The Aspen Institute
Roundtable on Comprehensive
Community Initiatives


Introduction and Rationale
Conceptualization of racism and relevance to community building
An expanded community building mission

Introduction and Rationale
The basic premise for the Aspen Roundtable Project on Race and Community Revitalization is that current place-based strategies to rebuild communities need to be grounded in a more useful analysis of race. There is growing evidence that race presents barriers on many levels to the achievement of this field's stated goals of local capacity building, empowerment, and self-sustainability.

Perhaps the most obvious barriers are the historical metropolitan processes and policies that concentrate the nonwhite urban poor in a few pockets of chronic disadvantage. Astute studies conducted over the past two decades have mapped racial outcome disparities in urban settings and it is clear that urban political economies do not operate in ways that are race-neutral. African Americans, Latinos and other racial minorities are placed at a disadvantage in disproportionate numbers by these systems.

Less obvious are the ways in which the nation's historical legacy of racial stratification operates in the current period to undermine the prevailing paradigm of place-based intervention. From its inception, America has defined race in a way that privileges "whiteness" in every dimension of life. The notion of who qualifies for membership in this group has evolved since slavery, but those still excluded from it bear a crippling burden of negative stereotyping by the majority, as well as other, more active forms of social marginalization.

All this means that race and racism amount to far more than a problem of interpersonal relationships; they are active generators of the economic, physical and other problems of place that the community revitalization field now seeks to address in comprehensive ways. With this in mind, the Aspen Roundtable has set out to work with community stakeholders to develop a new operational paradigm that uses a "structural" understanding of race as its basic building block.

This interest in race does not arise out of abstract theoretical analysis, but from the expressed concerns of many in the community revitalization field itself. Race presents a variety of daily challenges to initiatives that emphasize collaboration among a range of stakeholders in and outside poor communities. More important than just the cultural sensitivity issue in these relationships, is the matter of power and agency. These include inter-group power issues, such the inequities inherent in funder-community dynamics or the tensions evident in high-immigration communities where African Americans fear a loss of influence to recent arrivals from Asia, Latin American Africa and the Caribbean. Perhaps more significant for community revitalization leaders are the power and agency issues that have their roots in the systemic barriers that deny opportunity to constituents of color. These include lack of access to capital and adequate public education, racial profiling by the criminal justice system, the denial of adequate community resources for child care and development, environmental racism, and many other inequities.

In responding to this call for a race-centered analysis, the Roundtable is not dismissing other legitimate approaches to urban inequality, such as class or gender. We are aware of the benefits of those vantage points, but believe that since racial inequality has been an underinvestigated factor in U.S. social policy analysis, it needs to be front and center at this time. Our society has never been more prosperous than it is at present, and yet the gap in racial outcomes remains intractable and virtually neglected by our governing institutions. A related consideration has been our conviction that influential actors in civil society can contribute greatly to setting a new racial equity agenda for social production -- in poor communities and beyond. The community building arena and its larger civic context possess capable institutions of their own that are well positioned to initiate needed progress on this front. Every burst of racial progress in U.S. history was propelled by civic leadership, and we believe that the time has come for community building to explore its potential in this regard.


Conceptualization of racism and relevance to community building
In pursuing this project, the Roundtable has thought it important to define the problem of race appropriately, and to ground the project firmly within communities themselves. As mentioned above, it uses the concept of "structural racism" to convey the historical significance and continuing embeddedness of white privilege. (A detailed discussion these ideas is presented in the initial project publication written by the project coordinator, Keith Lawrence, Structural Racism and Community Revitalization.) Here is a summary of some key elements of that discussion:

  • Racial inequality in our society is not inevitable, nor a natural consequence of fundamental differences in the talents and work ethics of whites and non-whites. It is a system that is actively constructed and maintained by institutional and cultural dynamics we might call "structural racism."
  • The institutional component of structural racism - what many call "institutional racism" - is the actual "infrastructure" of historically accumulated white privilege. Political, economic and civic institutions (the courts, legislatures, the "free" market, the media, the criminal justice system, etc.) actively maintain racial inequality even though this may not be their conscious intent. Unequal outcomes are produced because these institutions operate on the basis of "universal" values (e.g., individualism, one-person-one-vote, merit) that are actually deeply racialized in the American context. In other words, these values were constructed in a "universe" that was itself racist and unequal.
  • These institutions and arrangements are embedded in and reinforced by a dominant cultural or social-psychological context of racial stereotypes that continually define the appropriate "places" for Americans of color in any given setting. It is the force of this popular will that ultimately is responsible for the persistent marginalization of minorities -- African Americans, especially. Those with a purely legalistic view of racial equality generally underestimate the power of this "conventional wisdom," and the severity of the social sanctions brought to bear on those (white, or of a different color) who challenge it.
  • The dire consequences of these problems for individuals and families require the attention of social policy and economic development leaders. But the solutions do not lie only in remedial policies and programs. Social isolation, concentrated poverty, the breakdown of internal social controls and poor individual and family level outcomes are closely tied to a lack of community or collective power. While other groups are able to attract or develop the resources to prevent or minimize these problems, structural racism robs poor minorities of the power they need to bargain effectively in the political economy.

Although many community residents and community building practitioners intuitively understand racism in this way, it is not the perspective generally adopted by the field. Race is typically perceived as a barrier to collaboration and thus generally conceptualized as a "cultural competence" or "diversity" problem. These are important concerns, but to reduce race-consciousness exclusively to this level is to miss its more insidious aspects. It is important to engage communities in the development of a structural racism analysis because only then will they unearth the historical relationships between local outcomes and specific local, regional and national policies. The structural approach properly allocates some responsibility to functional levels other than the individual. Poor communities become part of a larger ecology of social production.

There are a few additional reasons why we think it particularly important to develop and promote this racial analysis now. Firstly, several current policy issues that promise to have great significance for distressed urban communities are gaining prominence on the public agenda. But as usual, their racial equity implications are not part of the mainstream discussion. The "smart growth" metropolitan development discussion is a good example. National and regional leaders, and some foundations, are keenly concerned with regional sustainability on many levels, given the current pattern of uncontrolled suburban sprawl in many metropolitan areas. Taking an ecological view, they worry that sprawl intensifies a host of destructive regional dynamics that would damage both urban and suburban viability in the long term. They stress the vital importance of revitalizing the central cities that have been the biggest losers in the suburban trend. But yet, the discussion to date has minimized the historical and ongoing significance of race in inner-city decline and suburban sprawl.

Another example is in education, where there is a distinct momentum away from the old national guarantee of quality public elementary and higher educational institutions. A variety of "public choice" options are being promoted in many quarters, and lost in this discussion is the reality that thousands of poor children of color - many of them recent immigrants - will continue to rely on sub-standard neighborhood schools.

Similarly, there are numerous emerging issues in areas such as employment and criminal justice that are being framed in race-neutral terms though they hold greatest significance for the children and families of color living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods. This project intends to illuminate these deficiencies, since we have seen previous generations of universalistic policies short-circuited by race.

To summarize the perspective that serves as our guiding analysis, the Roundtable identified "structural racism" as a relevant and practical framework for reconsidering the challenges of inner-city poverty, and for guiding remedial work in this area. Structural racism is understood as the complex ways in which historical oppression, culture, ideology, political economy, public policy and institutional practices interact to produce forms of racial sorting that reproduce and reinforce a hierarchy of color that privileges whiteness and marginalizes blackness. "Marginalization," the key idea in this definition, refers to ongoing processes of "racial sorting" that occur at three levels: the spatial, the institutional and the individual (or cognitive). One aspect of sorting that we underline is its relevance to everyone in our society, not just whites and African Americans.


An expanded community building mission
The objective of this project is to expand the mission of the community building field to include greater attention to racial equity and, therefore, to complement and energize other progressive democratic social change efforts. By this we mean not only emphasis on resident participation in the field's operational planning and decisionmaking, but also a more energetic role for the field itself in urban and regional governance. Figure 1 presents a general outline of the project.

The Roundtable intends to focus this initiative on influencing the leadership "culture" within community building with the broad goal of changing the prevailing community building culture in several respects:

(a) Expansion of current thinking and practice regarding local capacity-building in directions that enhance the influence of community residents on the shaping of the institutional policy agenda change.

(b) Greater recognition of the significance of the regional context to local opportunities. And, recognition of the roles that local actors might play a role in shaping critical regional dynamics.

(c) Enhanced local capacity to provide anti-racism training, leadership and dialogue, and to disseminate narratives of local racial inequity that take into account structural factors that contribute to such inequities.

Concretely, the objective is to develop a critical mass of leaders across the various dimensions of community building who are more attuned to race as a structural problem. It also includes identification or development of strategies and resources for recognizing and dealing with racial sorting, that these leaders might recommend to the field or utilize themselves.


In recent months, the Roundtable's Race Project has turned its attention to the challenge of applying this perspective to the development of "tools" that community building practitioners might use to examine and address specific racial equity concerns. We earmarked four substantive policy domains relevant to community development for initial investigation: employment, criminal justice and neighborhood safety, education, and metropolitan dynamics. To develop a knowledge base and sense of the salient racial equity issues, the project team reviewed the research literature for each of these domains. We are using these reviews as basic building blocks for several project activities and products. In the paragraphs below we provide an outline of the products that we plan to develop over the next two years.

In collaboration with practitioners and social scientists we intend to develop a "toolkit" that practitioners might use to:

  • Conduct racial equity analyses in their own communities or regions;
  • Mobilize, involve and educate community residents with respect to specific local disparity problems in the four domains mentioned above; and
  • Identify areas in which new strategic alliances committed to promoting racial equity might be formed. Such networks might include community-based organizations, local residents, business leaders, philanthropic funders, technical assistance and training providers, and others.

The toolkit will pull together in one place:
  • A variety of equity-oriented regional and policy analysis protocols;
  • An educational curriculum, or "citizen's guide" to structural racism;
  • Strategies for encouraging local foundations, business institutions, and other potential allies to "buy into" a structural racism analysis and support anti-racism initiatives;
  • A summary of the scope, nature and activities of organizations that are working to address structural racism.
  • A resource guide for practitioners and funders that lists and describes a range of anti-racism/anti-oppression training programs, and that identifies curricula that best address structural barriers.

We also intend to produce:
  • A knowledge volume that pulls together and synthesizes the scholarly papers that shaped this project's understanding of the linkages between race and urban poverty. The first section of the volume will present the theoretical and historical context for structural racism. In the second section, it will apply the racial analysis to education, criminal justice, employment and metropolitan area dynamics, in ways that highlight how and where racial sorting occurs within those domains. We will also publish occasional papers that explore how racial hierarchy plays out in other substantive domains.

Democracy building is an underlying purpose of this initiative, thus the ultimate and most important audience for our work is those who live in low-income urban communities. We recognize, however, that we are better positioned to influence those who play a mediating role, rather than residents. As such, we will engage more directly with local institutions, service providers and other intermediaries, and work through them to accomplish our implicit community empowerment goals. Thus, our audiences include regional civic power holders (such as foundations, the research community, local technical assistance providers and intermediary organizations, and local media), private sector groups (e.g., chambers of commerce), and local public sector policymakers (e.g., mayors, school boards, police departments). We especially want to engage national and local community building networks and leadership, as they are critical to setting new directions for the field.

We will therefore use a variety of communication strategies to disseminate project information to various audiences. These include peer networks, speeches and visual presentations, mass media, and conferences that bring together community-building stakeholders.

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