Our staff reflect on implicit bias and racism--interpersonal, structural, and institutional. We also share some #GoodReads that explore those topics through policing, community development, place-based initiatives, and more. Plus, one staffer shares a dinner conversation that sparked this post.

Last week, I had a conversation with an acquaintance at a restaurant where we are both regulars about a shooting that occurred in his rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. His wife was a witness, and later that day, she told him, she saw the shooter running into the subway. The shooter was black as was the person running into the subway. My acquaintance and his wife are both white. I commiserated with him about what must have been a traumatic experience for his wife, but pointed out that there is a large possibility that the person running into the subway was not, in fact, the shooter. According to the Innocence Project, ‘eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.’ And, research finds that witnesses are particularly inaccurate when remembering the facial features of someone of a different race. Now, many witnesses are being honest in their recollections and are well-meaning, as I am certain my acquaintance’s wife was. But, human memory is a delicate and complicated thing. And, implicit bias, though unintentional, is real. The conversation that I had with my acquaintance rapidly became tense, with him defending his wife’s ability to be a reliable and impartial witness and me bristling about times when members of my own family have been questioned for things that they did not do simply because they shared a similar skin tone with the suspect.

I have no idea what happened next in the story of that shooting. I do know that my acquaintance’s wife did not call the police despite being quite convinced that the person she saw was the shooter. But, my biggest takeaways from that conversation were not so much about what did or did not happen that day, though that question is certainly central to the lives of multiple people at the moment, and the circumstances feed into much bigger questions about race and racism, implicit and explicit bias, poverty, gentrification, inequality, policing, power, and on and on. The web is vast and intricately woven. What struck me was just how quickly two people who, at least on the surface, share very similar views about these issues, could find themselves on opposite sides of a (albeit, in this particular case, very polite and measured) debate. Where it becomes about our own experiences and those of the people closest to us is often where carefully considered philosophy and points of view go out the window. Then, you are just two people trying to make sense of the mess wrought by history—global, national, and personal. But, sometimes, as was the case with my conversation, you discover that it is also possible to see the world through the eyes of another. Granted, that is easier to do when your starting positions are not very distant.

In recent weeks, all of the themes that came up in my conversation at the restaurant, and in my reflection on it, have once again erupted to the surface in places like Baltimore and Cleveland in ways that cannot be resolved by a simple ‘I understand’ and conciliatory clinking of glasses. Indeed, it is perhaps this eruption that caused me to wander into a decidedly atypical casual-dinner-at-the-bar conversation with a person I barely know in the first place. And, yet, why should we not be having this conversation at any and all forums where there is opportunity to explore our own feelings and understand the feelings of others about these issues that are perhaps the defining issues of our time? At Living Cities, we are very much engaged in an ongoing dialogue about race. Our work to embed racial equity and inclusion across our entire portfolio requires it.

This week, our staff is suggesting some #GoodReads that don’t shy away from the difficult questions about race and racism, structural, institutional, and interpersonal.

  • Our CEO, Ben Hecht wrote a blog for CNN Money about what he learned twenty years ago when he was Senior Vice President at Enterprise Community Partners and led an effort that invested $130 million in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was killed: What we can – and should – learn from Baltimore
  • Ellen Ward, Senior Investment Associate recommends this article about the consent decree in Cleveland. She wrote, “Honestly, I have been thinking about it quite a bit this week and I can’t decide whether to feel hopeful, or pessimistic about the likelihood that it will truly affect change in the Cleveland Police Department. The decree focuses on bias-free policing, compliance and training around use of force policies, and improved police/community relations, which I think is the right goal. But it seems to lack any acknowledgement or strategies to address what I believe is a major barrier to achieving this goal, our own implicit racism. Sure, you can offer trainings about how to de-escalate the use of force and the circumstances under which force is or is not acceptable, but if you don’t address the racial biases that people bring with themselves and intentionally work to surface and address those, it’s going to be tough to see measurable improvements.
  • Brittany Ramos on our Collective Impact Field Building Team suggests an article entitled “I’m a black ex-cop, and this is the real truth about race and policing”. About it, she had this to say: “It is easy for the public narrative about police violence against communities of color, and the public emotion associated with it, to become focused on the merits of the individual officers and their victims. This article offers a much needed reminder from someone with inside experience that really addressing these issues has little to do with individuals. The focus must remain on overhauling entire systems of policies, culture norms, and institutional structures that perpetuate and legitimize violence.”
  • Tiffany Ferguson, Public Sector Innovation Associate, recommends The Failures and Merits of Place-Based Initiatives and wrote, “An author challenges the conventional wisdom of decades of community development practice: that ‘targeting select low-income communities for an infusion of resources isn’t the answer to the problem of urban poverty.’ In response to a recent article written by an urban studies scholar on the futility of revitalization efforts that don’t address the root causes of inequality and poverty, the author adds an added root cause factor that feels missing from this ongoing conversation: racism. This article reinforces the need to add more texture to our conversations about systems change by acknowledging that systemic racism, much like systemic housing discrimination and economic disinvestment are factors we should be developing strategies for when we set out to do place-based and systems change initiatives.”

We offer these #GoodReads in the spirit of continuing this important conversation with our blog readers. Being willing to talk about race is an important step in terms of being able to advance racial equity and inclusion.