme financial instability, housing insecurity, student debt burdens, lack of basic health care, and can’t even provide broadband at home so their kids can go to school.

None of this information is new, but it took a crisis like this to make it impossible to keep such shameful statistics at arms’ length, when so many of our family, friends and neighbors are suffering.

The pandemic has also made it impossible to ignore how much more devastating these societal choices have been on the lives of people of color. The rising number of deaths of Black and brown people—far outpacing that of white people—tells you pretty much all that you need to know. 80% of Georgia’s COVID-19 patients, for example, are Black despite comprising only 30% of the population. In Louisiana, 70% of people who died are Black, though they too only make up a third of the population. I am sickened by the harsh reality that the compounding effects of generations of racism and discrimination have made it so that today, the color of one’s skin is essentially an ‘underlying condition’ that could mean greater vulnerability to the disease.

We came to understand that America’s inequities were due to powerful headwinds caused by structural racism and an economy that generated extreme financial insecurity for many and great wealth for few.

This true picture of America came as no surprise to us at Living Cities. For 30 years, Living Cities, a collaborative of the world’s leading foundations and financial institutions, has partnered with local leaders across the country to address economic inequality. Together, we have invested more than $20 billion in dozens of cities and touched millions of lives. Seven years ago, we began a process of reckoning with the fact that, despite successes along the way, we had not achieved widespread progress; in fact, income inequality and racial disparities had become more pronounced than ever.

We came to understand that America’s inequities were due to the powerful headwinds caused by structural racism and an economy that generated extreme financial insecurity for many and great wealth for few. These headwinds were disproportionately denying opportunity to people of color, especially Black people, while consistently serving as a tailwind to white households. Today we are committed collectively to helping communities address structural barriers to closing the racial gaps in income and wealth and, in doing so, are working towards a society that better meets the needs of all.

We’ve made ourselves numb to economic deprivation and blind to structural disadvantage.

COVID-19 has helped the entire country see what it took us at Living Cities so long to recognize but finally grasped. These structural barriers—the series of economic and political choices that we have made since our founding to advantage and separate whites from Blacks— have not only continued the historical pattern of disproportionately devastating communities of color but hurt us all. The through line is not hard to see. Slavery and Jim Crow policies gave way to modern day practices—such as redlining, mass incarceration, voter suppression and a refusal to build a meaningful social safety net—which have together created and sustained a culture of severity, punishment and inhumanity. Tropes developed around “personal responsibility” and “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” have served to reinforce those choices and to justify not taking reasonable steps to promote each other’s wellbeing. We’ve made ourselves numb to economic deprivation and blind to structural disadvantage. That contagion will only continue to spread until we undo what’s been done.

A Different Set of Choices

We have no control over the biological forces that cause a catastrophe like a pandemic. On the contrary, it’s entirely up to us whether quality healthcare is a given for every American; whether or not people living paycheck to paycheck are forced to choose between life-threatening health risks or devastating financial insecurity when they decide whether to stay home sick.

If it was unclear before that the status quo is the product of choice, the fact has been illustrated by how quickly lawmakers and leaders have rallied to make different choices—taking actions that were previously unthinkable. In a matter of days, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed the House and Senate and was signed by the President, giving substantially all Americans paid sick leave. The following week, a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package was signed into law. Police are not only curtailing arrests for low-level crimes in some places, but are actually releasing low-level criminals from jail in a number of cities and counties across the country.

These are remarkable departures from past trends. They show that the missing ingredient for change is not an inability to compromise or take dramatic action. Nor is it an issue of money. And as the reversal in policing trends shows, nor is it an issue of knowing, deep down, what is reasonable and just.

Rather, we’ve been trapped by a failure of imagination, coupled with unwillingness—whether driven by malice or by ignorance—to change the status quo in ways that will distribute our abundant wealth, and create a society that values the agency, dignity, and well-being of each of us. If we can hold onto this lesson as the health crisis subsides, we have a once-in-a-generation chance to address the reality that we have always been in crisis.

The Path Forward

Our work over the past decade and the lessons learned so far from this pandemic tells us that the road to building a different America will require us to do the following:

Reckon with the long-term effects of racism on our nation.

As we work to close the income and wealth gaps, we must honestly reckon with our history and its implications on the current context. Like fish that don’t realize they’re swimming in water, so many Americans like myself have gone through our lives and careers with only the shallowest understanding of racism in America. We’ve been blind to our own white culture and its harms. In contrast, of course, people of color have long understood racism’s costs and impact—at work, at home or in daily life—as a matter of survival. We must support citizens and leaders who are willing to put their social capital on the line to learn together about racial equity, the history of race in their own cities and to hold themselves and their organizations accountable to change. Places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and New Orleans have already trained thousands of citizens and government employees and are leading the way. We will be doubling down on supporting our staff, partners and cities on this type of practice moving forward.


Invest in high-functioning government, especially at the local level.

We’ve been partnering with local governments—elected, appointed and career civic servants—for more than a decade because they are the nation’s problem-solvers, and have disproportionately contributed to our racial inequities over the years. This crisis has affirmed the importance of strong, nimble and competent local government, especially at the city level. Mayors and other local officials have been on the frontlines, shutting down their cities, coordinating medical supplies, and advocating for their constituents’ needs, in the absence of federal leadership. Many of our partner cities are thinking hard about how to use COVID-19 to accelerate a different, more stable and just future for all of their residents—with equity as a guiding value. We are in conversations to determine how we can help them to take action across multiple time horizons: ‘respond’ to immediate needs; take steps to help people, sectors and the local economy to ‘recover’ and then ‘reimagine’ the policies, practices and approaches that need to change for the long term. This needs to be a priority for all of us.

Rebuild our economy with grace, and for our new majority.

This is an opportunity to reset our nation’s relationship with our economy. We have to make sure that the results reflect who we want to be as a nation and the dignity and security that we believe every person should have. That will mean coming to terms with the extremes that we have allowed to become the ‘norm’ over time, around financial insecurity, housing instability, lack of basic health care, incarceration, even access to broadband—and the racial disparities that cut across each of these systems.

But it also means that we have to change the way capital itself flows. COVID-19 has cost us 22 million jobs, with businesses owned by people of color suffering a disproportionate share of the losses—a result of the racial wealth gap, the legacy of racism in banking, and myriad inequities in entrepreneurial ecosystems. These barriers were in place long before COVID-19, and it remains critical that we undo them. A lack of wealth, personal networks, and a history of being denied capital from traditional institutions has barred people of color from contributing an estimated 9 million jobs a year that might have otherwise been possible without these structural impediments. We will need those jobs more than ever. We are going to accelerate the work that we began 18 months ago when we repurposed our impact investing vehicle, the Blended Catalyst Fund (BCF), to focus exclusively on closing racial income and wealth gaps. We have been building a portfolio that has our capital land in places, puts people of color in decision-making positions, begins to challenge definitions of creditworthiness and other norms, and the idea that the system as it exists now is how it has to be. This type of investing has to be front and center to rebuild our future economy.

Address long-standing power imbalances.

School districts, local health authorities, and mayors have harnessed power they may not have even known they had, to take decisive action in this moment. Likewise, we’re seeing the impact of our own individual and collective power. The commitment to social distancing by each individual has shown how it adds up to thousands of lives saved. Millions of people not spending money, or finding themselves unable to pay rent or bills can have massive political and social reverberations – bringing entire industries to their knees, and prompting unprecedented federal action.

We now must test the boundaries of this ‘power shifting’. What would it take to get those most impacted by inequities to drive decision making locally? We need to invest in and innovate in power shifting just as we have in other areas over the years. This is not something that mainstream actors, including Living Cities, have supported regularly and consistently. We also have to push ourselves to deploy our enormous, unused personal agency as never before. We need to disrupt the behaviors and beliefs of those within our spheres who are perpetuating these gaps, continuing to fail to address history, and maintaining our inhumanity to each other. We promote the Person-Role-System framework as a way to interrogate one’s power and put it to use for real change.

The health crisis we’re experiencing is new and acute. The crises of racial and economic justice that the virus has laid bare have long been brewing. The pandemic simply has showed us how sick the nation was before it caught COVID-19. We have to take the tough steps, starting today, to change our country’s trajectory. Otherwise, we will be returning communities of color and all struggling people to the state of crisis that has been a constant of life in America. I welcome you to join us in this effort.

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We Can’t Wait Until Coronavirus Is Over to Address Racial Disparities

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Covid-19 exposed stark inequalities: Rates of mortality and severe illness are far higher among Americans of color. Politicians, journalists and scholars have been attempting to explain these racial differences by pulling from a wide range of past studies and assumptions. Many of these early suggestions emphasize how Covid-19 is illuminating pre-existing inequality.

Yet, early reporting and existing studies suggest Covid-19 is not simply exposing past inequality. It is also creating it. Like previous crises, such as natural disasters, war, and economic recessions, our response to Covid-19 is exacerbating racial disparities. However, this is not inevitable. Addressing unequal distributions of Covid-19 testing, racial biases in health care, and policy responses to racial segregation now could mitigate how unjust this crisis turns out to be.

Comparing across regions in the U.S. and between countries, it has become abundantly clear that early detection and effective contact tracing are critical for both containing Covid-19 and curtailing its most severe symptoms. This requires widespread, accessible testing — something the United States has yet to implement anywhere. Yet, testing has been even more scarce in communities of color.

Early reporting by NPR has shown that Black Americans have been less likely to receive a Covid-19 test than White Americans even when showing the same symptoms. This has contributed to misdiagnosis and in some cases inaccurate medical advice. These patterns mirror previous research that has repeatedly shown doctors mis- and under-diagnosed Black people’s health conditions leading to further health complications and shorter life expectancy — an occurrence particularly pronounced for Black women whose knowledge about their own bodies is often dismissed, disregarded and misunderstood.

For Covid-19, the lack of testing and misdiagnoses has likely resulted in the virus spreading more rapidly across Black communities, and in individual cases escalating without the proper precautions and treatment. To fully empirically estimate the effect this lack of testing is having on the observed racial inequality, we need more data across all racial groups on who is getting access to proper testing and whether hospitalized Covid-19 patients are receiving improper advice or health care because of initial misdiagnoses. Not to mention, we also need more data from the tests themselves to see who is testing positive and how the virus is affecting various populations.

Beyond testing, initial studies on Covid-19 suggest severe symptoms and mortality are more likely when patients have underlying conditions such as hypertension, obesity, diabetes, asthma or cardiovascular disease. Black and Native Americans are more likely than their White counterparts to have these underlying and chronic conditions because of racial biases in health care, housing markets, employment sectors, educational institutions and the criminal justice system. Government officials and journalists have insinuated that Covid-19 hospitalizations and mortality inequities are a product of the racial gaps in these pre-existing conditions.

Although this is certainly part of the story, it is likely not all of it. The aforementioned lack of Covid-19 testing, lack of access to health care and the quality of health care received could be intensifying the effect underlying conditions have on patients of color with Covid-19. In other words, a White resident with underlying health conditions, who has access to early testing and whose doctors trust their account of their symptoms is more likely to avoid the most severe Covid-19 symptoms compared to a Black or Native American with identical underlying conditions and Covid-19 symptoms.

To fully unpack these various factors we need more data broken down by race about cases, treatments and outcomes. Yet, even without this data, it is clear it is not just pre-existing conditions driving the racial inequality. It is also access to and experiences within the health-care system that are creating the racial inequality.

In addition to underlying conditions, initial analyses by some scholars have explained this inequality as a product of existing occupational and residential segregation: Historical and contemporary labor policies and practices have concentrated workers of color into often below-living-wage employment sectors — many of the same sectors that are disproportionately experiencing heightened exposure to Covid-19 and offer inconsistent or limited sick leave policies. Yet, it goes beyond just class, as middle-class Black workers are disproportionately concentrated in government jobs like mail carriers or bus drivers compared to their White counterparts who are disproportionately employed by private companies.

Likewise, contemporary and historical (im)migration and housing policies have concentrated residents into certain neighborhoods, cities, counties and even regions of the country. This means, even in this time of social distancing, Americans are more likely to interact with people of their same race as they make essential trips to the local grocery store or receive packages on their front porch. Since Covid-19 is highly contagious, living in a community with more cases (for all the aforementioned reasons) means this contagion is likely to spread more quickly within racial groups, as we are witnessing in New York City’s Jackson Heights neighborhood and Louisiana’s Black communities. Just as so-called “Black-on-Black violence” is more a function of racial segregation and proximity than something cultural or biological as is often alleged, so might be Black-on-Black Covid-19 contraction.

Fully illuminating the role occupational and residential segregation are playing in the observed Covid-19 inequities will require significantly more data. Yet, even without this full picture, it is likely occupational and residential segregation combined with racialized practices within workplaces and across regions that are exacerbating the inequities.

Clearly, we need much more information before we can definitively say which mechanisms are contributing to the racial inequality in Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. However, using history as a guide and what we know from early reporting, it is clear racial inequities are being created in how we are choosing to respond to this crisis.

To curtail this inequity, we need transparency about who has access to testing, test results, hospitalizations and mortality rates. We also need more data on how employees, residents and patients are interpreting their possible risk and access to healthcare. And we need to use this data to better understand who is getting sick, and why.

Beyond data, we need action steps that explicitly centralize the need for equity in our multifaceted response to this crisis. The federal government must make tests more widely available in communities of color. Health-care workers need to challenge their own racialized biases and ensure patients’ own assessments of their health are being heard. Corporate employers need to think critically about how their policies might directly and indirectly contribute to racial inequality. Federal and local governments need to consider how they can creatively decrease racial inequality through new ways of implementing immediate and long-term responses.

We cannot wait until the crisis is over to examine or address the structural inequalities Covid-19 is exposing. If we do, then these inequalities will only worsen. Prioritizing equity in our responses now is the only way we can begin to create a more equitable tomorrow.

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Rising to the Challenge of Closing Racial Gaps

As a leader working at the intersection of philanthropy and the private sector for more than 25 years, I am continuously inspired by the organizations and change makers in these fields creating economic opportunity for families and communities across the country.

Collectively, we have many proof points and innovations to feel proud of, which have stemmed from our ability to take a systems-wide view. For example, philanthropy’s shift in focus from strictly investing in revitalizing places, to a more comprehensive approach that accounts for mobility, health, education, food access, and more, has led to better interventions and outcomes.

But when I step back, I realize that we are only achieving gains at the margins. Overall trends are worsening, and nothing validates this more than the growing racial wealth gap. This gap is not only unjustly affecting people’s lives today, but also setting our country up for a socio-economic crisis tomorrow.

Can we change patterns of conscious and unconscious bias that permeate our work and results?

In light of the stark challenges we face, I am both excited and nervous to be a part of the Living Cities collaborative as the Board Chair for the next three years. Excited, because Living Cities is applying its unique levers to confront one of the greatest issues of our generation: closing the vast racial wealth and income gaps. Nervous, because I am not sure whether philanthropy is up to the task, and whether I personally have the grit to challenge the status quo as is needed to move from words to action, to real impact. We can certainly fund things that make us feel we are doing our part. But can we change patterns of conscious and unconscious bias that permeate our work and results?

Living Cities is all about challenging the status quo by shifting the philanthropic field from a stance of “trying to tackle issues,” to “actually tackling hard issues.” The organization has always been focused on anticipating trends, and remaining adaptive to the changing world. In its earliest days, that looked like pioneering new mechanisms to pool and channel funding to fuel affordable housing production and economic development in marginalized communities.

Take a tour of any major US city and you can see tangible examples of the organization’s efforts to reverse disinvestment trends – new housing, small businesses and community facilities. But look closer and you realize that these are window dressing for what isn’t so easily seen: how persistent inequality and racial bias remain a root cause of racial income and wealth gaps. It’s hard to reconcile the positive, measurable impacts of our philanthropic investments with the reality that inequities persist, and the social and economic progress of all Americans is eroding.

Truly solving problems, rather than treating symptoms, requires a commitment to systemic interventions. Solutions won’t be designed or implemented by one actor or even sector. Rather, we have to focus on empowering diverse change-makers— municipal government leaders, community activists, corporate leaders and more—to shift private markets and public systems. And we need to confidently call diverse players to the table, even when we fear being called out for not having all the answers. Or worse, for investing in the status quo. Personally, I don’t know what solutions will look like, but I do know that if I fail to call out what doesn’t work, we will never move forward with bold new approaches.

Grappling honestly with the role of race in America and in our work requires us to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and admitting what we don’t know…

Secondly, Living Cities is shifting the way that we approach our work as individual institutions, and how we think about collaboration. My role as a board member of Living Cities over the past five years has helped build my appetite for risk-taking. And risk-taking—at the personal and institutional levels—is critical if we have any hope of closing racial gaps. Grappling honestly with the role of race in America and in our work requires us to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and admitting what we don’t know—which doesn’t always come naturally to our field. Many of us in philanthropy need to build new skills and competencies to tackle today’s issues at their roots, cognizant of the way race, class and gender bias contribute to persistently negative outcomes for households, communities, and the future of our diversifying country.

Living Cities supports us in building those competencies, and pushes us to bring them back to our roles as board members and leaders in our own institutions. This forum is not just about channeling money. Instead, we collaboratively shape our thinking and our understanding of the many roles our institutions can play beyond simply funding programs—so that our response might actually be commensurate with the challenges we face. We challenge and support each other as individuals and institutions to push against the status quo, even though we may have spent our careers showing up as though we have the answers.

I am proud to be leading the board as chair at this unique moment in the history of the collaborative and of our country at large. I take pride in the fact that, for the first time, Living Cities’ Executive Committee, elected by the board, is made of a majority women and people of color. And I get to observe firsthand how the organization and its governance are working hard in ongoing ways to live our values from the inside-out, as well as catalyze shifts toward racial equity in communities around the country. I am grateful for the questioning, and the comfort and discomfort of the collaboration.

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The Problem With Research on Racial Bias and Police Shootings

Last September, Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald, a longtime foe of police reform, testified before a U.S. congressional committee that the reported “epidemic of racially biased police shootings of black men” is false.

In fact, “if there is a bias in police shootings, it is against white civilians,” she said, citing a recent study released by the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Mac Donald’s take on the study was generous. Its authors, University of Maryland psychology professor David Johnson and Michigan State University psychology professor Joseph Cesario, weren’t actually making a point about police bias at all. The study was about identifying the race of police officers involved in fatal shootings and showing whether or not it matched the race of their victims, not shedding light on motive, Johnson told CityLab. But after the study came out, other scientists in the field criticized its methodology, prompting Johnson and Cesario to concede a mistake in the way they characterized the study.

Despite the apology, the study has continued to fuel a long-running debate of great significance as localities grapple with how to improve disproportionate rates of police violence against African Americans: Is police violence towards African Americans mostly explained by cops’ racial prejudice? The short answer is that it’s difficult to arrive at a scientific conclusion, because the data is lacking.

Princeton University politics professors Jonathan Mummolo and Dean Knox were among the academics who criticized the study and questioned the value of knowing the race of police officers involved in fatal shootings at all. In January, they published a letter in PNAS and an op-ed in The Washington Post stating that the Johnson-Cesario study “was based on a logical fallacy and erroneous statistical reasoning, and sheds no light on whether police violence is racially biased.”

To determine whether racist motivations are fueling police shootings, you would need to know the race of the people killed by police in a given department, and also the race of all the people who police shot, but didn’t kill. Perhaps the most difficult datapoint is that you would also need the race of all the people police came in contact with, but did nothing to at all. This cumulative data is called the police encounter rate, and the scientists who have been studying police violence say that it is the most critical yet most elusive data needed to register racial bias.

In explaining why the encounter rates matter in this discussion, Mummolo and Knox offer a thought experiment with an unrealistic but easy-to-follow fact pattern: Let’s say an all-African-American police force encountered 90 black civilians and 10 white civilians in a given week, and among those encounters, the officers shot and killed five African Americans and nine white civilians. Then, imagine a white police force encountered 90 white and 10 black civilians in a week, and also killed nine white people and five black people.

Both departments are responsible for an equal number of lives from both races taken. However, the percentage of lives taken in each race is different when the encounter rates are considered: The black police force shot 5.6 percent of the black civilians and 90 percent of the white civilians they encountered, while the white police force shot 50 percent of the back civilians and 10 percent of the white civilians they encountered.

Viewed through the lens of the thought experiment, one can see why it’s inaccurate to say there is an anti-white bias or any other kind of bias in police shootings, as Mac Donald testified.

“I’m not happy with the way that [Mac Donald] characterized our study,” said Johnson. “She characterized it as if we gave information about bias on the behalf of officers. We’re not trying to make statements about the likelihood of being shot by police officers if you’re black, and we don’t have the data to do that.”

But he and Cesario made the mistake of writing in the study’s statement of significance that “White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers.” In a response to critics published last August, Johnson and Cesario wrote:

We should have written this sentence more carefully. … What we should have written was a sentence about what we did estimate: As the proportion of White officers in a [fatal officer-involved shooting] increased, a person fatally shot was not more likely to be of a racial minority. This was our mistake, and we appreciate the feedback on this point.

While Johnson says their study was not intended to infer racial bias, Mummolo is concerned that leaving the bias question unresolved has consequences, such as leading policy influencers like Mac Donald to make their own incorrect inferences.

“I don’t know what [Johnson’s study] teaches us,” says Mummolo. “It does not teach us that one [racial] group of officers is more or less likely to shoot, and we all seem to agree on that now. They say there’s this absence of a correlation, but that could mean any number of things. Without the other information and the data that are missing, there’s just no way to say what it means.”

Johnson agreed that having the encounter rates is important, but not for the purposes of his study, and he and Cesario are standing by the utility of the analysis, as seen in their reply to Mummolo’s PNAS letter. What the study tells us if nothing else, said Johnson, is the racial demographics of the police officers involved in fatal shootings, which he says has not been previously accumulated in any nationwide studies on police violence.  

“I want to stress how hard it was to get information about these police officers,” said Johnson. “It took over 1,800 hours requesting information from police, looking at legal cases and legal documents as well as media accounts. We didn’t know any of that before we started on this analysis.”

It’s debatable what simply knowing the race of the officers tells us. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, people are concerned with how to eliminate anti-black prejudices, if that’s what is driving cops to be more violent towards black people. And an anti-black bias can come from a cop of any race, including black. According to Phillip A. Goff, president and co-founder of the Center For Policing Equity, the data on officer characteristics are neither unprecedented nor necessary for understanding police violence.  

“Nobody who had done responsible analyses of this would be surprised by that,” said Goff, “because as they admit in their paper, black officers are more likely to be patrolling in black neighborhoods. So of course they’re more likely to shoot black people because of proximity. If that is their only argument, then they are saying, ‘We have nothing novel to say.’”

What they all agree on is that there is too little data collected on police violence—the Calvary hill that almost all studies that attempt to address police brutality and racial bias get crucified on. Mummolo said that it is possible that there are ways for academics to get close to police encounter rates, such as by using traffic camera footage in some instances, or using responses from the Police Public Contact Survey. But these would still fall short of the data needed to draw solid conclusions about race and policing.

“The rigor around the science of racism and discrimination is less than it should be, on all sides, and it reduces science to conversations about ideological entrenchments rather than about novel discoveries about the way that the world is shaped,” said Goff. “That makes us all less well-positioned to improve the world as we find it. We should feel badly about that, and we should do better.”

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Foundations and Financial Institutions Recommit to Work for Racial Equity

I don’t have to look hard at the world around me today to find reasons for despair. We are being confronted daily with the fragility of institutions and norms that many of us took for granted. Inequality and racial gaps continue to grow relentlessly despite decades of well-intentioned work. A shockingly large number of Americans seem, at best, indifferent. The weight of these challenges and the complexity of their solutions can feel overwhelming.

It’s impossible to live in America today without being conscious of the ever-growing racial inequities, and the racism that has been in the groundwater of the country since our founding.

But for me, my role as president and CEO of Living Cities has served as a source of hope and optimism in these pretty dark times. That’s because I am seeing 18 of the world’s largest and most powerful foundations and financial institutions honestly grapple with how to effect change closer to the root causes of today’s mess. By acknowledging the limitations of working alone, exploring ways of collaborating differently, and confronting difficult realities around historical and ongoing injustice, the impact of members’ collective efforts may actually stand a chance of being commensurate with the scope of the problems we face.

This past May, those 18 institutions agreed to fund and govern the collaborative for another three-year period. This was the tenth time—dating back to 1991—that members have made this commitment. In fact, almost all of the foundations and financial institutions making up the Living Cities collaborative today have been at the table for more than half of our 28-year history. Just like the previous nine times they have been at this juncture before, the board recognized the ongoing importance of taking the long view, and having the patience to invest in and observe real, long-term change.


However, unlike previous periods, the stated purpose of their work together is very different. For most of Living Cities’ history, our mission was broadly defined as achieving better outcomes for low-income people in US cities. But it’s impossible to live in America today without being conscious of the ever-growing racial inequities, and the racism that has been in the groundwater of the country since our founding. As we dug into root causes of economic inequality in the United States, we couldn’t escape the fact that race remains one of the strongest predictors of life outcomes. Without putting race and racism at the center of our work and our analysis, we simply had no hope of achieving our mission of achieving economic security for all. Therefore, today our collaborative is unapologetically about race and closing the racial gaps in income and wealth.


The board’s willingness to stay together for more than two decades, fund in three year rounds, and focus squarely on closing racial gaps is an anomaly within our current system. Our board recognizes that change takes time; the results we set for ourselves, and the partnerships and programs we develop to achieve them, are oriented around a ten-year or longer time horizon. Importantly, board and staff members have also been reckoning with and strengthening our analysis of the history and legacy of structural racism in this country and in our own institutions. I am encouraged by the way this collaborative model goes to the heart of criticism that philanthropy incentivizes programmatic, short-term fixes that don’t upset the status quo and have little accountability to achieving results.

Working together differently—centering race and a focus on a shared result—has also opened the door to different types of questions around the boardroom table: What could we do differently as an institution—or, perhaps, stop doing—to bring us closer to our shared goal? As individual leaders, what research, resources or relationships do I have access to that could support our collective progress?

What could we do differently as an institution—or, perhaps, stop doing—to bring us closer to our shared goal?

This has resulted in anything but business as usual. Over the last three years, sparked by these kinds of questions, board members and their staff have collaborated on issues ranging from racial inequity within the halls of local government—giving rise to our Racial Equity Here initiative—to shifting narratives in corporate America to promote equity as a business imperative. Participants in these narrative change efforts have used their own personal relationships to connect with C-suite leaders in the private sector, and begin to build a coalition of the willing.

Individual board members have shifted internal practices within their own institutions to combat the racism in our groundwater—interrogating hiring practices, measurement and evaluation practices, procurement and more within their own institutions. One member vastly increased funding for racial equity competency building among the foundation’s grantees. In the last year alone, we’ve co-hosted Undoing Racism workshops around the country with a variety of partners including the City of Austin, the Ford Foundation, the Boston Federal Reserve, and the Collective Impact Forum. These workshops were aimed at supporting changemakers in our networks to center race in their work, to see themselves as anti-racist organizers within their institutions, and to connect them to a broader cross-sector movement. Through survey responses, we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the value and impact of this training for participants in their own work.

We have a long way to go. But the ambition and commitment of member institutions, the Living Cities board of directors, and their staff is a source of inspiration for me as we continue working toward a world where race is no longer a predictor of outcomes. It’s on all of us—within philanthropy and beyond—not to rest on good intentions, but to hold up the mirror to our own institutions and to ourselves in order to create renewed hope in the promise of America, this time very intentionally for all.

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