What will you risk to fight racism?

I just finished reading Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.  I suspect many are unfamiliar with her name and her work.  This African American journalist, born into slavery in 1862 in Mississippi, was among the first to speak out against lynchings. Loudly and continuously, she used her voice to say that lynchings were not the legal punishment for falsely stated rape, or disrespect, of white women, as was often suggested. Sexual assault was the deceit. The real crime, committed consciously or simply by accident, was disrupting the established racial norm. A Black person had overstepped. At a time when Black people were persecuted and killed for any number of actions, but particularly for questioning or acting against established racial practices, Ida B. Wells spoke up. She did not allow any threat to her safety to silence her response to injustice. She was fierce.

Throughout history, many have risked their lives for what they knew was right … fair … just.

Others have stood by, seeing injustice, and said and done nothing — afraid of the risks.

Which camp do you fall into?

What will you risk for racial justice?  Friendships? Community standing? Financial benefits?

Will you:

  • Speak up when a friend, family member, neighbor or acquaintance makes a racist comment?
  • Speak up when coverage of a news event seems to be biased against one race or group?
  • Speak up when a policy proposed by an organization with which you are affiliated or employed seems to be racially unfair?
  • Decline work that contributes to racial injustice?
  • Recommend interventions to promote racial justice in those spaces in which you have a voice?
  • Promote learning (books, podcasts, documentaries) and actions that will broaden the knowledge of people in your sphere of influence about race, racism and reparative justice?

Can you say yes to all of the above? If not, you are more afraid of what you might lose than what you might gain.  Instead of a commitment to racial justice, you are worried that a person won’t still be your friend if you speak up about a comment they made or an action they took or that your neighbors will shun you if you say something about racism at a community meeting, or that you might risk advancement or maybe even your job if you speak up. Those are real concerns. Just know that if you have them and if they stop you from speaking up, regardless of your heartfelt sentiments, you are enabling racism.

When former quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the national anthem to showcase the inhumane treatment of Black people by police, he risked his career and lost it, but he elevated an issue and demonstrated integrity. More recently, while not working for racial justice, Congresswoman Liz Cheney decided to speak up against a different type of injustice – treason. She knew she risked her position in Congress, but she did it anyway. Like Kaepernick, she gained the respect of many and demonstrated integrity and a moral consciousness even while losing her position.

Your profile may not be as public as that of Colin Kaepernick or Liz Cheney, but loss is relative and yours might be as significant – loss of friends, loss of community stature, maybe even loss of job. Only you can decide what you are willing to risk and possibly lose.

We must take racial injustice as a personal affront. We must learn that some things and some people aren’t worth holding on to if they jeopardize society. Think about it. Reflect on it, and decide if you are truly an anti-racist, ready, willing, and able to take a stand for a better society, a racially just America. I hope so.

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Postscript:  If your silence is driven by not knowing what to say or how to say it, here’s a guide from the Southern Poverty Law Center that I’ve found helpful.

 

 

 

 

School Segregation: Not All Negative

While originally posted in September 2017, the message and historical framing still seem relevant today.  Regardless of the quality of the educational tools and facilities, without teachers and school administrators who affirm, uplift, and believe in their students, students’ potential will never be fully realized.  Wishing everyone much success as the school year begins.

The first day of school is always exciting. I’m sure that mine was no different when I walked into Albert V. Norrell Elementary School. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had struck down separate-but-equal schooling, my education started in an all-Black school environment. I suspect I didn’t notice. All the people in my world were Black. Back then, we were all Negroes—in my family, in my neighborhood, at my church, and now at my school. Nothing new.

Norrell school photo
The author in front of her classmates at A.V. Norrell Elementary School.

At the time, nationally and in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived, people argued whether separate school systems were inherently unequal and whether Black students were disadvantaged by this practice. In many ways, the evidence was clear. We received hand-me-down books from the white schools, our science labs, if we had them, had outdated equipment, and the school facilities themselves had only marginal upkeep.

But there was one significant difference. In that all-Black environment, everyone was fully dedicated to the success of all the students. From the janitorial crew to the cafeteria team, the entire faculty all the way to Mrs. Ethel Overby, our principal (the first Black woman ever named to be a principal in the Richmond school system), they were all willing to do whatever it took to nurture our desire to learn and to give us every possible learning opportunity they could. This reality was a powerful counterbalance to the deficits in the system.

I don’t believe that Black students experience that degree of total commitment to their success anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teachers and administrators don’t want to see their students succeed. I believe that most do. But put simply, I also think that unconscious bias looms large in the education system. Far too many have bought into  ideas—preconceptions—about the pathology of Black families, about the inability of Black boys to focus, about the myth of laziness, and the list goes on. You know the stereotypes as well as I do.

I remember being surrounded by a cocoon of love and support. I can still remember the pride felt as I stood at school assemblies for the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to because everyone told me I would be successful. And the actions of everyone around me were intended to open the doors to success and to help me walk through them.

The older I get and reflect on the current state of America, the better I understand my father’s comment that integration was the best thing that happened to Black people and the worst.

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For more information on unconscious/implicit bias, watch this — https://www.puttingracismonthetable.org/implicitbias

 

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.