CEO Corner: The far-reaching poison tentacles of racism in our society
Saturday, June 20, 2020
We at EDASC are all deeply saddened and frustrated at the murders of Black(i) Americans in drastically disproportionate numbers that have rocked our country and generated protests around the world against the poisonous racism permeating our society.
Today is Juneteenth, a celebration of the official ending of slavery in the U.S., and we feel it is important to speak out against racism and inequality.
This is not the first time EDASC has made a statement on those topics. Inclusion of the word “equitable” in our mission statement explicitly declares that we are not free or equal until we are all free and treated equitably under the law, in the economy, and in society. Nonetheless, we all individually and as a society have far to go to bring this about.
You have previously read about unconscious bias and how it is reflected in the workplace here. The current protests reacting to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, (and yet others just since I started writing this piece) and incorporating the countless others before them reaching back centuries who died unlawfully at the hands of law enforcement or self-appointed vigilantes for existing while Black, remind us of the inequality that has accompanied America since its “discovery” by Europeans 401 years ago.
Although our national charter declares that all men are created equal, setting aside for a moment the sexism embedded in that statement, our nation has for its entire existence treated people differently based on the color of their skin.
What’s going on is far more extensive than police or vigilante murders, although that is the most graphic and shocking manifestation. Institutional racism in our country in what we would consider modern times (let’s say post-WW2) has shaped our laws, our economy and our society, such as rates of incarceration, where we live, work and go to school, and with whom we socialize. Mistrust and fear of Black people resulting in those murders comes from the entire constellation of subjugation and discrimination stemming from the misguided belief in Black inferiority.
During my lifetime Black people have been kept from voting (still happening in some places, just more clandestine) and legally forbidden to go to school with or marry white people in many states. Economic benefits such as the GI Bill(ii) and FHA and VHA mortgage loans were designed to only benefit white people, as seen in the statistics of who was able to take advantage of these programs(iii).
And as we know from the infamous Nixon tapes, the “War on Drugs” was expressly designed primarily to disenfranchise Black people from voting to weaken their influence and that of the Democratic party. Oh yeah, and to ineffectively combat drug use. Nixon also sought to capitalize on Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, both Democrats, championing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because Nixon and Johnson both knew that was anathema to most southern whites.
As you probably know (from the occasional “y’all” that slips out), I grew up in small town North Carolina after moving there from Rhode Island in the mid-1960’s. A KKK sign greeted our arrival upon exiting the highway and told us in no uncertain terms that “this is Klan country” and “we don’t want ni***rs and Jews….” There were neighborhoods where we were legally forbidden to live and clubs we couldn’t join.
My first year in public school I was called “dirty Jew” and “ni***r lover” (I didn’t understand at first that the latter was also intended as an insult to me). It was way worse for Black people, and I cannot know what that experience was like from the inside. Our schools were not integrated until 7th grade, and there were indications every day about who was in charge and who better mind their Ps and Qs.
As a rising senior, I was approached by our (extremely racist even for the context) high school principal and asked whether the two close friends of mine who had just been elected senior and junior class presidents were Black Panthers. Mind you, they were 16- and 17-year-olds with Afro puffs (one an honor student, cheerleader and extraordinary singer, the other with the highest IQ in her class – and I found that out because a white teacher knew and was dumbfounded and asked me to guess, which I did on the first try).
To this day, I hear some people from my hometown and all over the south (don’t get me wrong, it happens all over the country) trying to maintain the status quo, twisting themselves into all kinds of verbal and mental knots to deny the reality of racism because the wrong end of it is outside their personal experience.
Part of that is denying that the Civil War was about preserving slavery, and that honoring the Confederacy is about “Heritage not Hate.” Southerners have been taught in school for generations that slaves were happy and well-treated, and certainly better off than had they stayed heathens and savages in Africa (as if that had been an option). This is why only now Confederate statues and flags, worshipful monuments to a traitorous rebellion, are being removed from official and public spaces in our country. I have lived in Germany and can attest that they do a better job of dealing honestly with the shameful aspects of their history.
I’m contemplating all this to highlight the daily negative assumptions about and depictions of Black people, including in the media. How could a Black person have the highest IQ, go to an Ivy League school, live in this fancy neighborhood, drive that nice car, belong to this pool, etc. Mind you, all minority groups are subjected to stereotypes, positive and negative, that weigh them down, and we will continue to fight against those too, but this is the topic demanding the most attention right now. Urgently.
I am reminded of the video where white anti-racism activist and teacher Jane Elliott asks her large white audience to stand if they would be comfortable becoming Black, considering how Black people are treated in society. When no one stands up, she asks again, saying maybe she had been misunderstood, and still no white person volunteers to become Black. Her unavoidable conclusion, therefore, is that all present knew about the racism directed against Black people but were comfortable enough with it to do nothing about it(iv).
The point is, we all have to do a better job of recognizing injustice that doesn’t affect us personally, instead of arguing that it doesn’t exist or try to deflect with a “Whatabout _________?.” The concept of white privilege doesn’t mean that it’s that white person’s fault, or that you did anything to create it, or that you don’t have other struggles – but the color of your skin is not one of those struggles.
And the concept of Black Lives Matter doesn’t say anything about other lives – white, police, or anyone else. It merely points out that Black Lives Matter TOO. The statement is only necessary because apparently so many people and institutions don’t recognize Black Lives to be a subset of All Lives. It’s not saying Black Lives or Black Murders are more valuable or more tragic. It’s not saying all police are murderous racists. It merely seeks to address a systemic tide of unjustified killings that have largely gone unnoticed or unpunished or both.
You know who understands this perfectly? Amy Cooper, a white woman in Central Park with an off-leash dog, who told a Black man who reminded her to leash her dog that she would call the police and tell them she felt threatened by him. She knew she would be believed, as have the white women who call the police on children selling lemonade, going to the pool, barbecuing, jogging, studying, napping, or any of dozens of other activities you and I take for granted that we can do unmolested.
Amy and her kind should also understand why Black people wouldn’t have the same view of or relationship with the police as white people. While Black dads and moms are giving “the talk” to their children (not about sex – about how to behave when stopped by police to try to avoid getting killed), white dads and moms need to give a parallel talk to their kids to get them to try to think about others whose situation is different.
Why is this issue important in economic terms? We have a situation where economic inequality is worsening every year, endangering the middle class that generates the most spending and economic growth through the multiplier effect. This could be a watershed moment where the veil is lifted on the hidden aspects of our economic systems that keep many people from improving their lot and therefore advancing society generally.
Think of the boost to society when more people share in opportunities to advance and prosper and have hope in their family’s future. Think of the economic benefit when more people receive an education preparing them to start a business or get that job that enables them to buy a home and create generational wealth. A learned friend of many decades reminded me of the myth of “bootstraps” and “self-sufficiency.” No one truly makes it completely on their own. There are families, teachers, mentors, employers, institutions, and others who provide support and pathways.
Then, think of inter-generational wealth passed down, and parental educational and/or business opportunities that fertilized the ground for following generations’ success. Some people are quick to condemn “affirmative action admissions” but they are puzzlingly silent on legacy and big donor admissions, accepted practices at most institutions.
Slavery may have ended 150+ years ago, but clearly we are still waiting for equal opportunity(v) for life, liberty and happiness both under the law and in society. Think of the public funds that could be redirected from law enforcement when crime rates drop because more people have hope and a better shot at improving their financial situation, their health, and their lives.
Yes health – public health outcomes have shown for years that your health and your life expectancy are determined by your ZIP code. We have read of the deleterious health effects of racism on the lives of Black Americans. Now we have to do something. We, those of us who have not struggled under the oppressive burden of racism.
Racism is a crisis in law enforcement, public health, housing, education, employment, politics … and it is up to those not targeted by racism to lead the charge in undoing the crisis. Make no mistake, it does impact us all, even here in Skagit County where our local African-American population is very small.
We can be that example of empathy in action, where we honestly examine and understand the plight of those outside our immediate tribe to improve the lives of all of us. Without the activism of a lot of straight married people, James and I would not have been able to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary this month. In just the same way, until a lot more white people decide to work actively toward a better life for non-white people, we won’t see the progress our society so desperately needs.
We have to ask, listen and learn with open minds and hearts to root out the evil of racism wherever it is found. Our society is trying to push forward a very important conversation. We all must be a constructive part of the problem-solving, and resist the temptation to focus on discomfort from the protest or the conversation. If you feel a football player kneeling during the national anthem merits more energy than a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck and killing him, look inward. There aren’t two sides to this issue, because the other side would have to be “Black Lives Don’t Matter” – and I hope we’re not arguing that.
[i] Current style manuals capitalize “Black” when used as an ethnic designation rather than a color, where “white” is not capitalized as a skin color because it’s not an ethnic designation like “European-American.” See:https://www.cjr.org/analysis/capital-b-Black-styleguide.php[ii] https://www.history.com/news/gi-bill-black-wwii-veterans-benefits