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Why racial equity requires racial healing

America has been poisoned by racism for centuries. But as we celebrate another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the research is clear.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead off the final lap to the state capitol at Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965.  Thousands of civil rights marchers joined in the walk, which began in Selma, Ala., on March 21, demanding voter registration rights for blacks. Rev. D.F. Reese, of Selma, is at right.  (AP Photo)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center-left, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, center, walk towards the state capitol at Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965.AP file

Just a few days into the 118th Congress, it feels like our nation is trapped in a cycle of vitriol and discord. Thousands of (reported) hate crimes, increases in antisemitism, racist election campaigns and our enduring partisan political divide make the goal of unity under a set of universally supportive values seem farther away than ever.  

Meanwhile, our collective, annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which occurred yesterday, is a time when many of us participate in service projects and reflect on what it would take to achieve racial equity in the current environment.

But calling for racial equity is not enough without a different kind of conversation.

But calling for racial equity is not enough without a different kind of conversation.

As we discuss the most effective ways to bring about racial equity, we need to make space for something else: racial healing. This is not because racial equity has been realized — far from it. It’s because it is clear that we can’t have one without the other. Racial equity, imposed from above, mandated by a court or lawmakers, will never stick unless there is also racial healing, grown from within and nurtured carefully.

Racial healing is what’s needed for a country that has been poisoned by racism for centuries. It is an authentic acknowledgment of and open grappling with the generations of trauma that have been visited on all of us — Indigenous, Black, Latinx, White, Asian — since long before our founding as a nation. It is a process for connecting, telling the truth, building relationships and bridging divides so that communities can develop the trust to work together toward a more equitable future, and a world in which all our children can thrive. Racial healing begins with affirming everyone’s humanity, not “blaming and shaming.” It’s about communities having the difficult, often uncomfortable conversations needed to build trust and discover a new sense of wholeness.

The research here is clear. The Pew Research Center found broad public agreement that the country has made advances in racial equity, but Americans do not all agree that increasing cultural awareness of racial issues is a good thing. Only 46% of white Americans said the increased focus on racial inequity was a positive development. That’s compared to 75% of Black Americans, 64% of Asian Americans and 59% of Latinos.

To me, this means that far too many Americans, especially those who identify as white, see racial equity as something that may come at their expense, rather than something that will liberate them, too. The fact is that, while the racial trauma that Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous people experience in America is vastly different, all of us, including white Americans, are hurt by racism and racial hierarchy.

There was a moment following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 when millions of us, including many white friends and neighbors, really grappled with racism — some for the very first time. Many more people suddenly, viscerally, seemed to get it. In unprecedented actions across the country, we collectively felt the burden of our history, acknowledged the ongoing pain racism inflicts on our souls and demanded change. But the impact of that summer has mostly been measured in policies and police budgets. The incredible outpouring of empathy and understanding that so many felt in that moment is critical to deliver lasting change. And it can still be harnessed and catalyzed into lasting change. It is not too late for us to get back on track to transform our communities.

In unprecedented actions across the country, we collectively felt the burden of our history.

To be clear, this is not just about the work white Americans need to do. As CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, I’ve worked with incredible organizations around the world confronting the effects of racial trauma. These experiences have taught me that this is not just about white people listening to Black, brown and Indigenous people, or vice versa, but about building honest, trust-based relationships and holding authentic conversations with one another so we can all heal from the damage of systemic racism.

This is why, as part of our recent Racial Equity 2030 challenge, our foundation is supporting organizations like Communities United in Chicago. This intergenerational, community-led organization sees how deeply so many Chicago youth are suffering from systems of racial injustice: schools being closed in already under-resourced neighborhoods, communities with no economic opportunity plagued by violence that comes from trying to survive, and poor access to housing and health care. Their partnership with the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital demonstrates what can happen when a major institution supports youth who have a wealth of lived experience in developing their leadership skills with a focus on healing. These youth learned that the deep exploration and validation of their own experiences could have profound benefits for their physical and mental health. This is healing work led by and for Black youth, to benefit their own communities.

It’s also why we established the National Day of Racial Healing (NDORH), held each year on the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Now in its seventh year, during NDORH, conversations are held in event spaces, places of worship, parks and recreation spaces, community centers and around dinner tables nationwide — conversations that are crucial for forging relationships across our differences and engaging in the work it takes to heal.

It’s also why we are working to make sure our own field of philanthropy, as well as others with the power to influence larger ecosystems, heed this same call to action. Changemakers and community leaders have been running full tilt for years, with many staff and volunteers burnt out and eager for stronger solidarity. Many communities of color working for justice are carrying the dual burdens of waging the fight against systemic racism while also surviving its effects. They deserve time, rest, and the space to heal, too — and it’s on all of us to help make sure they meet their needs.

Racial healing is at the core of racial equity. It’s the hard work we need to do together. And the sooner we get started, the sooner we can be a whole, united nation.

Tune in to MSNBC to watch the National Day of Racial Healing: An MSNBC Town Hall live on January 17 at 10 p.m. ET. The town hall will stream on Peacock, and be available on-demand the next day.

The live studio audience event is sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF).