New Year's Reflections on Race Relations

To quote Pharrell Williams' hit song "Happy," "it might seem crazy, what I'm about to say." In regard to race relations, there wasn't much to be happy about in 2014. Still, I'm happy and optimistic about race relations in 2015.
12/31/2014 08:05 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

To quote Pharrell Williams' hit song "Happy," "it might seem crazy, what I'm about to say." In regard to race relations, there wasn't much to be happy about in 2014. Still, I'm happy and optimistic about race relations in 2015.

Despite the celebration of 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans remain as segregated as ever, particularly in our social patterns and in our attitudes about the progress we have made toward that more perfect union. Although standard segregation measures show that American cities are more integrated now than they have been since 1910, spatial racism as a pattern of housing development still exists.

We connect globally through numerous devices with just a finger tap, yet we remain ethnocentric in our thinking. National polls reveal that the majority of Americans do not have friends that cross racial lines, and that our social networks only comprise those of our own race; thus we suffer from cultural encapsulation. The lessons to be learned from the racially charged comments of sports-team owners and the policing practices that result in the killing of unarmed black men and deep mistrust between law enforcement and black and brown communities remain on our segregated tables.

Although I am not quite feeling the happiness of a room without a roof, I do believe that there are reasons to clap along and be encouraged that race relations can and will improve in 2015. I am not looking for another Martin Luther King Jr., or even for President Obama, to lead the way. A single person as leader cannot make the kind of changes necessary to improve today's race relations. We are beyond legislating race in America. The leadership that is required to mend current race relations has to come from a collective force so powerful that it can only result in forward movement. In my happy world, I envision a critical mass of everyday people who make these practices the norm:

1. Listening for understanding and not rebuttal. You know that you have achieved this if you ask probing or clarifying questions about what was just said in lieu of tapping your foot, waiting to pounce with an ingenious comeback. This practice is especially hard when you believe that (and sometimes even know that) you are right. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Releasing the need to be right. Support dialogues that hold multiple realities, work to understand what the other perspective might be, and continually ask, "What would help me understand that perspective?" In conversations about race, instead of trying to be right, ask yourself, "How does this change the narrative on race relations? Does this comment elevate the conversation to something that will lead to progress?"

3. Challenging assumptions. Question anecdotal generalizations that broadly paint any race (that includes white people) with broad strokes. Hold multiple realities and seek new ways of knowing.

4. Marrying intention and impact. Understand that a negative impact does not always come as a result of bad intentions. Understand that good intentions do not necessarily lessen a negative impact.

5. Being racially resilient. Racially resilient individuals are folks who stay engaged during racial clashes and don't give up until they are familiar with the script of multicultural living. Racial tensions become creative tensions that lead to new ways of knowing and trusting each other.

6. Fighting racial bias. The bad news is that neuroscience research indicates that parts of the brain, particularly the amygdala, are active in initial racial bias. The good news is that although racial bias may be neurologically based, racial biases are not inevitable. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard professor and a thought leader in studying unconscious bias, notes that we can actually train our brains to work against stereotypes and reduce biases by exposing ourselves to counterstereotypical messages and images as a way to limit unconscious bias.

This is the image that I will hold as a promise of improved race relations in 2015.

Of course, these practices are easier to write than to do. The doing part is very hard, and it takes a lot of collective doing to make any progress. Improving race relations requires cultural humility, knowing that ridding oneself of bias and becoming diversity-proficient is a lifelong journey.

What keeps me happy in the process is being joined by a host of colleagues and friends who are role models for closing the racial divide. They support me by rejuvenating my sick-and-tired-of-race-issues energy. I can then use that energy to push for deeper understanding. Maybe that is the message to be derived from all of what has happened regarding race relations in 2014. None of us are without racial bias, and all of us can do something different to lessen our country's racial divide. Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do.