The Case for Putting Race Forward

We can't solve a problem no one's willing to name.

By Rinku Sen Nov 06, 2013

Look forward. Turn what has been done into a better path.
~ Wilma Mankiller

Organizations, just like people, grow into themselves over time. Here at the Applied Research Center, we are at a moment of becoming so fully ourselves that we decided to change our name to reflect our mission and strategy most accurately.

From now on, we will be known as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. Ta da!

We chose this name because it speaks so clearly to the reason we exist. I love it personally for many reasons. It allows us to put race forward as a legitimate category of analysis and debate in the face of endless pressure to shut up about that already. Putting race forward to acknowledge and address the ways in which communities of color are still marginalized, abandoned and exploited is critical to solving our national problems.

And, whatever positive change is possible, we need to race toward it. Not amble, saunter or duck walk. We need to run, because this project is urgent. Each day that passes represents terrible real-life consequences. Another thousand kids who go to school hungry. Another dozen teens shot by police. Another hundred thousand unable to keep the home their families worked so hard to acquire.

When we founded this organization more than 30 years ago, our strategy was to equip community groups with the analytic tools to address race in their work. But as we worked across the country on matters like welfare, education and immigration reform, we understood something important about today’s struggle against racial discrimination.

Our so-called leaders–from left, right and center–have shut down discussion of racial issues by pushing colorblindness (conservatives) or universalism (liberals) as the real solutions to the problems faced by communities of color. Increasingly, our staff and board had to make one point in particular.

We cannot solve a problem that no one is willing to name. We have to be explicit about race if we want to solve economic, political and social problems for everybody, rather than just for the people who qualify as "universal" in this country. Our work helps people solve problems in the most sophisticated and effective ways possible.

Our new tagline–The Center for Racial Justice Innovation–speaks to our role and history. Our founder, Gary Delgado, set us up to be nimble and deep, and set a great example for us with his own creativity. Innovation is something that happens at the edges of the establishment, and it is key to keeping the racial justice movement alive for as long as it is required.

Change is constant. Our job is to keep coming up with better ways to harness our resources to make meaningful change now. Naming innovation as our central function keeps us on our toes.

We’ve designed many creative advances over the years. We made popular education a regular part of community organizing, think tank programming and culture. We built Colorlines, a multiracial news outlet that focuses on race in all parts of life and that reaches millions. We got the Associated Press and dozens of other news outlets to drop the i-word, which many people said was a fool’s errand. We crafted legislative report cards on racial equity that have shifted the politics of a dozen states. We conceived of ourselves as a one-stop shop for racial justice, which has turned out to be something many people want.

Organizations are the sum of all the people they include. I thank the many who have built this organization–all of the staff and board over the past 30-plus years, and all of our funders who have supported the quality work we’ve produced over the years.

And you, our community, the readers, viewers, listeners and commenters; the organizers, writers, scholars, students, public administrators, elected officials; and so many others who have sustained us with your engagement, feedback and money.

The renaming of the Applied Research Center into Race Forward is grounded in our deepest commitments. We know our nation can and must have a racially equitable future. We’re not afraid to say so, and not afraid to make it so. We hope you will join us in that project.