20 February 2009

Time is Right for Honest Conversation About Racism in America

Seems like Pandora’s box was opened this week when a political cartoon in the right-leaning New York Post hit the stands. While some suggest Sean Delonas’s cartoon only meant to mock the federal stimulus bill and not compare President Obama to a violent chimp that needed to be gunned down by the (white) police, others saw it as blatantly racist. I’m hoping it wasn’t, that the artist merely had a lapse in judgment and his editor was out sick that day.

Then there was the suggestion by newly appointed Attorney General Eric Holder that Americans are cowards when it comes to dealing with issues of race, which created just as much of a stir.

Here we are, barely a month into the term of the country’s first African-American President and already such heated rhetoric on the topic of race.

Shouldn’t be surprising.

Much ado about nothing? Perhaps. But I think it’s clear that we are a nation bursting at the seams to have real dialogue about race, to which I say: It's about time.

I’m guessing that your reaction to these two news stories varied greatly depending on the color of your skin.

Reminds me of a few years ago when the ABC news program “20/20” accused Nissan and General Motors of participating in lending arrangements with car dealers that resulted in blacks paying higher finance charges than whites on new car loans. In living rooms from Spokane to Baltimore, reaction among most whites watching the show was “surely not,” and among most blacks was, “hmmm… that’s not surprising.”

You see, for whites, it’s easy to be blind to racism. White men like me, in particular, can conceivably live out an entire lifetime without ever having to confront prejudice on a personal level. I have (vicariously) because in the past few years there have been a number of people in my life who experience its pervasive sting on a daily basis – people important enough to me that I’ve taken time to listen to their stories and feel the hurt in their voices as they’ve told them.

Here’s what I think: Certainly there still exists pockets of true bigotry out there, neo-nazis and other hate mongers, boiling over that we have a black president. But for the most part I honestly believe that an overwhelming majority of whites are well-meaning. But incredibly naïve. Naiveté, along with denial and a guilty conscience contributes to a collective avoidance to the subtler forms of racism, which is all around us. White folk just don't see it. 

Several years ago, an organization where I worked was experiencing a fair amount of racial tension. The OJ trial was going on at the time which only added fuel to the fire. OJ demonstrated, as well as anything I’ve ever known, how people can view the same events so differently -- depending on the lenses they're looking through. To its credit, the organization spent a lot of time and money trying to heal its wounds and is stronger still because it did. We spent years going through a variety of cultural awareness and sensitivity programs which opened up lines of communication and opened eyes. And wounds.

During one of the sessions, my black co-workers, one by one, told stories of the kinds of prejudice they encounter on a daily basis: in check out lines, during job interviews, and, yes, while trying to get a new car loan. My white co-workers and I were astonished. Who knew?

One of my co-workers talked about the time she was walking home from elementary school when a white man who didn't particularly take to the idea of her cutting through his yard unleashed his pit bull dog on her. The dog chased her down and bit her several times on the back of her leg. She remembers the man, red-faced, yelling at her, calling her the “n-word” as she looked up at him from the ground. It was a memory so painful that she had blocked it out of her mind all these years, only to have it resurface and come flooding back as we sat in a circle on the floor. As she told the story, her voice quivering, the rest of cried. And I remember, for the very first time, feeling nothing but shame because of the skin that I was wearing.

A friend of mine was recently the plaintiff in a lawsuit against one of Charlotte’s popular department stores. While Christmas shopping with her children she was accused of shoplifting and was harassed by the store manager. He ended up pushing her in the stomach. She was six months pregnant at the time, by the way. She contends that the store makes it a practice to target and harass black customers, and that they even have a code to alert staff that “one of them” has entered the building. A few years ago I would have thought the idea was preposterous. But it seems every black person I know has a story just as shocking, so it doesn’t seem as preposterous to me now. What the store manager didn’t know is that my friend is a very powerful attorney in town and that her husband is one of the more renowned physicians in the region. They could buy the whole store if they wanted to. They messed with the wrong lady.

I do think we’ve come a long ways since “coloreds” had separate water fountains to drink from throughout the south and MLK was leading marches from Selma to Montgomery. The problem is it’s a lot easier to see burning crosses than glass ceilings. You have to look harder to see that institutional racism is alive and well. But it’s only with eyes wide open to the dirty ways of the world that we’ll be able to hold lending institutions accountable, for example. And political cartoonists. 

As well as our elected officials – for the fact that the placement of most toxic waste dumps are in poor (mostly black) neighborhoods or that there is disproportionate levels of lead and toxic air pollution in inner city (mostly black) ghettos or that there is a 6 to 1 black to white ratio of incarcerated juveniles even when the crimes they commit are exactly the same or that 3 out of 4 children admitted to adult prisons are children of color even though most juvenile crimes are committed by white kids… the deplorable conditions of inner city (mostly black) schools, the racial disparity among death row inmates, or that at every turn minorities face barriers and obstacles most whites don't even know exist.

Nowhere is institutional racism more apparent than in the child welfare system where I’ve spent most of my career. 65% of children in foster care are children of color, even though they comprise only 35% of the overall child population. When a family is reported for suspected child abuse or neglect, minority children are more likely than white children to be placed in foster care rather than receive in-home family preservation services – even when the families share the same problems and characteristics. And black children stay in foster care twice as long as white children. Even though blacks are well-represented along the front lines, policy and decision-makers at public and private child welfare agencies tend to be white men.

Gone are the days when blacks had to sit at the back of the bus, thank God. But make no mistake, racism lives on. Even the most naïve whites need to own up to that fact. As long as whites hold the power in this country, which we do (electing a black president doesn’t change that), it will be up to us to take the lead in rectifying the sins of our past and present. 

Most whites would be intolerant of a Klan rally in our community or a noose hanging from a tree in a yard of a black neighbor. We need to be just as intolerant of the less blatant forms of racism going on around us, even though they're much easier to ignore.  

To do so we must first take our heads out of the sand.

The best way I know to begin the process is through individual relationships. Talking and a whole lot of listening. At least that’s how it worked for me. Then comes awareness, empathy, compassion, activism, and (hopefully) change.

But our society will continue to struggle along a racial divide as long as it continues to be segregated (and it is). Separate-ness causes complacency. And myopia. Work places are diverse, but diversity has to extend beyond the job to dinner tables and places of worship and living rooms and bowling alleys and other places where real friendships grow.

Because it’s hard to continue to think in terms of “us” and “them” when “them” includes people that you love.

It's a new day in America; the time is right for an honest conversation about racism.