I have a friend who happens to be an African American. What I have seen in him of late, I also saw Friday in President Obama. I saw hurt and pain, and resolve.
The interesting thing about this is that I have learned something very valuable. The Trayvon Martin tragedy, while affecting me in a very profound way, is not the same as it is for my friend and for the President.
When the Republican radicals in various states during the last presidential election, were passing laws to keep African-Americans from exercising their right to vote, I was appalled, angry and sad. My friend was as well. But for him, it was something more.
When those same conservative radicals were telling lies, and saying that the President was a racist, a Kenyan, a Muslim, a socialist, and that he had an invalid birth certificate (after saying that he was not even born in the United States), I was again appalled and angry. My friend was more than angry; he was incensed and overwhelmed. There was something more involved than there was with me.
When my friend and I, along with other members of our organization, traveled to the State of Pennsylvania to help register voters, we encountered reluctance of people to sign papers that would serve to get them registered. I took it in stride, believing it was simple apathy, or the need to get chores done (it was a Saturday, and people were shopping). My friend had to abandon our effort; it was something more to him.
On the way home in my car, I learned what had moved him. He said being on the street pleading with people to register -- “begging” them was the word he used -- reminded him too much of days when he had been homeless and literally had to beg for food and beverage.
Friday’s speech by the President was in that vein. Trayvon Martin’s experience reminded him of his own experiences as a young black man.
With me, my anger and hurt were based on principles that I cherish, actions that I abhor, and with arrogance that I cannot abide. With me, it was mostly an attack against my beliefs and my intellectual understandings of this country’s precepts and underpinnings. I was outraged by ideas and actions that are offensive to me, not because of my experiences necessarily, but because of my understandings.
With my President, and with my friend, it’s something much deeper. As a white man, I need to understand this, and to respect it.
When the President said, “I could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago”; or when he recounted the locking of car doors as he walked by, or the pursuit of him within a department store -- he was not using metaphors, or discussing intellectual tenets, or merely recounting experiences. He was living it. He was feeling what it was like. He was there in that apartment complex. He knows within his very being what it is like to be Trayvon; to be a young black man being treated as a pariah, as a threat, as the n-word. My friend felt all these things so personally in this way that he had to pull back from our organization, go to the doctor, and go through a healing process. It was then I realized how personal this all is for him, and I remembered an incident related to gun violence prevention where he had to leave the room for a time because he was overwhelmed by a personal experience that is part of his personal history.
The President referred to something else that white men have to understand and respect. He spoke of the context of history and of a structured racism that is so engrained in the black man’s psyche and soul that it is ever-present and ever a factor in how he sees the world, and in how the world sees him. President Obama is remarkable in his ability to explain that experience and to also turn it off, so to speak, when it does not serve his broader mission of being President to all the people. In my opinion, that is why he has not spoken in this way before, but this moment demanded a different and unique approach. And, he delivered. His eloquence is contained in the fact that he was able to bring us inside his soul to have a look at what black men deal with every day.
But, what about that history? For me as a white man, slavery - forced human servitude - is not engrained in my experience or in my life. But for most black men and women born in this country, it is there as heritage, as family history, as a living reality. While that may be fading somewhat in a younger generation brought up in a multicultural society, with many civil rights secured, and with knowledge of slavery limited more to textbooks than to oral tradition handed down, this history may not be as personal. But the Trayvon Martin incident brings to the fore an oral tradition that slavery probably produced as fathers told sons how to survive, and especially how to be subservient to the overseer and master without losing every ounce of one’s dignity. That “talk” has now become vitally necessary once again.
Of course, that history of servitude morphed into a history of second-class citizenship in the days following the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. We entered the first Jim Crow era (1876-1965) when laws were passed in southern and border states (some in northern and western states) to keep black men and women in a state of existence that denied them the basic rights that others (whites) freely enjoyed. How could that historical denigration not personally affect a whole cohort of the people? It did, and it still does. The laws inculcated as many indecencies as could possibly be perpetrated upon a race of people, including segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks, as well as strict definitions of what was and wasn’t appropriate behavior between the races, marriage laws, voting restrictions such as poll taxes and unfair voting requirements such as literacy tests. They were not able to serve on juries nor run for political office. “Importantly, even in cases in which Jim Crow laws did not expressly forbid black people to participate in sports or recreation, the laws shaped a segregated culture.”
That last point from Wikipedia is very important, for it is the atmosphere, the milieu that was created that has lived on in the lives of African-Americans because the dominant race and culture accepted and ingested them. It is the stereotypes, the labels -- like lazy incompetent, dull, stupid, and perhaps evil -- that come down to us and define more relationships between the races than we care to acknowledge.
Make no mistake. When my friend and the President talk about the effects of their history, they are telling us that the stereotypes it produced are a living reality for every black man in this country.
And that is not the end of the matter. Those stereotypes and denigrations live on within many of our institutions and constitute what has been called “institutional racism,” and what is now being called “structured racism.”
I have recently been reminded that there is a difference between individual prejudice (individuals pre-judging someone by appearance or preconceived notions, i.e. stereotypes) or bigotry (holding an intolerant viewpoint unfazed and unmoved by facts or informed opinion), and the concretizing of such prejudices and intolerances into the laws of the land and into the foundational principles, policies and rules of our institutions. Wikipedia quotes one definition:
“Institutional racism is distinguished from racial bigotry by the existence of institutional systemic policies, practices and economic and political structures which place non-white racial and ethnic groups at a disadvantage in relation to an institution’s white members.”
One example is public school budgets along with the quality of teachers, which in the U.S. are both often correlated with property values. Thus, rich neighborhoods are more likely to be more 'white' and to have better teachers and more money for education, even in public schools.
Can we say, then, that the almost exclusive taxing of property owners for the operation of public schools builds in a discriminatory principle against minorities? That is exactly the case.
Was this an accident, or was it planned? One opinion is: “In drafting the Constitution, our founding fathers intended to allow states to retain the power to tax its own residents. Since property taxes benefit local residents with community improvements, the federal government does not play a big role in how each state uses its property taxes or how states tax its residents as long as states do not violate federal laws or Constitutional rights.” (ehow.com).
That says to me that the founding fathers were making sure that local property owners were not going to lose any privilege of ownership to a central government. They made sure to keep control on their home turf. In fact, as time passed, states passed the taxing power to local governments and allowed local county or city and town governments to implement their own local property taxes. That historical fact and action says to me that the people who owned property, wanted the property taxing power even closer to home so they would have a greater chance for control of rates and distribution.
According to the National Center for Education, just one-tenth of school funding comes from federal taxes. The remainder of the funding comes from local property taxes. Because property taxes are used for public education programs, school equipment and capital building improvements, there are certain facts and outcomes one must consider:
Ø Since property taxes reflect a community's collective riches or wealth, the lack of textbooks and equipment, and of excellent teachers, with classes being held in outdated and dilapidated public school buildings, are signs that a community is unable to generate enough revenue through its property taxes to fund basic requirements for a quality education;
Ø Equal opportunities to succeed are automatically limited by such a lack of resources
Ø The worth of students in this environment of limitation and scarcity is questioned not only by more prosperous outside community members, but by the members of the local community, and even by the school faculty and students themselves;
Ø Schemes for improvement get developed by politicians, business leaders, concerned citizens and many others but these schemes most often fail because they deal with everything but the source of revenue
Ø As of the year 2000, 14 percent of African-Americans had four-year college degrees, and 5 percent had advanced degrees - indicative of a lag in the quality of public schools in which most blacks are educated. Black students attend college at about half the rate of white students
Ø Census figures from 2005 indicate that while more African-Americans owned their own homes than at any time in our history, only 48% of them owned homes, while that figure was 78% for whites; thus, 52% of blacks are automatically excluded from paying into their community school budgets; or, looked at another way: whites have a distinct advantage when it comes to school support and school control
Ø In 2004, the gap between the percentage of African Americans who owned their home and Caucasians who owned their home was at an all-time low of 23.7 percent. As of last year, it hit 25.6 percent, as the percentage of blacks who own their home hovered around 45%. The effects of the Great Recession caused African-American home owners to lose their mortgages to foreclosure at twice the rate of white home owners. School budgets suffered as a result
Ø In 2004, 24.7% of African-American families lived below the poverty level. In 2007, the average African-American income was $33,916, compared with $54,920 for whites. Poverty itself is a hardship related to several problems, including low educational attainment, and vice-versa: low-educational achievement pretty much guarantees a low-level of income.
The Supreme Court desegregated the country's public schools in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. As a consequence, American public schools could no longer reject a student solely on the student's ethnic background. Brown v. Board of Education also led to mandated integration of public schools in what had been historically segregated schools. In the nearly 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, many African Americans who attended substandard, segregated schools in the 1950s have grown up to see their children attend integrated elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities. However, substantial obstacles to equal educational opportunity still remain in America’s school systems. Students of color, including African Americans, lag in equal access to highly effective teachers and principals, safe schools, and challenging college-preparatory courses. And they experience school discipline and referrals to special education at higher rates than their peers.
The capabilities of schools in impoverished districts are extremely limited due to the structure of public school funding. If a school has minimal funding, the opportunity for impoverished students to excel is made more difficult. When the money is unavailable, the necessities of a solid education such as books, technology, clean and safe facilities, good teachers, and small class sizes often cannot be provided. The students score lower on standardized tests and are unable to compete with the students from wealthier districts with more educational resources.
A vital step to eradicating racial discrimination in the schools is to provide equal funding for all students. The formulas for distribution of property tax dollars to schools is another example of built-in structured racism; structured so that students who are in the poorest of districts receive the smallest amount of funding. The students in these neighborhoods already face innumerable obstacles that inhibit their ability to break out of the poverty cycle. Yet these are the students who are given the fewest school supplies and educational materials. The government cannot expect a school to produce students with quality test scores when the school has no resources to implement improvements.
How does this happen? Part of it is historical, as we have seen. But, it is not by historical accident. There has been a tendency for certain individuals and groups in this country to spend much of their time and treasure promoting a deep-seeded intolerance for any other race than the white race. That elitist attitude has existed since the time of our earliest American settlements, but came to full bloom with the advent of forced slavery of Africans to till the land and harvest the crops, particularly that of cotton in the Southern colonies.
This so-called privileged class continues to use their abundant resources to buy the allegiance, the skills of persuasion and coercion, and the votes of certain leaders at local, state and federal levels who do their bidding in preventing more immigrants from coming in and to keep citizens of color in “their place” and out of the realms of activity of the elite. They influence the laws, the rules and the regulations of our government and of our economic and social institutions so that people of color will never have the same opportunities as they do. The Supreme Court of the United States has, with recent rulings, strengthened their position in terms of eliminating or restricting affirmative action and voting rights, plus turning over control of public elections by allowing mass infusions of corporate cash.
And so it is that institutional racism or, as I prefer to call it -- structural discrimination -- is alive and well, even as we speak. Friday’s speech by the President made it clear that African Americans are more than aware that built-in discrimination is rampant and must be addressed. The President suggested, I think rightly, that the “stand-your-ground” laws might be a place to start. He also suggested that a dialogue on these matters is a necessity, not one led by politicians, but a dialogue of people meeting in homes, schools, and workplaces. I think he has it about right, although I personally believe that more formal dialogue, perhaps in regional conferences around the country, may eventually be necessary to propose legislative and policy solutions to the White House and to the Congress.
For now, I am content with personal home dialogues because they are in line with what I started with in this Blog. We need to hear personal stories and experiences. We need to understand how a history and personal experiences can live inside a group of people and affect them, and their health, in such a profound way. We need to be sensitized to the personal damage and hurt that an incident like the Trayvon Martin tragedy can engender, along with all the other incidents that have occurred, and that keep occurring. We need to hear how the history of denigration of a people can affect their outlook and their lives in our times.
We need to get personal and try to feel the depth of the hurt and pain that our institutions and our individual prejudices can cause people of color. This is a moment in history when we have a real chance to move toward a more perfect Union. We dare not listen to the voices of derision, despair, degradation and division. As always, they are motivated by fear, bigotry and hate. We must listen to the better angels of our nature and seek to bridge the divisions that keep us from perfecting the underlying precepts and principles of our democracy. Start a dialogue today and promote understanding where others propagate discord. We can do this.