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.

 

 

My journey to understand racial justice

Today is the 10th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Tom Adams, a blogger on racial equity and justice, spirituality and love, recovery and growth, and leadership and transitions, asked me to share my journey to understand racial injustice and justice. Since that journey started with Trayvon Martin, I share this post today.

(Note: the included video doesn’t tell the whole story, but, for many, it is an eye opener.)

 Learning about structural racism: One woman’s journey

White people, step it up

Picture this.  The coronavirus is over. Scientists have given the “all clear”.  One million white people have gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC with signs  that read “Black People protestingLives Matter” “I am marching for Ahmaud Arbery”  “I march for Trayvon Martin” “I march for the thousands of black men and women imprisoned who simply can’t pay bail to get out”  “I march for clean water in Flint”  “I march for quality grocery stores in black and brown neighborhoods.” “I march for the black people who white leaders don’t listen to.”

Can you see it? Can you see one million white people marching for black lives, for black bodies?

I appreciate all my white friends who have posted their outrage on social media about armaud arbreythe killing of Ahmaud Arbery. I value your allyship and your sense of humanity. I also value your public statements. Many think the thoughts, but then don’t write the words where one of their friends, or family, or colleagues might see them. “You know,” they say, “I have to pick the right moment.”

White people, as Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in her 1619 essay, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” I’m not saying that white people didn’t participate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or Selma or the March on Washington or in countless other protests to make America’s promise true. You have. But, I need you to step it up.   America needs you to step it up.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Black people’s voices have been, and continue to be, powerful in enabling our own liberation, 400 years ago, 200 years ago and today. But to paraphrase racial justice advocate, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, “Could women have gotten the vote without the leadership of men?  No.” Black people can march, and will march, until the soles of our feet are raw. We will protest until our voices are strained to a whisper, but white people, we need you to step it up.

In large measure, your people run Congress … your people lead states … your people run business, the Fortune 500 companies … your people control the media. You run America.  Raise your voices. Step it up.

 

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”