Breaking Down Barriers

Key Steps in Transforming Our Approach to Racial Equity

Jawaan Daniels strolls the halls at Lafayette High School in Buffalo, New York, rather than attending class. Jawaan is caught, suspended from school, and within minutes the 15-year-old is fatally shot at a bus stop. His death on June 11, 2010, has been a rallying cry for rescinding school discipline policies that suspend children of color at disproportionate rates, often for minor infractions that send them home or into the streets.

One in three Native American women report being raped during their lifetime. Native women are two and half times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared with all other races, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. “It’s almost like non-Native people have a license to brutalize Native women,” says Tina Olson, co-director of Mending the Sacred Hoop in Duluth, Mn., lamenting the jurisdictional hurdles that make it difficult to arrest and prosecute non-Natives for these crimes.

Thousands of children, the sons and daughters of immigrants, languish in foster care in states around the country after their parents are detained or deported by federal immigration authorities. The children can spend years in foster homes, with some put up for adoption when the parents lose custody rights. Neither state nor federal officials have found a solution, causing thousands more to enter the child welfare system each year.


The cumulative effects of racialized structural barriers and the everyday harms of implicit bias mean that racial difference is far too often an omnipresent obstacle to full belonging in our society for people of color.

Rachel Godsil

In instances like these, children of color and their families encounter legal and societal barriers—policies, regulations, laws and other forms of structural racism—limiting their opportunities for success. Throughout our nation’s history, structural inequities, as well as conscious and unconscious biases, have created barriers that are major contributors to the racial and ethnic disparities in wealth, health, education, housing and employment for people of color.

These barriers affect the quality of life for these families, often dictating where people can live, whether personal safety is threatened, if medical services are readily available and what education is offered to their children. Many people of color recognize that racial and ethnic barriers exist in our society, having suffered the harsh effects. But they may also feel powerless to overcome these impediments created by centuries of racial hierarchy.

“The cumulative effects of racialized structural barriers and the everyday harms of implicit bias mean that racial difference is far too often an omnipresent obstacle to full belonging in our society for people of color,” says Rachel Godsil, a law professor at Seton Hall University and co-founder of the Perception Institute. “While most people of all races and ethnicities subscribe to the egalitarian goal that race or ethnic difference should not prevent children from thriving, our allocation of resources and our behavior fail to reflect those goals.”

Despite all the anguish in communities of color from these challenges, the harm created by racial and ethnic barriers, such as rigid school discipline policies, criminal justice failings, outdated immigration laws, segregated housing, mass incarceration, and child welfare regulations are often unnoticed by the majority of our society.

“There’s this tension between the persistence of structural inequities and the fact that the vast majority of white Americans define themselves as ‘not racist,’” says Katrina Browne, a white woman whose ancestors were once the nation’s most prominent slave-traders. “There’s this attitude and set of emotions that makes the average white person feel they are not contributing to the problem of racism today and nobody they know is racist. The challenge is how to help white Americans understand the persistence of structural inequities, which are obviously borne out of a whole host of statistics in terms of income, housing, health, educational disparities…the list goes on and on.”

Browne, director and producer of the PBS documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” says, “One of the greatest challenges is how to inspire white folks to be a part of the solution when they don’t think they’re part of the problem.”

That’s where the Kellogg Foundation has played a critical role. Through decades of racial equity work, the foundation’s programs and initiatives have identified racial and ethnic barriers, supported extensive research into finding solutions and helped communities heal from the wounds and implement change.

The disparity in school discipline rates, especially suspensions, contributes to the barriers faced by minority teenagers and young adults. The death of Jawaan Daniels highlights the consequences that arise from punitive and uneven school discipline policies applied because of conscious and unconscious bias.
Suspension Rates

A study released in 2015 by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found that in the 2011-12 school year, 16 percent of African-American students and 7 percent of Latino students were suspended across the country, compared with just 5 percent of whites. School suspensions can strain relationships between students and teachers, which create additional hurdles for these children to learn in the classroom.

“Research shows that a child suspended from school is more likely to fail classes, more likely to drop out, more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, more likely to end up in the criminal justice system and more likely to live a life of poverty,” says Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a WKKF grantee working with communities and the federal government to adopt fairer school discipline policies.

“We know if a young person isn’t in school, they’re not learning,” Dianis says. “If they’re not learning, they’re more likely to fail. Suspensions take them out of learning environments, sometimes even putting them in dangerous situations.”

Still, Dianis says that progress is being made, noting that 10 or 15 years ago racial disparities in school discipline weren’t even talked about. Today, she sees efforts to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, zero tolerance and three strike policies. The Advancement Project’s work helped convince the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice to issue their first guidance to school districts on what constitutes discriminatory school discipline.

“Suspensions are the easy thing to do,” Dianis says. “It’s so easy to send a child to the principal’s office and kick the child out of school. What they should do is get the parents in, figure out the root causes of the trouble. Public schools have an interest in making sure that every child is successful, so they must figure out a way to do it. It’s time to reinvest money to prioritize more counseling in school rather than more police in schools.”

Dr. Gail C. Christopher, WKKF’s vice president for policy and senior advisor, says the flawed criminal justice system is the barrier at the heart of centuries of racial hierarchy.

“People have to understand that from the beginning, the criminal justice system, the policing system, the use of force to sustain the hierarchy has been the hallmark of America,” Christopher says. “The legacy of racism in this country is probably more deeply embedded in the policing and criminal justice system than any other system. And it’s the most lethal.”

The statistics paint a bleak picture.

The Sentencing Project, an organization that works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system, reports that more than 60 percent of the people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. Their report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee projects that if current incarceration rates continue, one in every three black males and one in every six Latino males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every 17 white males.

hispanic opinion of policeThe barriers created by the criminal justice system run far deeper than the racial and ethnic disparities in the incarceration statistics. The deaths of unarmed men, women and children of color during encounters with police, as well as the apparent favoritism shown towards police in race-related incidents in courts, is unleashing anger and frustration in communities. A poll commissioned by WKKF of Latino families in the U.S. found that 37 percent said that law enforcement officers treat Hispanics unfairly, 18 percent said they know family or friends who were victims of police brutality, and 59 percent said they would change something about their local police.

Furthermore, the justice department acknowledges that arrests occur in 13 percent of sexual assaults reported by Native American women, compared with 35 percent for blacks and 32 percent for whites. A 1953 federal statute only allows law enforcement authorities in only six states—Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin—to have jurisdiction over crimes involving Natives on Native lands. Thus, while data shows that non-Natives commit 88 percent of violent crimes against Native women, in the majority of states, non-Native perpetrators aren’t held accountable for their actions.

“As a result of social media, we are seeing the ugliest and most vicious expression of bias – both explicit and implicit – in law enforcement,” says Godsil, a WKKF grantee who has studied how unconscious bias affects police actions. “While many police departments, judges, and more recently, prosecutors, are seeking training about how to change behaviors that are a result of bias, the work is nascent. People of color deserve to be respected and valued as members of the community to be protected by law enforcement – and the far too many instances in which this doesn’t occur and the lack of confidence reasonably felt within communities of color are an urgent crisis.”

When the Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968, the intent was to end housing discrimination in the U.S., addressing a key factor contributing to housing segregation, which is a barrier on the roadway to success. But nearly 50 years later, a significant number of people of color, particularly low-income blacks and Latinos, live in largely segregated communities with low-performing schools, disproportionate environmental risks, fewer jobs and the crime, economic and social challenges associated with poor, urban neighborhoods.

poor children in the U.S.“We are seeing an increase in combined racial and economic segregation; it is the biggest threat to our democracy,” says Philip Tegeler, president and executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. He notes that a recent Rutgers University study found that extremely poor neighborhoods, with over 40 percent poverty, have nearly doubled since 2000, increasing from 7.2 million to 13.8 million people.

“Most of those people are children,” Tegeler says. “Housing segregation is at the root of many of the other racial disparities we see in our society – unequal schools, unequal policing, a deepening income and wealth gap, severe unemployment among African American youth, and gross disparities in community services, environmental exposures and health outcomes.”

Moreover, Richard Rothstein, an expert on housing segregation and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, asserts that explicit federal, state and local government policies led to racially segregated urban areas. A year ago, he wrote for Education Week about the link between segregated housing and education.

“Schools that most disadvantaged black children attend today are located in segregated neighborhoods far distant from middle-class suburbs,” Rothstein says in his piece. “Our ability to desegregate is hobbled by historical ignorance. We’ve persuaded ourselves that residential isolation of low-income black children is only de facto—the accident of economic circumstance, personal preference and private discrimination. Unless we relearn how residential segregation is de jure—racially motivated public policy—we can’t remedy school segregation that flows from neighborhood isolation.”

Far from the spotlight, there are barriers ravaging specific populations.

More than 50 percent of Native American children have untreated tooth decay, a condition that causes pain, forces missed school days and can be a prerequisite for serious diseases. This stems from a shortage of dentists. On average, according to Dr. Terry Batliner, associate director for the Center for Native Law Health Research at the University of Colorado, the ratio of dentists-to-people is one to 1,600. In Native communities, he says it’s generally one dentist to 3,800 or 4,000, and far worse in isolated areas: the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota has seven to nine dentists to treat 35,000 to 40,000 people.

“What that means is that in many of these communities, over half of the kids have to go to the operating room to get their teeth fixed,” says Batliner, whose organization is a WKKF grantee. “Access to that type of care is not as good as it should be. There are a lot of kids who aren’t treated, who don’t get treatment and are left in pain.” Batliner credited WKKF with supporting expanded use of dental therapists to improve access to dental care.

Federal and state officials have been slow to enact solutions for child welfare problems when undocumented parents are detained or deported. In a 2011 study, the organization Race Forward, a WKKF grantee, found that thousands of these children were being placed in foster care or even adopted. “We said that this problem would continue if deportations continued at the 2011 rate,” says Rinku Sen, the executive director. “While deportations have slowed some, we don’t have the comprehensive immigration reform that would truly shift the deportation system, and problems in immigrant detention continue.”

Sen cites a recent case in Arizona where undocumented grandparents, Olivia and Francisco Perez, were denied custody of their granddaughter after their daughter was sent to prison. “A lot more needs to be done to end mass deportation and detention of immigrants,” says Sen. “We are in the process of thinking through what further research or interventions we might make.”

Another unresolved child welfare issue is traumatizing Native American families. Native children are being removed from their families at disproportionately high rates; the practice is worse in states with the highest percentage of Natives to the state populations, such as Alaska, South Dakota and Montana. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ 2015 report says that Native children nationally are represented in foster care two and half times their percentage in the general population.

Sarah L. Kastelic, Ph.D., executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, says research shows when judges are presented with the same circumstances for Native and non-Native families, Native children are three times more likely than children generally and four times more likely than white children to be removed at the first encounter. Native families are also less likely to be offered supportive services to keep families together.

“The removal from their families is deeply traumatic for Native children,” Kastelic says. “Twenty percent of children placed in foster care suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate higher than that of U.S. war veterans. Staggering rates of unwarranted removals are unnecessarily traumatizing Native children and families.”

Kastelic says the removals are a barrier to success for Native children.

“We know that children—all children—fare best when they can grow up safely in their families and communities,” she says. “Removing children unnecessarily robs children of their sense of identity, belonging and culture. In Native children and youth, we know that culture is a strong protective factor. Cultural identity and ethnic pride result in greater school success, lower alcohol and drug use and higher social functioning.”

WKKF believes that to overcome these and so many other barriers, communities should heal their racial wounds to pave the way for progress, encouraging people of different races and ethnicities to work together to break down the barriers to success and create environments where their children can thrive.
Brown, who leads and participates in healing sessions, says her priority is providing whites “a conceptual framework” that helps them understand that they are benefitting from privileges for whites and government handouts.

“In the middle of the 20th century, there was a major investment in creating a white middle class with the GI Bill and access to homes and college loans,” Brown says. “It was a real boost. Most white folks whose parents or grandparents benefitted from those types of programs have no awareness of those benefits…black GIs weren’t given those same loans. There wasn’t a helping hand to help create a black middle class in the 20th century, and if anything, it was obstacles at every turn.”

She has group showings of her documentary, followed by a discussion session meant to be a healing opportunity. “One of my convictions that’s really come of our work is we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of the emotions that can be often associated with being white and asked to look at issues of race and slavery and history and inequality. Emotions run the gamut, from defensiveness and denial, to shame and guilt, to nervousness and discomfort and fear at saying or doing the wrong thing. “

Brown says WKKF has facilitated healing by emphasizing the role that unconscious bias plays in our society. “The concept of implicit or unconscious bias is getting out there more than ever before,” she says, adding that more white people today understand the meaning than three or four years ago. “I know from my own work that concept goes a long way because white people recognize themselves and they go, ‘Oh yeah, I do have that,’ whereas when you say, ‘Are you racist?’ They say, ‘No!’ They recognize themselves more now.”

Jerry Tello, an internationally-recognized authority in family strengthening, therapeutic healing, cross-cultural issues and motivational speaking, agreed with Brown that healing is an essential part of breaking down the barriers to racial equity.

“Healing really is an emotional, spiritual process,” he says. “You can change policies, you can change systems, but unless you are willing to face one another, to sit in a circle with one another, to acknowledge where you’re at in this journey as an individual, as a community and we as a country… Racial healing is like the sister of racial equity. They have to walk together because we hurt as interconnected family, and we have to heal as interconnected community.”