November 7, 2020
Facebook asks me this morning, “What’s on your mind, Michelle?” Well, Facebook, let me tell you. Let me really give you a piece of my mind. What’s on my mind is…race relations. Division vs. Unity. Values. Beliefs. The state of our ‘great nation.’
You see, I have two of the most necessary and important, albeit not RESPECTED, jobs there are in this country, no, shall I say, in the world. I am a parent, and I am an educator. These two roles define me and my choices on a daily basis. They dictate how I interact with others, what I expect of myself and those in my charge, and the words I speak, making every effort not to offend anyone.
And yet, society, by whom has historically placed in leadership, continues to reaffirm my accurate belief that it values neither the parents who are actively involved in their childrens’ lives, nor the individuals to which they give the most worthy responsibility of educating their own children.
In my desire to become a better educator, in addition to becoming a better woman, mother, friend, and all other roles I occupy, I have been reading a more diverse and extensive collection of books and literature. As I do so, my vision has been expanded to see others’ diverse experiences more clearly.
I’ll say it this way, I recently shared with my students that just because someone shares their experience with you, and it is different from yours, doesn’t mean their experience isn’t valid. I highlighted this in class by explaining to the students that another teacher has lived in two states other than Indiana, including a very large city in one of the states. I, on the other hand, have only lived within a 25 mile radius of where I was born.
So, in this illustration, if the other teacher explains what living in a big city was like for her, I cannot negate or invalidate her experience. It was hers, and hers alone. Considering I have never lived in a big city, I have to accept her experience and her perspective for what it is: her experience and her perspective.
I have discovered that with many individuals, mostly white, will try to rationalize away, or invalidate the experience of people of color, specifically as it applies to racism.
Let’s think of it another way. Suppose you have a black friend, and said friend comes to you and explains how, when he passes others in the grocery store, they move a little farther away from him. Or that women pull their purses and children a little closer to themselves. These are two very real experiences black men (and women) encounter all over the country. This is especially true in certain geographic areas of the country.
Now, this black friend, let’s call him Trey, attempts to have open dialogue with you about his experience. You, being a white person, have never been forced to contend with what Trey describes. Does this mean that you are in any position or have any authority to negate or refute what Trey has experienced?
James Baldwin (1924-1987), one of the most profound and discerning writers of all time, wrote extensively on the subject of racism as well as racial and class inequalities. Just the other day, I discovered a documentary entitled “I Am Not Your Negro.” This documentary is based upon the mere 30 pages of a manuscript Baldwin began which was to be a personal account of his relationships with three of his closest friends: Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The documentary highlighted many of Baldwin’s public appearances, including debates and guest appearances on talk shows. One such event was his 1968 appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show.” During this show, Baldwin has an open discussion about racism, civil rights activism, and racial prejudice with Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss. Very late in the discussion, Baldwin proclaims the following to Paul Weiss:
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” he said. “But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.
“That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
“I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.
“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin said, his voice rising with indignation. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
This discussion is from 1968, and yet, the concepts are still relevant today. As I began my investigation into systemic racism I discovered that NAACP President Derrick Johnson defined systemic racism, also called structural racism or institutional racism, as “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans.” Or looking at it another way, Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward, says, “systemic racism is naming the process of white supremacy.”
Institutional racism is what Baldwin refers to in the message above. It includes policies and procedures that prevent black families from amassing and maintaining wealth in the same way that white families could. It creates disparities in many areas, including the criminal justice system, housing, employment, health care, politics, and education.
These policies date as far back as the early to mid 20th century. One such policy, which was outlawed in 1968, is that of redlining. This term was used and coined by sociologist John McKnight in the 1960s. It describes the discriminatory practice of ‘redlining’ or fencing off certain areas where banks would avoid investments solely based on the demographics of the community.
A further repercussion of this practice includes the negative impact on public education, public transportation, and health care. This came as a result of the redlined areas not having the tax base to support these community needs. While redlining is no longer in effect currently, the ramifications of these policies are still felt by many black families today.
So, where do we go from here? This is what is on my mind. As I’ve said and heard before, the first step is admitting you have a problem. You can’t go about fixing anything unless you first admit there is a problem to fix. In this case, I believe the problem is that the institution of racism has its roots so firmly embedded in our country. Like a jellyfish’s tentacles, racism stings those in its path, injects its venom, and subsequently causes a reaction ranging from general discomfort all the way to death.