Good books make us better by increasing our intellect and broadening our outlook. Yet the best books force us not only go outward but inward as well: to contemplate its words so that they inform, expand and sometimes disrupt our patterns of thinking.
On May 28, Richard Rothstein, distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, visited Atlanta for two conversations on his 2017 book, The Color of Law. In this honest exploration of American history, Rothstein documents that it was “de jure” segregation (segregation dictated by law) that produced the nation’s racially divided cities and suburbs. In concise prose, he detailed the calculated actions of elected officials and local jurisdictions to impose and enforce racial separation across the U.S. throughout the twentieth century. Reading the Color of Law and listening to Mr. Rothstein’s interaction with the audiences reinforced for me a quandary for those of us in the social sector.
It has to do with data, our now sovereign ruler in the world of work. Academicians, management gurus and professional coaches alike advise nonprofit leaders to prioritize the use of data and to drive decisions based on facts, trends and statistical numbers. Trustees, boards of directors and nonprofit executives alike all seek to quantify the “return on investment” of their philanthropic investments. Consequently, we are becoming skilled in pulling statistics, developing scorecards and projecting dashboards in the very intensive and important work of employing data to show whether we are “moving the needle” on critical community issues.
At the Community Foundation we also respect data and, in our commitment to inspire philanthropy to increase opportunity in the region, we pulled the data on metro Atlanta. As one of the country’s most segregated cities, there are statistics on the region’s neighborhoods marred by segregation and ravaged by poverty; on generational low-wealth attainment in black and Latinx communities; on household income and other characteristics that forecast stymied life outcomes of the families who reside there. We had begun to develop strategies to address this data by researching best practice and speaking with our partners.
Yet Richard’s accounting of debilitating housing and education policy, supported by complicit municipal and law enforcement powers and abetted by public intimidation, cautions us to forgo writing our prescription without better understanding the disease. To go beyond the data to understand the story behind it. To get to the truth of the matter.
That truth reveals that the deep racial and class divides we face now were inevitable and enduring. That government’s decisions to deny black citizens to access decent housing and purchase a home was a deliberate attempt to dampen the progress of a people and the vitality of whole communities. That the “ghettos” feared by so many and exploited on Hollywood screens were indeed orchestrated.
So, we are compelled to rethink our approach. Armed with the background of our data and the truths it reveals, how might our work be more holistic and restorative? Would an approach that supports family financial literacy and access to credit be more valuable than one focused on home repair? What about opportunities to provide capacity building and loans to community-based entrepreneurs to increase economic vitality in addition to helping people access job training? Can we encourage neighborhood associations to focus as much on monitoring local policies and laws as on summer festivals and senior walking clubs? This rethinking takes longer and forces us to dig much deeper, yet it is critical to the outcomes we seek.
Books like the Color of Law help us to move from statistical data to truth and can give us a better understanding of our neighbors’ realities within a context of shared accountability and humanity. And we are all the better for it.
P.S. Please ask any of us at the Foundation for more great reads.