Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Let’s talk about racism in America

Public art protest installation by Jules Christensen listing the last 100 victims killed by police in America.

Can I fully understand the African-American experience? No, because as a white woman, I have not lived the African-American experience. Does that mean I should not speak about the African-American experience? No. For as Dr. King said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Each semester, my University of Akron students study a unit on institutional racism in America. Last year, I used both the comprehensive articles in the New York Times’s 1619 Project and the documentary “College Behind Bars.”

America’s first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619. And our racist history, which began even earlier with the treatment of indigenous people, did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Our systems of education, health care, housing, banking and more are all intentionally designed to discriminate against people of color.

And our judicial system, from the violent policing in current headlines, to biased prosecutors with too much power, to unequal sentencing are all a direct carryover of our slave-economy past.

More than half my students are black, and I don’t need to tell them institutional racism is alive and well in America. They experience it every day of their lives.

But like the children of immigrants, who often understand their parents’ native language but cannot speak it fluently, my black students benefit from a close examination of America’s racist history and the response of black communities.

For my white students, studying the history of institutional racism and its connection to slavery opens their eyes to a fundamental portion of American history that they were never adequately taught, if at all.

While the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, it contained a caveat quickly found useful by many Southern, and some Northern, states wishing to ensure white supremacy:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Almost immediately Black Codes replaced the previous slave codes, which had regulated the lives of enslaved and freed black Americans until emancipation. Black Codes were laws that applied only to black citizens.

Vagrancy, in the Black Codes, meant a number of things from unemployment to loitering and could land a black person in jail. Black prisoners were then rented out as laborers, often to their former masters.

When later Constitutional amendments outlawed Black Codes, they were replaced by Jim Crow laws under which, among other things, 3,462 black Americans (that we know of) were lynched between 1882 and 1968.

I once read Martin Luther King Jr. Day mostly belongs to black Americans, because it was Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement that ended white Americans’ widespread terrorism of black people. And not just in the South, for at its peak in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had more members in Indiana than any other state.

One hundred years after the Thirteenth Amendment became law, the passage of Civil Rights legislation, actualized by centuries of advocacy by people of all colors, brought the Declaration of Independence closer than ever to its promise:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

But in short order, a previous system of suppression was once again replaced by a new one: mass incarceration. Due to policies targeting black Americans, evocative of the Black Codes, the number of people in our prisons has grown from 200,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million today.

And yet, many whites do not believe white privilege exists.

For five years of my childhood, I lived in a rural community in Ohio that was overwhelmingly pro-union and Democrat. Today, the classmates who’ve remained in Miami County, which is 96 percent white, are overwhelming Trump Republicans.

Good people who love their families and community, they believe COVID-19 is a Democratic hoax and that Black Lives Matter is not only unnecessary, but also responsible for the looting at protests — which they believe to be far worse than any factual reporting indicates.

As frustrating as it can be, particularly since they refuse to read anything that might contradict their positions, I continue to interact with these people, whom I’ve known for 45 years.

Civil discourse has transformative power for all involved, and a key part of that is listening. Perhaps there’s never been enough listening and civil interaction in the world, but today it seems rarer than ever.

And it’s not just white conservatives who deny racism exists. A 2007 study revealed that 75 percent of white parents never, or rarely, talk about race with their children, thinking that not doing so will make their children “color-blind.” Research indicates nothing could be further from the truth.

In their article, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman state that “children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue — but we tell kids that ‘pink’ is for girls and ‘blue’ is for boys. ‘White’ and ‘black’ are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”

When discussing the differences among white, black and brown people — which are zero in terms of potential — it’s essential to tell children how our systems continue to benefit white people, especially white men, over all others.

In responding to research questionnaires, a majority of white, male college undergraduates state that bigotry is no longer a problem in the United States. That wildly incorrect perception is derived from the fact that white males very rarely experience discrimination.

My first three sons graduated from Firestone, one of the best high schools in the region. Firestone provides not only excellent academics, but its School of the Arts also is so robust that many students from rich suburban districts apply for open enrollment.

My boys regularly state that what they value most, however, is that Firestone serves a diverse student population. Groups of people are only perceived as “other” until you spend time with them. This is true whether the difference is race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability (both physical and intellectual).

For as far as we’ve come toward creating an equal society in America, we still have much work to do to. Two hundred and thirty-three years after it was written, the words of our Constitution unfortunately remain aspirational and not actual.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 14, 2020.


Reopening with caution and gratitude


“How ya’ holding up?” is a question I suspect you’re asked as often as I am these days.

“Grateful,” I always reply.

Grateful first and foremost because my family has remained healthy even though there are seven of us and every excursion each of us makes potentially exposes all of us to COVID-19.

Grateful I have a large, safe yard for my young children to play in and that the two of them have each other to play with.

Grateful because while I’ve lost more than half my income as an independent contractor, haven’t received any federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance because Ohio’s software for processing 1099 employees has a yet unresolved “glitch” and my savings will only last one more month, I am not at risk of losing my home nor running out of food.

Grateful my son Hugo is also not at risk of being homeless because he has my partner, Max, and me as a safety net. Hugo did not receive the economic stimulus money because, as a college student last year, I declared him on my taxes. Until July, he must pay rent for an apartment he no longer lives in while three of his four jobs stopped on a dime in early March.

And I’m grateful to get my hair and nails done, luxuries for which I decide what level of risk I’m willing to accept. Most of the people providing these and other services, both essential and frivolous, are not in a position to avoid the risks of their jobs by staying home.

Income inequality has grown dramatically in the United States and elsewhere since the 1970s. Now COVID-19 has spotlighted what anyone who’s worked retail knows: store clerks and cashiers are essential workers, often poorly paid. Today, the risk of contracting coronavirus is greater for them than so-called professional workers because of their significant exposure to us, the public.

I happily follow any requirements businesses ask of me, from wearing a mask and having my temperature taken to sitting in my car with a head resembling a lion fish with tin-foil fins. The foil holds a bleach mixture to highlight my hair, which isn’t going gray, but weirdly dark brown.

A few years back, I admired a colleague’s nails and soon began my own bi-monthly visits to the same nail technician. My nails have always been as strong as shrimp peelings. Thus, I kept them short and unvarnished for decades. Now in my 50s, I love having blinged-out, mid-length acrylics.

However, during the two months nail salons were closed, it was the people I missed most. Nail salons function socially like urban barber shops — while nails are buffed, reinforced and lacqured, customers talk not just to their technician, but with everyone in the salon, often lingering after their manicures are finished.

My salon, Crystal Nails, is owned and operated by Tiffany Dao and her husband. We’ve watched each other’s children grow as my little ones sometimes join me, and Tiffany’s regularly stop by the salon. Sitting with our heads close together (now separated by a plexiglass barrier) we talk about everything from childrearing to insurance policies.

Last week, we talked about government assistance for small businesses.

The Daos were eager to reopen, but like so many businesses, their ability to generate revenue is now significantly limited due to required and necessary precautions. Before COVID-19, the bulk of their business was walk-in customers. Now it’s by appointment-only so as to limit the number of people in the salon at any one time.

In order to survive, a business like theirs need the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) monies the federal government created for small businesses. That ginormous and flush corporations such as the L.A. Lakers, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Braemer Hotels and Resorts and others (including at least one on the Fortune-500 list) applied for and received PPP money is just another sign of the inequality of our times.

The pandemic is exposing what many always knew was there: deep disparities in America. People from poor communities of all colors often work essential jobs in stores, typically at or near minimum wage. This now raises their risk of contracting COVID-19 while alternative income options are few, if not nonexistent.

I am aware of my privilege as a middle-class, educated white person and for this I am the opposite of grateful. Our country was intentionally developed to generously benefit people like me over people of color. Anyone who denies white privilege has not read much history nor closely knows many people of color.

Perhaps the attention currently given to service-sector employees who make our country run and small businesses that enrich our communities in all ways will translate to better pay, working conditions and support as we slowly transition out of this pandemic.

In the meantime, thank each person whose job it is to wait on you in any fashion.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 31, 2020.