Three Steps to Racial Healing: Reveal| Reflect | RECALIBRATE

 

“Do the best you can until you know better.

Then, when you know better, do better.”

— Maya Angelou

 

Step Three: Recalibrate

Now we’re at the hard part. We must do something.

As a country, we have functioned in a certain way for decades. The systems/customs/mores that underpin our country have worked fine—for many. But for others — people of color broadly and African Americans in particular — embedded structural racism and unconscious bias, regularly reinforced, has created an environment many now recognize as wrong.

If we are to heal as a country, we must overhaul our racial belief system to enable us to recalibrate and fix a system of legal, structurally embedded, racism. This is a massive undertaking, but as the Chinese proverb states, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Recently, I read an exquisitely crafted commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education from Patricia McGuire, President of Washington, DC’s Trinity University. In “How Higher Education Can Atone for Its Long History of Racism,” McGuire writes,

“Renovation can sometimes cure outmoded structures, but sometimes the only solution is demolition and rebuilding. To make real progress in eliminating the structures of racism that depress the enrollment of black students, universities need to move from gestures of good intentions to real transformation. Rather than using metrics derived from the behaviors of traditional student populations—predominately white, economically secure, attending full time with parental financial support—universities that want to lead real change in eradicating the vestiges of segregation need to develop entirely new approaches to admissions, curricula and pedagogy, support services and measures of academic success that are not seat time in one place.”

President McGuire is talking about the complete recalibration of the higher education system. It is broken. It isn’t working for many students of color. Tinkering around the edges is inadequate. As McGuire says, “the only solution is demolition and rebuilding.”

To heal, that level of reflection and transformation is required. In my last post, I talked about the criminal justice system where reforms are unquestionably needed. They are also vital in housing, health care, and environmental justice. Large scale recalibration is necessary for almost all the systems that shape America. So, when I am asked, “Where should I start?” My answer is, “anywhere, just start.”

voiceEveryone doesn’t have the platform of a university president, but we each have a voice and we each have a platform. A relatively easy, yet profound way, to begin is by asking a pivotal question: Will people of different races be affected differently?

What if you asked that question at the next PTA meeting when a new initiative is considered at your child’s school or at a meeting of your professional association. You could ask your state/city/county representative when you hear a new idea is being considered to address a community need.

Just imagine the effect if we all asked about the differential impact on racial/ethnic groups. For example, the discussion or planning for a new metro/subway stop or bus route might change if the leaders were asked: What neighborhoods will be disrupted or destroyed? What communities still lack adequate public transportation coverage? Is there an impact based on race?

Typically, when new societal interventions are considered, such as enhanced public transportation, the notion is all will benefit. Ever hear the expression, “All boats rise?” Think about it, even if all boats rise, the disparity is likely to remain. We may have achieved equality – offering the same thing to everyone, but we may not have achieved equity – addressing/improving existing racial differentials.

In order to recalibrate America, we must have heightened awareness and increased, intentional action. By asking a simple, critical question, you plant a seed, you introduce the concept of equity versus equality. When you put racial fairness on the table as a concept for those who may not have ever considered the potential for differential impact, you are playing a key role in recalibrating America. You are helping us to heal.

I have always believed lasting change must both bubble up and trickle down. I do not minimize the link between the dearth of leadership from our country’s “top” and America’s lack of progress toward racial healing. At the same time, I continue to believe in “We the people.” We can foster a new—better—way of thinking. We can promote fresh ideas and different actions. We – the people – can begin to recalibrate America.  We can begin the healing process.

Three Steps to Racial Healing: REVEAL| Reflect | Recalibrate

“There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.”

— Russian proverb

 

In last month’s Daughters of the Dream blog, I shared my thoughts on America’s lack of readiness for racial healing. It’s not that I don’t want us to heal. I do. But I believe there are a series of stages for that healing to occur. As I said then, “Racial healing is a process, not an event.” I offer my process suggestions in three—hopefully, easily digestible—steps shared this month. Look for the posts on my blog about every 10 days. Here’s the first:

Step One: Reveal

Most of us have only seen America from the vantage point of white America (either because you are white or because our country’s educational and media experiences are dominated by the white perspective). Our knowledge of race and racial injustice is cursory.

This was revealed powerfully in an episode of the TV game show, Jeopardy when all of the categories, but one, in the double jeopardy second round had been entirely answered. Remaining on the board—untouched—was African-American History. This was a special episode of the show; the contestants were all college students. Even America’s best and brightest were not ready for this category because little in their education had adequately prepared them. And—this is important—the episode wasn’t from the 1960’s, the early days of the show. This happened in 2014.

Revealing our lack of knowledge and correcting that deficiency is the first step toward healing.

There must be a comprehensive and deep understanding of where we are and how we got here if we are to heal. IMG_4828If you are ready for a deeper understanding, I commend to you the following three books and a recent mini-series to start your learning journey:

  • Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram Kendi. Kendi is a Professor of History and International Relations at American University and the Founding Director of the University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. The subtitle of his book is “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” Dr. Kendi comprehensively reveals the historical origins of racist beliefs in a way that most of us have never heard. Be prepared, he is thorough!
  • The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. The subtitle of his book is “A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” When one thinks about how much is attached to where we live (see my April 2019 blog, Home) along with Rothstein’s revelations on the intentionality of the federal government in ensuring disparate living areas, we can better understand different life outcomes, by race.
  • Remembering Slavery edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven Miller. This book, subtitled “African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences with Slavery and Emancipation” presents stories told by formerly enslaved people during the 1920s and 1930s to HBCU students from Fisk University, Southern University and Kentucky State University and to researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal. Like Jewish people who proclaim “Never forget/never again” to implore society to never forget the atrocities that happened to their people, this book reveals slavery, through first-person remembrances, a perspective that few know today, a truth that we should never forget.
  • When They See Us is a 2019 Netflix mini-series co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay. It captures the experience of five young African-American men falsely accused of rape, their treatment when the crime occurred in 1989, how the media portrayed them, how the public reacted, their imprisonment, and their exoneration years later when the real rapist confessed. This is an age-old story grounded in the perceived purity of white women, the bestiality of black men, and their lust for white women, that unfolds within a biased and structurally racist criminal justice system.

When you read or view these resources, you may notice that they are hard to watch or to comprehend fully at first. Take time. Read and re-read. Make yourself watch the difficult parts of the mini-series. Is it hard for you to believe that someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Is it hard for you to believe that a private citizen responded by spending $85,000 for an ad in a major New York City newspaper calling for the death penalty? What leads both to take the actions they did? Can you see the layering of prejudicial messages that Kendi traces over centuries that can culminate in the Central Park Five or in the segregationist policies that Rothstein unveils? Do you believe the stories that the formerly enslaved people tell or do you think they are misrepresenting or exaggerating that experience? I hope you will take the time to get in touch with your thoughts and your feelings and think about what contributes to them.

The learning, however, must go beyond a personal level if there is to be real healing for our country. A short reading and viewing list is entirely inadequate to address 400 years of the African-American experience. We must include the study of our racial history in the core curriculum of every elementary, middle, and high school in America. Research has shown that preconceptions and biases based on race emerge at very early ages. We must address those consciously, with structured, well-developed curricula, in school. Then, we must embed a more in-depth study of structural racism and implicit bias into the curriculum of colleges and universities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We must graduate leaders who can see where we are as a country and who know how we got here so they can lead us to a place of racial equity.

The depth, breadth and impact of racial inequity must be revealed if we are to heal as a society.

***

Check back on August 14th (or subscribe so the blogs come directly to your inbox) to learn about what I see as step two: Reflect. But, in the meantime, please add your reading and viewing recommendations in the comments section of this post. What has opened your eyes to a racial reality that was unseen?

 

Racial Healing

racial healing image
This illustration by Jennifer Luxton was created for and originally posted by Yes! Magazine and is shared with permission.

America isn’t ready for it.

Yet!

Over the last couple of years, I have heard a lot of talk about racial healing. I have the same reaction every time: How can we heal without treating the wound, and how can that be done effectively without understanding it?

I want America to recognize the depth of the racial wound and to acknowledge how that wound, that injury, that disease… spread and infected society.

Recently when talking with a black friend, she reminded me that my perspective is that of a black person. In her view, white people want this conversation to go away. When she hears ‘racial healing,’ she thinks it is code for ‘Black people need to get over it.’ Hmmm. Get over it.

I am just beginning to understand IT; the extent and impact of racial inequity and injustice were hard for even me to see. I too was duped. I understood prejudice and discrimination, but I thought those who were prejudiced were ignorant people or those whose views were ill-informed because they hadn’t gotten to know black people. And then, ignorantly, for decades, I thought discrimination had ended with the passage of critical pieces of civil rights legislation. I believed this country was a meritocracy. I believed that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would ‘win’ by American standards. I was so very wrong. I didn’t understand the facts or the subtleties, the biases that shaped how the world was presented to me.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to fully appreciate the white lens through which many stories and ‘facts’ are told. Even when the recounting is not directly by a white person, the story is influenced by the majority culture/lore/norms. With each visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, or when reading posts on the blog, The Root, for example, I get a deeper appreciation for how much I never learned of the history, the accomplishments, the positive impact of black people on America. And it still isn’t being told in the dominant media.

It took the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s murder, coupled with the lack of consequences for his murderer to shock me out of my stupor. And it took listening to countless podcasts like ‘Uncivil,’ absorbing the wisdom and in-depth racial analyses from leaders and thinkers like john a. powell (capitalization is his preference), Robin DiAngelo, Richard Rothstein, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram Kendi for me to learn the insidiousness, intentionality, and impact of structural racism; the structures in place for decades causing black people to be disadvantaged as white people moved farther and farther ahead. My learning until 2012 had been casual, family-influenced, experiential. After the horror of Trayvon, my eyes opened to an obscured reality. I started on a conscious learning journey to understand the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism on society and on me.

There have been decades of Band-Aids placed haphazardly with no real sense of where the wound was or the fact that the injury may present as a flesh wound — a small cut, quickly addressed, but it isn’t. IT is cancer, invasive, and all-consuming. Those Band-Aids were insufficient unless their intent was not to heal but to both mask the problem and the fact that no one was trying to cure it.

That’s how I see the rush to racial healing. Another Band-Aid.

Even though wounds can be ugly and painful to look at, they must be revealed and their cause understood. That’s my issue. I don’t think the racial wound has been fully revealed and understood. Has it been diagnosed by people with the insights, knowledge, and sensitivity to determine the problem fully, i.e., has the cadre of diagnosticians gone through the educational rigor to understand the symptoms, how the problem operates and how to treat it? Who is studying how to prevent it from returning? Who is focused beyond treatment to eradication?

Personally, I want to heal. I want America to heal. I just know that if it has taken me, a black, educated person directly affected by structural racism and implicit bias, some time to see and begin to understand it, how long will it take those who benefit from the way the country is?

America doesn’t seem ready – as a country — even to admit that racism exists, much less to learn how it occurred, and how it continues. And there is no quick, easy fix. It will take years of work. Racial healing is a process, not an event. We must unspin the web that created and now perpetuates racism. Then, systematically, we must replace it with a new societal reality. Only then do I think we can heal.

“It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.”

– Ralph Ellison

Note: Look to the August Daughters of the Dream blog for my thoughts on how I think the racial healing process might begin. Continue reading “Racial Healing”