Opinion: United around achieving racial equity

United for Racial Equity and Healing Fund aims to show way forward.

Growing up in New York, I worked hard in school. So hard, in fact, I was selected in my senior year to receive the Alumni Cup – an award given every year to the top scholar athlete.

The award for my selection was handed out at a local country club and, given that it was a somewhat prestigious venue, there was always security working the door.

On the night of the awards ceremony, an event exclusively held to recognize my achievements, security refused to let me in, as it was a restricted club – no Blacks allowed. With my father by my side, I explained the event was meant to honor me. They insisted I leave. Fortunately, the school’s Headmaster intervened, and I was granted entry.

On an evening meant to commemorate everything I had worked so hard for, I learned two painful lessons. One, my father could not save us from indignity. Two, I witnessed how much my skin color affected expectations about who I was and my capabilities.

Milton J. Little Jr.
Milton J. Little Jr.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Unfortunately, my experience is hardly unique. 2020 has been a testament to that reality.

This year, Black and Brown communities have been disproportionately affected by the impact of COVID-19. In mid-May, my colleague Katrina Mitchell wrote about how Black Americans were more likely to live in areas at highest risk of economic and health disruption, to lose their jobs and to have underlying conditions that exacerbated the effects of COVID-19.

In Greater Atlanta, the narrative was no different. In our communities of Low and Very Low Child Well-Being, where residents are primarily Black and Brown, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc, and many are still steeped in a state of turmoil.

Outrage at the revelation of such inequitable suffering and the apparent lack of urgency to ameliorate the situation was justified.

A couple of weeks later, that outrage reached new heights when the homicides of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were brought to light. Some tried to vilify these individuals, pointing to criminal backgrounds or suspicious behaviors that would have warranted their wrongful deaths.

But as someone who worked diligently to resist stereotypes growing up, and was stereotyped anyway, I can speak to how false and hurtful these accusations are; and to how representative they are of the larger problem our country is currently facing.

According to research from the Racial Equity Institute, there are consistent inequities between Black and White Americans in terms of healthcare, education, law enforcement, child welfare and finance.

Black Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be suspended in K-12 education, 5.2 times as likely to be denied a loan, and 7 times more likely to be incarcerated as adults.

The preponderance of these inequities across systems and socioeconomic strata disproves the notion that these are unrelated statistics or that the problem is the individual or the culture. The Racial Equity Institute finds that these issues are connected by the same root cause - systemic racism - which it likens to contaminated groundwater – an underlying source that poisons all our systems.

Understanding the pervasiveness of structural racism, we are left with a cogent conclusion: to solve groundwater problems, we need groundwater solutions.

That is the work our organization, United Way of Greater Atlanta, is proudly championing in our region through our newly launched United for Racial Equity and Healing Fund.

Ending disparities has been the guidepost of our Child Well-Being Agenda, which has been focused on addressing the systemic issues that put Greater Atlanta at the bottom of the list of U.S. cities in terms of opportunity and mobility for low-income children.

The current spotlight on the disparities in our country and the accompanying civil unrest has created new momentum to plainly address the inequities that persist in our community.

With our new fund, the first of its kind in Greater Atlanta, we will refocus our efforts on preventing and reducing racial inequities across systems that impact child well-being (education, health, housing, and economic stability). To accomplish these goals, we will be placing an emphasis on supporting and funding organizations that are led by, and focused on, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities most directly impacted by structural racism.

We have developed a diverse Fund Advisory Committee, which will utilize a racial equity impact analysis to guide the grant decision-making process.

We are committed to guiding this mission in a compassionate and intentional manner, and our successes collaborating with respected leaders from across the region on COVID relief efforts this year reveal the high-level of effectiveness with which we operate.

All of us, right now, have an opportunity to convert this moment of universal fervor into a turning point for advancing deep and wide-scale change.

The same sense of mutual responsibility and interdependence that are hallmarks of the fight against COVID-19 should similarly guide our efforts in this battle against structural racism. We must remind ourselves, and those that surround us, that it is up to us to hold one another accountable. It is up to us to protect ourselves through preventative measures, lest racial injustices grow so severe that more innocent people are forced to weather further violent, infectious outbreaks.

We must create a more-just and equitable Greater Atlanta. Our children deserve more than the unwarranted prejudice that would cast doubt on even their greatest accomplishments. The same prejudice I, and many others, have been forced to confront.

Through the work of the United for Racial Equity and Healing Fund, I hope we can begin removing those same barriers for those who are just starting on their journey, and carry on the historic legacy and vision of U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian. We have relied, for far too long, on the resiliency of those facing oppression.

It is time we remove the chains of racism and choose a united way forward.

Milton J. Little Jr. is president and CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta.