Focusing on Race in Community Development

November 26, 2018

Young Black Man in Focus

Throughout recent history, well-intentioned policies meant to lift communities of color have had the opposite effect, perpetuating disparities along racial lines. One culprit may be race-neutral language.

Could an explicit focus on race in community development help distribute opportunity more equitably?

Inclusion and racial equity were central themes at the 2018 National Interagency Community Reinvestment Conference. Discussion points follow from the Promoting Racial Equity through Community Development panel moderated by Laura Choi, a Community Development research manager at the San Francisco Fed.

“We talk a lot about people and place, but we need to take the conversation further. We need to recognize that there is a link between place and race,” said Choi. “Neighborhood segregation has had huge impacts on outcomes related to health, education, and economic prospects.”

In her panel introduction, Choi addressed the example of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).

“The history of CRA traces back to the racially discriminatory practice of redlining, but the law was intentionally written to be race-neutral. Modern application of CRA looks only through the lens of income,” said Choi. “This raises practical questions for all of us in the field around, how can community development explicitly promote racial equity?”

“My daughter, when she was three, loved My Little Pony®. I feel like race-neutral policies are a lot like her ponies. They make you feel good, but they don’t exist,” said Jeremie Greer from Prosperity Now.

Greer pointed to the 1949 Housing Act as a good-intentioned policy implemented in a way that created worse racial inequality than if the policy had not passed. He also called attention to the GI Bill.

“Any policy is race-conscious because it operates in an environment of racial inequality. The greatest example of this is the GI Bill. It was a very intentional, thoughtful policy to support veterans coming back from the war after a huge, worldwide armed conflict. There was no explicit mention of race in the entire bill. What happened? People came home. The benefits started going out. And it was implemented in a context of racial segregation, racial violence. What happened? Very few soldiers of color got any benefit from the GI Bill,” he explained.

Looking at the historical context, Greer encourages policymakers and the community development community to address inequalities that currently exist purposefully.

“If we don’t do that, we’re going to, even accidentally but sometimes intentionally, create worse disparities than we currently see,” he said.

To delve deeper into the discussion, watch the panels on promoting racial equity through investment, policy, and community-based efforts.

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Views expressed are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.