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.

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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”

Home

“Perhaps home is not a place but an irrevocable condition.”

― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Home. When you say it, what images come to mind? Family? Neighborhood? Playing with your friends as a kid? How does the word make you feel? Content? Happy? Melancholy? Such a small word fills your heart with powerful emotions. Not only does it bring forth memories, but the reality of that place has implications throughout your lifetime.

I think about growing up in the Northside section of Richmond, Virginia. It was a beautiful part of the city with Four Square style houses from the early 1900’s, manicured lawns, mature trees, and sidewalks to play hopscotch on. I think of security and peacefulness.

Home
The author’s childhood home in Richmond, VA

As a kid, I didn’t know my parents had secured a part of the American Dream that wasn’t available to all. My family was among the first wave of African-American families to move into Northside in the early 1950’s. Because my parents were moving into a white neighborhood, they could qualify for a bank loan, from a white bank. That’s right. It wasn’t financial capability that made them able to secure a loan with good terms; it was timing.

I hadn’t heard of redlining until I was in college. As I recall, it was discussed briefly in an urban sociology class. Neither the professor nor I focused much on it. While the term wasn’t coined until the 1960’s, the reality of the federal government refusing to insure loans in undesirable areas—literally drawing a red line around neighborhoods on a map—began in the 1930’s with the Federal Housing Administration. It wasn’t until I heard a presentation by Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, that I understood. The federal government had intentionally suppressed the likelihood that African-Americans could purchase homes by designating all black neighborhoods as undesirable. By doing that, the federal government quietly and powerfully said it wouldn’t insure loans for home purchases in black communities.

Now that didn’t mean that black families couldn’t buy homes. In fact, somehow both sets of my grandparents had purchased homes. It was just more difficult, often with less than desirable loan arrangements.

In my grandparents’ day, I can only see three options: 1) pay cash—a choice that was very unlikely for most black people; 2) purchase from an owner by signing a contract, often with a white owner, for payments to be made over 20-30 years. While the length of the loan was not different from the length of a mortgage today, there was a significant risk and potential for swindling. For example, the contract could state that if one payment was late or if repairs were not made, the agreement was void; causing the buyer to lose all that had been paid; or, 3) secure a loan from a black-owned bank. The last option was viable, particularly in Richmond. My home city had several black-owned banks dating back to the late 1880’s, but their ability to lend and the conditions of the loans were typically somewhat less desirable than those offered by white-owned banks merely because they had fewer resources.

I suspect that my grandparents, particularly my paternal grandparents, secured a loan from St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, the one founded by Maggie Walker, the first woman in the United States to charter a bank. She and my grandparents lived in the same neighborhood and knew each other. I can imagine my father listening, with pride, as my grandparents discussed the importance of saving at Miss Maggie’s Bank as it was called.

It was my father who taught me the value of owning property. He told me repeatedly that a homeowner could live in his/her home, rent it out in whole or in part, or use it as collateral for a loan when extra money was needed.  He understood that a home was far more than a place to live, a place to create memories. It was an investment.

Only in recent years have I come to know that where you live dictates much about the quality of your life. People in African-American neighborhoods have shorter lifespans than people in white neighborhoods. In the Greater Washington, DC area, where I live, that difference can be as much as eight years. Environmental toxins are more prevalent in communities of color. Educational funding, and the quality of education is driven, largely, by local property taxes based on home values. And, too many recent incidents have shown the difference in policing practices depending on where you live.

Today, as white people move into black communities it is disturbing, but perhaps not surprising that the term “gentrifying” is used. The “gentry”—the upper class—has come to the neighborhood and the community is seen to be on the rise. In my parent’s day, black people moving into a predominately white neighborhood was seen as signaling decline. Not much seems to have changed. The underlying narrative remains:  black is bad, white is good.

And still, for all of us, home is where the heart is.

 

 

 

 

 

When the subconscious is in control

Q: Who was the president of the Confederacy? A: Jefferson Davis.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. I’ve known the answer to that question all of my life; so, on page 131 of my book, Daughters of the Dream, why did I reference Robert E. Lee as the president of the Confederacy and why wasn’t this error caught by the multiple readers who reviewed the book before publishing?

I think there is only one answer: Robert E. Lee looms larger than life in most conversations about the Confederacy. It wasn’t until writing Daughters of the Dream that I knew there was a statue to Jefferson Davis on the venerable boulevard in my hometown that features effigies of Confederate notables (along with one statue to Richmond native son, tennis champion Arthur Ashe). I did, however, know about the 60-foot equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. For whatever reason, Jefferson Davis seems to have taken a back seat, at least in Richmond, to Robert E. Lee. Even one of the local high schools is named Lee-Davis High, not Davis-Lee.

conscious.subconsciousWhy am I bringing this up? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to erase/correct the negative images about black people that have proliferated in our country for so long. I incorrectly wrote that Robert E. Lee was the president of the Confederacy because that false reality rang truer in my subconscious than the truth. And his role—Lee’s—as the dominant figure in the Confederacy mythos and pantheon, seems to have also permeated the psyche of many readers who did not catch the mistake.

I think the same thing has happened to many white people in America. The traits they associate the most with black people are negative. This rings in their subconscious. They hear about the number of black people committing crimes and who are incarcerated. They hear about the inability of black children to learn or for black boys to attend to their school work. They hear about, or see, the distressed nature of some black neighborhoods. They hear about the high black unemployment rate. The list goes on and on. Criminal, ignorant, unstable families are the media messages, the tropes that populate minds—often crowding out reason—with words and images. They give people the shorthand ability to make quick decisions. As Malcolm Gladwell reminded us in his book Blink, quick decisions are not uninformed decisions. They may occur in the blink of an eye, but information is being processed and acted upon that has been accumulated over a lifetime and fed by the experiences and perceptions of parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers.

Against the negative imagery defining black people, there is often little real-life experience to provide balance and truth. In predominantly white communities, there may be few black teachers, lawyers, doctors, store managers to offer a counterweight against the negative images, no interaction in the homes and communities of the ‘other.’ And when you are the majority population, there is little reason to question your reality. It just is. There is little delving into the structural racism and implicit bias that shape reality. No one is being prompted to read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law to learn of the federal government’s overt role in ensuring residential segregation and then questioning how residential segregation has led to differential policing in certain neighborhoods, differential public services like street cleaning, differential educational opportunities. No one is reviewing studies, like the one that shows when teachers are asked to watch a group of children in a classroom and then note which children are acting out, the answer is the black boy even when an impartial observer notes no distinction in the behaviors of the gender and racially diverse group.

Robert E. Lee rose higher in my consciousness when I thought about the Confederacy than did Jefferson Davis because images and messages had accumulated in my mind over a lifetime that positioned Lee in closer proximity to my sense of the Confederacy than Davis. I think many people experience this same effect. And perception, not facts, rule. I had been taught that Davis was president, not Lee. In the recesses of my mind, I knew this, and the error has been corrected in Daughters of the Dream, but what happens when there is no one teaching about black people as contributors to society on all levels and no one is pushing you to think a lot of what you ‘know’ about black people may be stereotypes. How do we address these culpabilities and overcome the ‘blink’ syndrome of implicit biases? We have to bombard the media with cell phone videos that show common prejudicial behaviors. We have to elevate the stories of the black doctors, scientists and those of ordinary people doing the right thing. Just as a reader told me of the mistake in Daughters of the Dream, we must all point out the faults in people’s thinking and work toward that dream of a racially just America.

P.S. — During this holiday season, I hope you will — consciously — consider purchasing my book Daughters of the Dream for the friends and family on your gift list.