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Onions and Gravity: Why We Are Addressing Anti-Black Racism

By Nick Collins

This country, and much of the global economy, was built on anti-Black racism. The veneer of American exceptionalism would have you believe these days are long gone or even didn’t happen. Yet, anti-Black racism is embedded in the DNA of America. Though we no longer have active chattel slavery in these United States, anti-Black racism has evolved into new forms and, when threatened, evolved again. We moved from lynchings to Jim Crow; from segregation to redlining. We have constructed a school-to-prison pipeline and economic disempowerment so crippling that Black families have, on average, 10 times less wealth than white families. At SPARCC’s inception, we knew that these trends were systemic. Part of our charter includes a focus on racial equity and systems change. But how do you change systems that have been built, strengthened, and codified into law for centuries? Moreover, how do you do that on a limited budget, a short timeline, and a whole lot of unknowns?

From the outside, SPARCC’s work probably looks a little circuitous. We’re working on parks and urban open space equity, innovative backyard solutions to displacement, and the growing housing affordability crisis. Though distinct buckets of work, the throughlines for us have always been clear: race, climate, and health equity.

We know that the environmental, health, economic, and racial crises unfolding are all deeply connected—and our recently launched Pathways to Community Prosperity is a testament to the interconnected nature of all of our work. Indeed, anti-Black racism is an onion—with seemingly unending layers. Pick any system in this country, large or small, and you will find anti-Black racism intricately woven into the ways in which the system works. The work to undo anti-Black racism is hard because it is so vast and deep. When you begin to confront the true breadth of anti-Black racism’s impact it’s like eating an elephant – it seems impossible until you realize you must simply do it one bite at a time.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider gravity. In physics, the more mass something has, the stronger its pull on other objects. The closer an object is to the mass, the stronger the pull. For centuries, we have built systems encoded with anti-Black racism—locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. For centuries, we have added more and more mass to anti-Black systems. The pull of these systems is so strong that they are working exactly as intended. Much like gravity, a force that directs much of the movement in our solar system, it is unseen and mostly unobserved. It just is. Much like gravity, systems are an unseen force that direct movement and outcomes in our lived experience. And, much like gravity, the outcomes produced by systems are predictable:

  • Black families have a significantly lower home ownership rate than white families (by 40% to 76%)
  • Health outcomes, like high incidence of diseases or serious health issues, are disproportionately higher in Black communities than white communities—notice that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed Black communities
  • The adverse effects of climate change are already disproportionately affecting Black communities.
  • And many, many more.

But, unlike  gravity, human-made systems are not an immutable law of nature. They are created and maintained by us. In December 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic truly gripped the planet, the SPARCC national team took another step toward understanding these systems and how we work to both support and dismantle them. It isn’t easy—like onions, beginning to peel the layers of anti-Black racism brings tears. This work asks a lot of us, most intensely from our Black colleagues. We ask them to relive their traumas so that we can see what our system-built-on-whiteness has wrought. It’s unfair and brutal. Their choice to share, if they choose to, is an act of courage. Our work, this blog, is us pushing past the pain to do something different.

Disrupting Gravity

We partnered with Equity and Results, a firm that joins racial equity principles with a results-based accountability framework (you can read more about our work with Equity & Results in the companion piece: Learning to Be Accountable for Anti-Racist Impact). Using the principles as a starting place, we began by envisioning the world we were out to create. With our vision in mind, we did our best four-year-old cosplay and asked, “Why?,” to a lot of really hard questions. Just why are health outcomes so disproportionate by race? Housing quality was one answer. But why is there such a stark difference in housing quality? Redlining. But why was there redlining? And so on. After many hours, we crafted a large diagram of roots that have led to inequities. At the very bottom across all indicators, without fail, appeared: capitalism, racism, white supremacy culture, and slavery.

Blog Post

A sample section of our root cause analysis. 

We noted many roots—and definitely missed some along the way—but the exercise helped us see some throughlines that, as an initiative, we were uniquely equipped to work on. On our team, these became known as the “hot roots”. For each hot root, we also saw a strategy in our own work to address the root cause.

The Hot Roots

  • Insufficient equality: who has the resources?
    • Our strategy: Increase the amount of sustainable (e.g. continuing, not time-limited) anti-racist resources (e.g. money and more!) into Black-led community organizations.
  • More money, more power: who gets to make decisions?
    • Our strategy: Include our sites and local partners in more decisions, ensure that local partners are at decision-making tables other than our own.
  • “Right looks white”: who determines if those decisions are right?
    • Our strategy: Rewrite the narrative to center people, not property. Change the perception of who and what is good and valuable.
  • More melanin, more burden: who is most impacted by these decisions?
    • Our strategy: Change policies and practices in the field.

Much of our work already fell into these strategies, allowing us to more clearly connect the work we were doing in partnership with SPARCC communities to our day-to-day. It also helps ensure we are focusing on where the work matters most, and maintain that focus. In a world where the work of anti-Black racism literally requires us to remake every system, clarity on where we have power to truly move systems is empowering. This way of thinking has been instrumental in how we created the policy platform, chose to invest in community ownership, and are having more intentional conversations with funders and our own institutions about money and power.

Why Center Blackness?

One outcome of this work has had us become hyper-intentional on centering Blackness in our work. SPARCC’s work spans across six incredibly diverse metropolitan regions in the US. The demographics, culture, and soul of each city is unique to its own history. Within each region includes non-homogenous groups of Asian American Pacific Islanders, Latinos, Black folks, White folks, and Indigenous populations. Los Angeles represents one of the largest Asian heritage cities in the country; Chicago’s Latino history is as diverse as its neighborhoods. SPARCC was created with the intention of serving each of these communities. We are centering on anti-Black racism, because we believe that the systems that create, uphold, and empower anti-Black racism are the same systems that harm other communities of color. Anti-Black racism, alongside Indigenous genocide, are also the deepest roots in this country. We know that no single solution is going to work for every community; but we also know that solving for anti-Black racism gives us the best chance at recreating our systems to ensure equity for all.

“In community, our potential is truly realized. What we have to offer to each other is not merely critique, anger, commentary, ownership and false power. We have the capacity to hold each other, serve each other, heal each other, create for and with each other, forgive each other, and liberate ourselves from each other. 

These are not new thoughts; this is what beloved community means. it is what we all long for, and what we all need.” -Adrienne Marie Brown, in relationship with others

As part of our strategy to change policies and practices in the field, you’re now reading this blog! The chorus of support for Black Lives Matter following the summer of 2020 is an opportunity that we must not squander. We have never done this before—for the entirety of this nation’s history, anti-Black racism has been a foundational element of our economy, democracy, and lived lives. This is hard work, and we can’t go it alone. In the spirit of doing this together, we will continue sharing our experiences and learnings as we work to dismantle anti-Black racism.