FREE SPEECH ZONE | Telling a new story about disparities


Last year, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a report on racial disparities in employment, which showed that the Twin Cities region has one of the worst employment disparities in the nation. The report illustrated that blacks are 3.1 times as likely to be unemployed as whites, and that the black-white difference in unemployment is almost 14 percentage points. Many news outlets highlighted the report’s results, in an attempt to draw attention to the disparity and hopefully provoke change.

Unfortunately, the change that we hoped for has not happened yet. In fact, this year’s EPI report showed that the disparity has gotten even worse – blacks are now 3.6 times as likely to be unemployed as whites. It seems as if nothing has changed, except perhaps we have gotten used to the news about the disparity. What used to shock us is now numb to us, as we have grown weary in hearing about the vast inequities that plague communities of color and low-income communities. How do we shake ourselves from our slumber, and move a more equitable agenda forward – an agenda that talks about race, empowers communities, and lifts people from the economic crises that they find themselves in?

Perhaps the answer lies in changing the messaging frame.

Traditionally, we have started the conversation about racial disparities by talking about the disparities themselves. During one of the breakout sessions at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit, a panel of communications specialists illustrated that this is not the most effective means of addressing race and equity as it closes people off from the truth we have to convey. Instead we must offer a new story, not only a story that people will listen to, but one that they can see themselves in.

Such a story must start with a value that everyone holds close to them. In the case of employment disparities, it is reasonable to assume that job creation and the state of the economy are two values that many people share, as they seem to be the focal point of every presidential debate, every CNN news report, and the campaign literature of every policymaker seeking reelection in 2012. It is a shared value because everyone is suffering as a result of job loss and the shrinking economy. This is where we must begin the story, with the message that what is going on affects us all. This is definitely the case in terms of Minnesota’s unemployment rate in that while black people are significantly more likely to be unemployed in the Twin Cities, whites are losing their jobs in record numbers too as major businesses close and companies downsize.

After identifying the shared pain, we can now begin to talk about race. We can illustrate that as horrible as the unemployment rate for our entire population is, the unemployment rate for blacks is even more devastating. Now white people are more open to hearing about the disparities because they have seen themselves in the story.

But as we talk about the disparities, we must acknowledge that some people believe that the racist ideology and practices of the past are now over. In fact, some even believe that to continue to talk about racism is actually racism in and of itself, and that it perpetuates the disparities. While these frames are not rational, when it comes to talking about things that are attached to people’s values, the process is not always rational. This is why as we talk about race, we must also expose the inconsistencies in people’s thoughts as many people are not even aware of the stereotypes that they carry.

While our new story should not begin with disparities, it also cannot end with them. Every good story ever written never ends with the problem or the dilemma that the main protagonist faces; it always ends with the solution! We must also present a solution, something that will move people to action and something that will offer people hope in the midst of the present reality in front of them. The great news is that we happen to live in a state with so many great opportunities and unique resources that the solution we are looking for is already before us. We just have to start communicating it, and demanding it, so that we can become an economically viable region where everyone has access to quality employment, and for that reason, everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

For more on message framing related to racial disparities, see The Opportunity Agenda’s Ten Lessons for Talking About Race in the Age of Obama.

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