A Stark Imbalance of Power

In seeking racial reconciliation, we begin to understand each other through dialogue and relationships. This blog is part of a series that explores the issues facing our world today.

Race and Power: Institutional Racism

If it’s difficult to grasp the definition of institutional racism in America – racial bias and unfair treatment across all levels of power and influence – perhaps showing it might make it more real. 
Given that it’s almost time for the Oscars again, let’s look at the movies. You might have remembered a certain hashtag that accompanied the Academy Awards last year: #OscarsSoWhite. 
It came about when April Reign, a journalist in New York, watched the Oscar nominations in 2015 and couldn’t help but notice the lack of racial diversity among the 20 nominees in the acting categories. In dismay, she tweeted out the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. In 2016, for the second year in a row, none of the actors and actresses were racial minorities, and the hashtag Reign devised the year before seemingly got re-tweeted everywhere. 
Public figures from George Clooney to Lupita Nyong’o to Reese Witherspoon voiced their disapproval, and those like Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Will Smith and Ava DuVernay did even more by skipping the awards. 
While #OscarsSoWhite became a hashtag phenomenon, supporters of racial diversity in the movies acknowledged the lack of white nominees is but a symptom of a larger, more systemic issue: the lack of racial diversity and opportunity in the overall film industry. 
“It is not the Academy that is cheating minorities, it is the film industry itself,” writes David Cox in The Guardian newspaper. Despite constituting more than 35 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Cox points out racial minorities are outnumbered by two to one in film leads, two to one among film directors and three to one among movie writers. A full 94 percent of studio bosses are white, as are Academy Award voters. (In the 21st Century, 10 percent of Oscar nominations have gone toward black actors, 3 percent have gone to Latino actors and 1 percent have gone to Asian Americans.)
It does not stop, however, with the film industry. Curious after the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag spread, journalists at The New York Times looked at the faces of power across all kinds of influential institutions in America: government, business, politics, culture and education. What they found was a stark imbalance of power made even more sobering when they actually charted out the faces of influence. 
Of the 503 most powerful people in America, 44 were racial minorities. That’s 8.7 percent. Remember, racial minorities make up more than 35 percent of the American population. 
These numbers includes corporate CEOs, where 8 out of 102 executives were racial minorities. Just one, Indra Nooyi of Pespico, is a racial minority who’s female. In the U.S. Senate, there are 8 racial minorities in 2017 (up from 6, when The New York Times did its survey last year), which is also 8 percent. Four out of 50 governors who are racial minorities, and that number will drop to three if Nikki Haley of South Carolina is confirmed to be the next ambassador to the United Nations.
Of 20 studio executives in Hollywood, there’s one racial minority, and the ratio is the same when it comes to music executives. Of the 29 most powerful television executives and producers, there are two. ( Both are at ABC, home to shows like “Blackish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” which have mostly minority casts, as well as “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” whose protagonists are black and female. ) Of the 32 owners of National League Football teams, one is a racial minority. Of the 33 owners of Major League Baseball teams, one is a racial minority. There are no racial minorities currently serving as presidents of Ivy League universities.
So how do power dynamics start shifting? Here are three key steps: 
Ceding Authority: It takes those in power, meaning mostly white men and white women, but especially white men, to realize the racial inequities wrought by institutional racism and act on their own responsibilities as beneficiaries of privilege. This means the appointing of qualified minorities to positions of influence, power and visibility. This also could mean sacrificing one’s own self interest to elevate someone else.  
Intentionality: If those in power rely solely on the networks they’ve been accustomed to, they will most likely find the majority of people reflect similar beliefs, experiences, class and race. It takes extra work to be intentional about diversifying power, and that means reaching out to new coalitions and finding groups, like minority-affiliated organizations, to find excellent people. 
If white-led institutions start filling internship programs and open leadership positions with with talented people who also happen to be racial minorities, the pipeline of potential will lead to change. But that change doesn’t happen by accident.  
Believing Diversity Works: To circle back to Hollywood, if the belief is that executives make decisions based on money, then it’s to their advantage to ensure the cast is racially diverse. A report released last year by the University of California at Los Angeles found films featuring a cast in which half of the lead actors and actresses were non-white made almost double the revenue of those with all-white casts. 
That could have influenced this past year’s spate of films on racially diverse topics with diverse casts, which also happened to be critically acclaimed, including “Moonlight,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Loving,” “Race,” “Miles Ahead,” “Birth of a Nation” and “Queen of Katwe.” Two animated features, “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “Moana,” also featured ethnically diverse characters. So there’s hope. 
The most poignant reminder of racial reconciliation and the ceding of power comes out of God’s Word. The Bible reminds us Jesus has reconciled us to himself, so we must reconcile ourselves to each other in a way that is authentic, patient, understanding and self sacrificial. It is the playing out of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). In describing a new framework between Jews and Gentiles, Paul writes clearly in Ephesians 2:14 about Jesus as our peacemaker: 
 “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.” 
“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” 
Resource: When we think about racism, we sometimes think only about how individuals treat each other. But it’s deeper than that, which gets to the heart of why racism has been so difficult to eradicate. Jay Smooth of Race Forward breaks down systemic and institutional racism in this brief but clear video, “Moving the Race Conversation Forward.” 
Question: What institutions or organizations in your life do you see inequitable power structures at play? What new networks and relationships can you build, organizations can you explore or suggestions and referrals can you start making to diversify that space?  

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