Should a Select Committee to Investigate Racism in the U.S. be in our future?

 

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. From Chairman Bennie Thompson’s opening comments at the first hearing on June 9th to the July 21st closing comments from Vice Chair Liz Cheney, I’ve watched them all.  The hearings have been riveting, not a bombastic spectacle, but a tempered, dispassionate presentation of what led to the event, what happened on that day, and what has happened subsequently. We are beginning to fully understand how this assault on American democracy unfolded and what would have been the ramifications had it succeeded. I believe we’re doing this, in part, so our country might recognize the toxic political partisanship that almost destroyed us, address it, and, hopefully, begin to heal.

Racism, visibly and invisibly, has also divided our country. We’re just beginning to see this. So,  imagine if we had the same type of examination of slavery,  segregation, and the overall impact of racism on America—the same level of thoroughness to examine how people of color have been treated, and the impact of that treatment on disparate groups and on the country.

How would that story be told?

The January 6th hearings are so compelling because real people are telling their own stories. You can relate to, even feel, their emotions. Because so much of the foundation of racism happened centuries ago, telling this story will be more difficult, but I think it can still be told.

For example, without video and first-hand accounts, how would the terror of having your land taken and your people exterminated be told? Maybe those currently living in war ravaged countries in which predators have come to take their land could describe their experience. Could they be modern day proxies for what happened in America centuries ago? I think so. And coupling those stories with disclosures from people living today who were taken to Indian boarding schools could bring to life the full trauma of that experience.

Without people alive today, how would the committee capture the horrors of being kidnapped, brought to a foreign land, and forced to work from before sunrise to after sunset in atrocious conditions? Perhaps some of those brought to this country in current times as domestic workers and then enslaved by their employers could tell their stories. I know, it’s not the same, but perhaps hearing those agonized accounts will offer insights.

Then the committee could listen to real first-hand experiences in Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories.  These are actual accounts, recorded interviews with the formerly enslaved, done between 1932 and 1975, and stored at the Library of Congress. But even those accounts may not reveal the complete truth since some suggest that the experience of oppression and fear of white people may have caused some formerly enslaved people to alter their stories so as not to fully incriminate their oppressors and be punished for telling the truth. Yes, fear even decades after slavery had ended.

While some parts of the story of racism would have to be approximated or told via recordings, that would not be the case in the discussion of Jim Crow laws, and the 20th and 21st century treatment of people of color in America. The reality of disparities in education, health care, housing, the in/justice system, and overall economics could be told by real people today. Some might be elders who were taken out of schools in the 8th grade to work the fields, or soldiers returning from World War II or the Korean War wanting good neighborhoods and housing for their families, or some might be contemporaries, such as the families of those who are now incarcerated  for offenses – remember three strikes you’re out — that are currently touted as desirable entrepreneurial opportunities and some witnesses might be people simply seeking unbiased appraisals today of the value of their homes or quality public schools for their children.

The truth can be told if America is ready to hear it, learn from it, and then change — heal.

Racism is a deep wound that continues to affect our country.  A wound/a disease cannot be accurately treated until you know what caused it and then address it correctly. That is what the January 6th committee is attempting to do – find the truth, repair the fissures in our country, and, hopefully, heal.

We’ve never had a national conversation about race. The closest we’ve come, that I’m aware of, is the President’s Commission on Race established by then-President Bill Clinton in 1997. Have you heard of it? It was chaired by noted historian John Hope Franklin and charged with conducting town hall meetings, examining data, and creating solutions to address the racial divide. The intent was correct and the leadership stellar, but one of the first lessons in racial justice work is that intent and impact are two very different things. While well-intentioned, I don’t believe this commission had significant impact on racial justice. In fact, 25 years later, our inability to examine and discuss race and racial injustice seems to be worsening. Maybe the country wasn’t ready in 1997. I’m not so sure that it is now, but I know that when a group of Texas educators want to refer to slavery as involuntary relocations that’s a clear sign that truth is lacking. Obfuscation and denial continue.

Even in this post-Trayvon Martin, post-Barack Obama, post-George Floyd world of an awakening to racial injustice,  are we ready for a Congressional Hearing on Racism? I believe, if done correctly and with full transparency, it would get us closer to the truth, closer to healing, but is America more primed now than it was in 1997?  If the Congressional Select Committee on January 6th can be an example, we know that Congress can investigate a travesty against the country and can present its findings in a way that compels almost 20 million Americans to watch.  Now, we’ll just have to wait to see what happens because of all the revelations. If the country can handle the truth about January 6th, learn from it, and then act, maybe it’s ready to handle the truth about racism.

 

 

The Greatest Generation

In 1998, journalist Tom Brokaw coined the term, “the greatest generation.” It was the title of his book on ordinary Americans who, during and after World War II, were such an important part of this country’s growth and success. Many celebrated his stories using words like courage, sacrifice, and honor to describe the valor and contributions of everyday people. While Brokaw’s book wasn’t only about veterans, World War II formed the core of his greatest generation.

For me, there’s another complement of “greatest generation” heroes.  War veteran isn’t their primary identity even though many may have had a connection to that or the previous war. In fact, the segregation of troops made them, and their children, even more aware of how America was failing Black people. My greatest generation are the 1950s and ‘60s unarmed, non-violent, marchers of the civil rights movement. Their enemy wasn’t tyranny from a foreign country, but oppression of Americans, by Americans, right here at home. They. too, are quite aptly described by the words, “courage, sacrifice, and honor.”

My greatest generation includes people like Carolyn Wilson (left in photo) and Dorothy Batson (right in photo), elders who I recently heard talk about their experiences in a little-known, but horrific event in Danville, Virginia — Bloody Monday, June 10, 1963. They had marched to the courthouse steps, protesting segregation and overall racial inequality. To break up the demonstration, police turned high volume water hoses on them. The power of the hoses knocked Ms. Batson down the steps. For the other marchers on the street, the aim and force of the water combined with the street’s incline pushed them down and under parked cars, adding to their injuries. Ms. Wilson and Ms. Batson told the audience that white bus drivers and garbage workers were deputized, armed with night sticks, and given the authority to beat them. Ms. Batson reminded the audience that, due to the norms of the time, women and girls didn’t wear pants then, only skirts and dresses, sharing how the gravel and concrete from the streets dug into their exposed legs as the water carried them along – a little told fact that adds to the physical pain suffered by female protestors. The small audience listening to them was transfixed as these women calmly told their story of actively participating in a movement to gain rights that America had promised to all, but only delivered to some.

As I, a Black woman, listened to them, I wondered if I could have done what they did. Could I have gone into a situation in which I knew I would most likely be harmed, possibly killed, to fight for my rights? Just as I started to think if I had the guts, Ms. Wilson reminded the audience that they weren’t courageous, just teens and young adults who probably viewed themselves, unconsciously, as invincible. Ms. Batson agreed that as a 20-year-old, she doesn’t remember being afraid, just tired of “not being treated as people.” Surely their age contributed to their decision to join the march, but it wasn’t bravado. It was bravery. They knew the members of the KKK in their town who met boldly and openly. They definitely knew there would be repercussions. That’s what makes their actions great – moving forward, marching even though armed haters lined the street, poised, and probably anxious, to attack.

Whenever Brokaw’s greatest generation is discussed, the commentator will say something like, “we’re losing over 350 of these heroes every day,” simply acknowledging their aging and life’s passage. Almost 60 years after it occurred, I happened to be in a room listening to Ms. Wilson and Ms. Batson tell of an incident I’d never heard of even though I grew up only 150 miles away. So many stories in your own town or very nearby are unknown. There are far too many unrecognized heroes or leaders whose role in the movement has been forgotten. Seek them out, learn their stories, and celebrate their leadership. There isn’t much time left.

For me, “the greatest generation” will always be those men, women and children who marched, were beaten, jailed and, sometimes, killed, so that I might have the rights I do today. As a country, we have much further to go to achieve racial justice, but I — we —  owe a huge debt to those who paved the way.

Out of sight, out of mind

When a problem isn’t constantly before you, directly impacting you, concern often ebbs. Sadly, it seems to happen regardless of the seriousness of the issue or your degree of previous commitment to address it. This is especially true when you don’t understand how you are impacted by the problem, a problem that, on the surface, seems to be someone else’s problem. That’s the situation as I see it with racial justice. Top of mind – always — for Black people. Out of sight, out of mind – often? typically? — for white people.

It looks like this is the year racial justice has again fallen off the social justice map. The May 2020 televised murder of George Floyd galvanized the country. Finally, many white Americans understood why the slogan, Black Lives Matter, had emerged as a rallying cry and they joined in the push for racial justice. For a minute, it seemed that Black lives did matter. It seemed that white people were understanding how racist narratives had shaped, or misshaped, their perception of the truth of America. They were digging deeply into a topic that many had only scratched the surface of before. Now, interest in learning about race and racism seems to have waned, as have many of the public efforts to fight for racial justice. Not only are states banning the accurate teaching of our country’s history, but books on our racial history and our current reality that once dominated the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list are no longer there. Training of staffs on racial equity has slowed as businesses, governments, and nonprofits seem to feel like either they’ve done it – checked that box — or other social justice concerns have popcorned to the top. Is it my imagination? Has the multi-racial moment/the movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd come to an end without fanfare and without much notice?

Black people live with the trauma and reality of racial inequity and injustice every day, never needing any reminders beyond day-to-day life. Many white people seem to need “punched in the gut,” horrific, visual moments for them to be jolted into racial awareness. Moments like Mamie Till Mobley’s raw despair as she grieved over her son, Emmett’s battered body; the national coverage of water hoses and snarling dogs attacking peaceful civil rights protestors in Alabama, or the plethora of cellphone videos of racially-charged incidents in a hotel lobby, a college dorm, a park, or just about anywhere. These incidents sparked momentary outrage and commitments to racial redress. The images, in 1955, 1963, the 2010s or 2020, got many off their sofas and into the streets to protest or into the voting booths to elect individuals committed to change. But the commitment, the passion, in white communities seems to be rarely sustained. I want to know how to change that.

Understanding and addressing racial injustice is not a one and done situation, not reading one book, or participating in one racial equity training, or voting one time for the “right” candidate. There must be lifelong learning and unlearning of years of messages, and then working, in many ways, big and small, for racial justice. I thought the heinousness of George Floyd’s murder, coupled with so many high visibility, recorded racial incidents, might be enough, but it doesn’t seem to be. While race and racial justice remain top of mind for Black people all the time; for white advocates, other issues seem to have pushed race and racial equity to the back of the proverbial bus.

Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

Racial injustice cannot be recognized and understood only by Black people. White people must see this too if we are to have a racially just America. White people must believe that justice for Black people will enable justice for them as well.  White people hold the reins of power in America.  Just as women wouldn’t have gotten the vote without the commitment of men, Black people alone cannot overhaul all the policies, procedures, and practices that undergird racial inequity in America. Black people can identify issues/inequities. Black people can march, protest, and vote. Black people can define and humanize the impact, but Black people do not sit sufficiently in those positions that wield the power necessary to transform racist systems and institutions. White people, you must engage on this topic, not just in the moment of a hate crime like the recent ones in California and in Buffalo, but on an ongoing basis. Black people must not die to prove that America continues to be racially unjust. Black people must not die to prompt white people to act.  How do we sustain the commitment of the white community to work for racial justice? I really want to know. I need to know.

Racial prejudice hides in the oddest places

I love to travel. I was scheduled to go to Tanzania in Fall 2020, my fifth trip to Africa. I’ve been to Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, and South Africa. Something had always bothered me a bit about the Tanzania trip; but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then came the pandemic. The trip was cancelled. I wasn’t disappointed … not really.

As COVID restrictions lessened, friends asked if I planned to reschedule the Tanzania trip. I didn’t. I now know what had been missing all along. The trip to Tanzania had been largely about animals. I wanted to learn about the people, the culture.

Travel in many African countries is centered on animals. Visiting the Serengeti plains and viewing exotic animals was to have been the focus of my trip to Tanzania. I hadn’t sought that. In fact, I had already been on a safari in South Africa, but I’d never thought of that trip as a trip about animals. My friends and I had planned everything.  It wasn’t a tour package. We curated it ourselves. We learned about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, David Webster, Steve Biko and Bishop Tutu, the Zulus and the Xhosa, apartheid and the truth and reconciliation hearings – the people, not the animals, were at the core. The safari was just a small add on. But when Tanzania became the destination for my new traveling group, every trip package we examined, from multiple tour companies, focused on the Serengeti plains and what was often referred to as “Africa at its most primitive.”

If you’ve been to Africa or have started planning a trip there, did you notice that?

Primitive Africa. I am of an age when Africa, for many, was defined largely by Tarzan, a fictional white man raised since infancy by apes in the jungles of Africa. Movies and books about Tarzan only feature native Africans as servants carrying crates for white people exploring the jungles. The image of Africa has changed, somewhat, particularly with the fictional depiction of the fierce, sophisticated, and technologically advanced Kingdom of Wakanda in the 2018 movie, Black Panther. But even with this evolving image, is culture and civilization what comes to mind for you when you think of Africa? What is your image? What do you know about African countries? How did you learn it?

Our formal education about Africa remains very limited. I bet you that most well-educated Americans, whether of the age of Tarzan or of Wakanda, can tell you an awful lot about the political, social, and historical reality in western Europe. Western civilization. That’s the focus of textbooks used in schools,  the coverage of major world events in  newspapers, and what is reported on on televised news. Our education is Eurocentric. Our sense of other parts of the world is not driven by formal education, but by cursory classroom exposure or fictionalized presentations. Since that education happens so subtly and nominally about some places, we are often unaware of just how skewed and unbalanced an education we’re receiving.

COVID, while limiting my travel, offered me uninterrupted time to learn.  I watched, and you should too, the PBS series  Africa’s Great Civilizations. Over six hours, historian Henry Louis Gates introduced me to African civilizations and culture — art, history, accomplishments —  that I had glimpsed here and there but never taken the time to fully explore. This is what I had wanted in my Tanzania trip.

Even something as innocuous as travel is racialized. Vacation options continue to underscore Europe as a land of culture and contributions while presenting Africa as a land of beauty and majesty, majestic landscapes and beautiful animals, that is. For the African culture and contributions, sadly, with most tour companies, you still have to dig for those add-on experiences. Primitive, not cultured or civilized, continues to be the projected and marketed image of much of Africa.

Quick quiz:  There are 44 countries in Europe and 54 in Africa. How many on each continent can you name? For how many, do you know the name of the current leader?