Rachael DeCruz, an executive board member of the Seattle King County NAACP, says honest and genuine dialogue about race is critical, and it doesn’t happen enough.

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Editor’s note: When we were putting together Under Our Skin, we knew we wouldn’t be able to include many important perspectives in the original set of videos. That’s why we’re offering the chance for more people to write guest essays to be featured alongside the project.  We also are offering the project participants a chance to respond, and received the following submission from Rachael DeCruz.

When I first heard that The Seattle Times was doing a video project on race, I was skeptical. I’ve been frustrated with the paper’s coverage of the topic in the past and the conversation about race in our country is often oversimplified.

That being said, I believed in the goals of the project. Creating the space to have an honest and genuine dialogue about race is critical, and it doesn’t happen enough. Ultimately, that’s what compelled me to participate — the opportunity to have a deeper conversation on issues I care about and that impact my life.

I was both moved and inspired when I listened to the other participants. People spoke from a place of passion, bravely sharing their truth with our broader community. While I can’t say I agreed with everyone featured in the videos, it was helpful to learn more about how people’s backgrounds and experiences have shaped their thinking.

Among all the participants, I heard themes of family, integrity, and the importance of getting to know people instead of making assumptions. While it was said in different — and sometimes competing — ways, everyone shared a desire to create communities that value each and every human being.

Last week’s events were a tragic reminder that we’re not there yet. Black men are still at risk of being shot and killed by police for nothing more than selling CDs, or being in a car with a broken taillight. Even the company of a four-year-old child doesn’t change this truth. These shootings are not isolated incidents, they’re manifestations of institutional and structural racism.

Police officers don’t just wake up one day and decide that they want to shoot a person of color.  We’ve all been socialized to see people of color as dangerous, criminal, and less than. Those narratives are widely perpetuated in the media (for example, media reports on crime often depict Black victims as more aggressive than White perpetrators of violence). It makes us more likely to be fearful of young Black men — even if they’re unarmed, or only holding a toy gun.

When you combine that outlook with power, the result can be deadly. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile are proof of that. I have no doubt that officers felt fear in those moments. But was their fear valid? And even if it was, did it justify their excessive use of force? Should we allow a police officer to be judge, jury, and executioner? We’ve been robbed of the ability to answer those questions because police officers that have killed people of color are almost never charged, and are even less likely to be convicted. Despite all of the high profile police killings last year, none of the officers were convicted of murder or manslaughter (more information here).

The same system also allows people of color, particularly young Black and Latino males, to be sentenced more severely than comparably-situated White males.

Unfortunately, criminal justice is only one example of how institutional racism plays out in the United States — we see similar outcomes in education, healthcare, housing, and employment, among others. The fact that racial disparities exist across all indicators of success is a clear sign that our current system isn’t working for everyone.

Our country has a deep-seated tradition of institutional racism. In addition to the Jim Crow laws — which legalized racial segregation — it’s also worth pointing out a pivotal piece of our history that benefited White people and left out people of color.

The Federal Housing Administration was created in 1934; opening up a path to homeownership for people across our country and creating what’s now known as the middle class. However there was one glaring problem: it largely excluded people of color. Redlining was a common practice at the time and FHA manuals often explicitly advised homeowners and brokers to avoid letting people of color into neighborhoods, warning that they would bring down the value of surrounding homes. The program also encouraged homeowners to write racially restrictive covenants, blocking people of color from many communities.

The impact of this is still felt in cities across our country. It’s why so many neighborhoods remain segregated, with communities of color clustered into areas that have less access to public services and quality education. It’s also one of the major reasons we have such a large wealth gap between Whites and Blacks in our country. (More about all of this here).

The violence and terror that disrupted last week’s protest in Dallas and cost five police officers their lives is not the answer. It only added to the devastation. My hope is that we don’t give in to fear, that we don’t allow fear to be used as a wedge to create false dichotomies. Now, more than ever, we have to find ways to come together as a community. That means addressing race. Tackling it head-on and working together to find common ground.

This video series is the beginning of a conversation, not the end. Talk with a family member, neighbor, or friend about what you saw and took away from the series. Did you learn anything new? What stood out to you the most, and why?

Simply having discussions isn’t enough.   We also have a responsibility to work toward creating a system that is fair and just. One that’s built on compassion and love, instead of money and power. I’m not going to pretend I know exactly how to solve all of our country’s problems. I don’t. What I do know is that we can do better. We have to do better. And that starts with all of us.

Rachael DeCruz is on the executive board of the Seattle King County NAACP, where she serves as the communications chair. She also works as a project manager for the Center for Social Inclusion, an organization that works to dismantle structural racial inequity and create equitable outcomes for all.