Feb. 11, 2009 | It will take confronting the racial elements in issues such as poverty and health disparities to achieve true social justice, the president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation said at an event Feb. 5 to commemorate Black History Month and the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Sherece West, Ph.D., was the invited speaker at the program hosted by the Chancellor’s Diversity Committee of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
She said progress has been made toward racial equality in America, such as the election of the first African-American president. However, structural racism – institutions, social norms and public policies that reinforce racial and class inequity – remain.
“Most are proud with how far we’ve come with race and class issues in America,” said West, nationally known for her leadership in the areas of community development and public policy. “But the success of a few individuals of color does not mean that racism is obsolete.”
To achieve a place where anyone regardless of their differences – whether racial, gender or sexual orientation – has access to the tools of success such as education, health care or financial capital, requires addressing barriers that still exist, she said.
West called on the country to acknowledge those barriers, then reach across race and class divides to craft solutions, using creativity and refusing to be deterred by those who say it cannot be done.
“We must strengthen our resolve to breakdown the barriers of structural racism so change can occur,” West said.
West said statistics show that a person of color, whether African-American, Latino, Native American or Asian, is three times more likely to live in poverty than a white American. Education and health care outcomes also show racial disparities.
She noted that most colleges, universities, airlines, newspapers, communications networks and businesses are owned by white Americans. When a statewide publication recently ranked the 192 most powerful Arkansans, she was one of only two people of color to make the list, she said.
West traced these differences to structural racism, instead of individual racial feelings, that reinforced the racial divide through the years. When the New Deal legislation created the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, it set wheels in motion that segregated most neighborhoods, she said. Unless an applicant lived in a neighborhood of his or her own race, no loan was given.
Insurance and credit practices through the years have made it harder for those in poor communities to access capital to start their own businesses, she said.
Philanthropy, such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and institutions like UAMS have a role to play in addressing these issues, West said. Through creation of public/private partnerships or programs that address racial and socio-economic disparities, progress can be made, she said.
West was named president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in 2007. Prior to that, she worked as chief executive officer for the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, working in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.