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.

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