A search for the terms ‘racism’, ‘race relations’, ‘racial discrimination’, ‘bigotry’ and ‘post-racial’ of 6 of the highest circulating newspapers in the US 7 years before Senator Barack Obama made his announcement to run for president and 7 years after that announcement offers some facts for reflection. In the latter 7 years there is a decrease in the number of times the first 4 terms appear either in the title or the content of these newspapers, the last term ‘post-racial’ has shown an increase-from 1 to 9. (1). This is a small glimpse of the silencing of racism as a real phenomena in our society, before and after the first African American took the highest office of the white house. This research shows that during the process of President Obama having to prove his birth in the US, not once did any of these periodicals link race or any permutation of this word to this act of racism. When these major print media collectively and systematically neglect racism and its devastating effect on those who are oppressed and those who perpetuate the systems that allow this to occur, we could interpret this as a society which is well on its way in healing from racism. Another interpretation is that the reality of society is told to us by those with power, and reflects their perception of society. The perception of society, of those with power, is significantly separate and different from the reality of people of color who continue to suffer from a history of racism daily. The perceptions of those with power, are gained through their learning and experience from the lens of white privilege. They have the privilege of deciding and living their perception of reality; one which neglects the history and consequences of a country birthed and grown in racism. But what else would we expect? We can only know what we have experienced and learned from those who gather around us. And here lies the challenges of transitioning from greater racial separation to racial healing: a learning of the experiences of non-white America by white America.
Acknowledging the past and the present racial tensions
The appearance of ‘post-racial’ in these periodicals also supports this sense of a healing reflecting again a lack of understanding of the reality of people of color in America. For those who perceive a ‘post-racial’ society in their daily lives, the shooting and killing of an African American teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO this past week may seem like an anomaly. Like the anomaly of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the anomaly of the more than 400 young black men killed by police yearly. This evidences the systematic violence against black men, institutionalized by our legal system. But this evidence of racial separation and oppression is evidenced not only in the legal system with police brutality, we see it within the judicial system with the recent removal of key protections of the voting rights acts, and the systematic challenges to affirmative actions. We see it in the political system by the leadership of the Republican party and their funders in attacking programs and polices of the current administration and the disrespect of President Obama by elected representatives not seen before with other presidents. The educational, housing, labor, and health institutions also perpetuate significant racial inequity evidenced by the gap between whites and people of color in: accessing and completing high school and higher education, living in disinvested and abandoned communities, home values, income and professional accomplishments, health care access and outcomes.
The presence of racial separation and tension of Ferguson, MO plays out in many segregated areas across the US. Such neighborhoods of majority low-income and African Americans or Latinos/as were created by a history of housing segregation supported by the government and private interests. While a majority of white America fled to white enclaves in the suburbs, banks and government discriminated against African Americans for house loans creating segregated communities of blight in the 1950‘s and 1960‘s and the ghettos of today. The disinvestment in infrastructure, schools, recreation, housing, security, sanitation, and health services in these neighborhoods assured continued inequity in health, income, education, and the skill-sets necessary for movement out of poverty. This history assured access to all resources for whites-low income and higher-while black people had to struggle against significant odds to access any resources or opportunity for mobility. (2) Ferguson is an example of such a neighborhood, scorned by the majority white establishment whose privileged perceptions do not allow them the grace to understand this history of racial segregation and their benefit from it. The way one white colleague describes this is “white people are like the horses running down the track with covers over their eyes”.
Such white-powered privilege sows and reaps a perception that disallows the opportunity for understanding the history and experiences of those without white-skin privilege. It allows a clear separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which mandates security and ordering of society based on one group’s ideology and ‘truths’. This privileged existence for those with the power to remain unquestioned is what defines white supremacy. White supremacy is the visible and at times invisible structures built by and fueled by white-powered privileged individuals which formulates clear sets of rules and rights for white-skinned individuals who do not have to consider the other: life according to white America, reality through white America’s eyes. The killing of an African American teenager, unarmed with his hands in the air, running away from a white police officer pleading not to be shot affirms the privilege of white supremacy. And yet this witnessed example of violence, while a tragedy for this teenager, his family, his community and all those who may have been touched by him, is also an opportunity for us to confront the history of racial segregation and violence yet again and direct our energies toward racial healing. Will this be that drop that runs the bucket over and create a new landscape for healing and wholeness?
Acting for healing
Watering truths of our collective past to flourish so we can begin to heal the soil for something beautiful to grow is a step in creating a new landscape of racial healing and equity. Acknowledging the racist practices and policies which built our country, the present day outcome of such practices, and the steps necessary to move toward racial healing are conditions that can bring about truthful dialogue and action to repair its consequences. Delving into the roots of current racial and ethnic inequities-income, educational, housing, health- is a part of this unearthing of the causes and consequences of American racism. There is no indicator whereby African Americans and/or Native American Indians and/or Latinos/as do not lag behind white Americans, none. Such stark evidence is the result of white-powered institutions orchestrated by individuals either ignorant or blinded with their own self-interest to utilize such systems for their and their descendants benefit. The systematic exclusion of non-whites from these benefits are the chronic conditions we are facing today. Racial healing, mediated through truth and reconciliation meetings around the country, city by city, intending to understand and repair this past is a practical step to begin anew together and move forward. They must be consistent and address the acute and chronic issues we face today. The effect on whites and non-whites must be understood, benefit and suffering, with everyone at the table to share and listen. Goals must be set, parameters for evaluating process and outcomes implemented, follow-up to assess changes coordinated, and measurable indicators analyzed and reconfigured for changes necessary along with the funding necessary to assure this occurs. Indeed six meetings or six months of gatherings will not undo and begin the process for changing such systemic belief systems of ‘us’ and ‘them’; we must be committed to the years necessary to undo the more than 300 years of racial myth and reality embedded in our consciousness and hearts.
But this is only one step on our path of healing. We must place a priority, a political will, for racial equity. We must fund affordable housing and decrease homelessness; fund health centers to effectively serve our poor and racially disenfranchised; we must educate, in all schools whether in white or non-white neighborhoods, about the true history of racism and segregation so the future generations do not repeat their ancestors mistakes; we must remove ineffective people from offices who perpetuate racial division to benefit those historically in power; we must divest from banks and lenders like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase Bank and other members of the ‘wall street gang’ who prey on black and brown people to assure continued poverty of people and neighborhoods; we must past laws in every city that requires a living wage is paid to all and redistribute unfair incomes given to presidents and top officers of corporations to fund this, private or non-profit; we must tax the rich to fund the path out of poverty and racism which redistributes this wealth assembled through exploiting the poor and people of color; we must invest in our historically disinvested neighborhoods like Ferguson in Missouri and East Baltimore in Maryland which visually continue to affirm the deep racial divides which exist and which must be addressed from the ground up for racial healing to occur. In effect, we must protest the status quo and accepted perception perpetuated by a white-dominated America that the American dream is accessible to all. We must do so in the streets, the board rooms, the class rooms, the halls of justice and the ivory halls of institutions, the press rooms, the bathrooms, the clinics, the employment lines and the unemployment lines, the churches, temples, synagogues, in nursing homes and child-care centers, in solitude, in community, in silence and out loud, we must protest for peace and racial equity now.
The vitality of our communities, our country, is at stake until racial healing occurs. The term ‘superpower’ used by the current president and his predecessors is a farce until we act at home the way we preach abroad. Mainstream media perpetuates the myth of a harmonious USA living an American dream desired by other countries, alternative media provides us too often the grim reality of the effect of racist and classist division. While each provides a glimpse of someone’s reality, having all our realities acknowledged so we can choose and envision change based on truth is critical. The media must help us broadcast truth to the masses. Change must come at all levels and begin with us: what privileged white-determined perceptions do we have of our brothers and sisters of color, whether of color or white? We must challenge those with power to imagine and practice change by stretching their privileged belief systems. Our current administration must increase the chances that this American dream they broadcast abroad is obtained first, by the descendants of the first Americans who slaved and died for this country- the black and brown people of America-even while we invite other vulnerable and privileged populations from abroad to reach for that dream with us.
Acutely, rebuilding communities such as Ferguson, rife with racial tension, with the voice and presence of community is a step toward healing any disaffected community. In a recent interview President Obama noted that the war-torn countries in the Middle East cannot be rebuilt with the US going in and telling them what is best for them; it must happen from within these countries, led by the affected people. He continued that anything else is simply temporary, an interim period that puts a lid on things, until destruction later erupts. This truth must be brought back home, in America, supported by the powers of this administration. Such wisdom can usher in a new way of community healing, one that respects the experience of those most impacted by the many band aids that placed lids on the racial tensions that exists across America. Ferguson, Missouri is an opportunity for us to heal these tensions and abandon the path of separation we have been on for too long. Acting today for racial healing continues the path of our ancestors and assures that future generations realize freedom from the tyranny of racial oppression.