"The biggest and overarching question today is how we move forward with a modern racial justice agenda," said Rinku Sen, president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine.
Key areas in that framework include legislative battles around financial reform, education equity, addressing the mortgage crisis, immigration reform, police accountability and criminal justice concerns, notes Sen.
"Every issue has a racial dimension and if we deal with those dimensions we can help solve problems facing everybody," she said. "But if we don't, then we won't be able to solve them thoroughly."
We have to be able to see these issues in all their complexities when dealing with race, gender and class, Sen said. It's also a matter of political will on the part of racial justice activists that are willing to engage in a complicated analysis about race today, she added.
According to Sen, one of the problems is that we tend to focus very heavily on diversity when it comes to women, people of color, gays and lesbians or working people. "We have to be able to move beyond the diversity framework to one based on equity," she notes.
For example, when we think diversity we're concerned about having enough bodies in the room, she pointed out. But if we look at it from an equity point of view, we're concerned about having power and resources in order for those communities to thrive.
"The biggest challenge in race-related discourse is to make sure we're not leaving people out and that when we include folks that it's a genuine inclusion," she says.
Meanwhile ARC launched a national public education campaign this week called Drop the I-Word that's focused on eradicating the racial slur "illegal" in the media and in public discourse about immigration.
"This is about shifting the discussion," said Sen. The premise is that when the word "illegal" is used to describe immigrants it dehumanizes them and promotes policies that follow that frame, she notes.
"In order to prevent hate crimes against immigrants and to get a truly sane and modern immigration policy - we have to be clear that this is about human beings."
ARC is asking supporters to stop using the I-word and take that pledge at www.droptheiword.com.
We also want supporters to especially challenge media outlets that use the term in their stories and headlines by writing letters their editors as well as to politicians, said Sen.
Last weekend hundreds of activists nationwide convened in Chicago for ARC's Facing Race conference, known as the nation's largest multiracial gathering of racial justice advocates. Conference organizers say their goal was to provide a strategic space for participants to wrestle with the realities of structural racism and forge a vibrant vision for change. Workshops, panels and forums about racial justice, the economy, health care, the housing crisis, immigration reform, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights and much more were featured.
All kinds of activist groups are needed including teachers, parents, business leaders and elected officials to move the fight for racial justice and civil rights forward, said Sen. People on the grass roots should be thinking about how they can impact their city or town's local economic development and policies, she added.
A native of India, Sen grew up in the U.S. on the Northeast side. She started her activist career as a student at Brown University where she received a B.A. in Women's Studies in 1988. Later she received an M.S. in Journalism at Columbia University in 2005. She has been published in several publications including The Huffington Post, Jack and Jill Politics and The San Francisco Chronicle, to name a few. Author of several books, Sen also recently appeared on The Tavis Smiley show.
Founded in 1981, the Applied Research Center (ARC) is one of America's leading think tanks on racial justice. The group has several offices across the country and aims to investigate the racial consequences of public policy initiatives and develop new frameworks and solutions to address racial inequality.
Reflecting on this year's Facing Race conference Sen said she was moved that so many people came out and were so engaged from start to finish.
"It just represents that there is a huge constituency for racial justice," she said. "If we continue to get consolidated and keep growing we could win."
Photo: Brian Palmer for the Applied Research Center