is a human right
The death of George Floyd
The revulsion many white Americans like myself felt watching the video of a white police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck was accompanied by the knowledge that such treatment by the police toward themselves or their families would be unimaginable. White Americans expect better from their public servants and most of the time they get it. It was shocking for many of us to learn that police officers with multiple reprimands for physical abuse are often protected and continue to patrol minority neighborhoods with a sense of impunity. If there was any question that these are isolated incidents or that racism is not deeply entrenched in American life, an American President who almost daily demeans individuals and groups based on their race, ethnicity, origin, gender, sexuality, religion, disability and age proves otherwise.
The pandemic is perhaps heightening the sensitivity of many white Americans to how beautiful and fragile all life is. They have been looking inward at their own behavior for the past few months and recognizing their vulnerabilities. They are coming to understand that the only way to solve really big problems is by working together.
A small number of white Americans have taken to the streets with people of color in recent weeks; most white Americans are not so actively demanding change, but neither are they standing in the way. They are supporting efforts by many cities to review their laws, policies, and practices to identify and remove barriers to equal opportunity with a goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating racism. Opinion polls show they are refusing to be complicit in the Trump administration’s negative stereotyping and discriminatory practices.
My sense is that most white Americans don’t want to be seen as racists, nor do they want to be part of a system that dehumanizes another human being. They may not understand the complexity of racism in America or the full implications of their own behavior, but, at minimum, they want to strip overt racists and racist behavior of any and all respectability. For example, support for the removal of monuments to leaders of the Confederacy soars among white Americans when they learn that most of these statues were erected not in the late-1800s after the American Civil War, but in the 1960s in defiance of the Civil Rights movement; they are not war memorials, but symbols of hatred.
As Americans begin to review the status of racism in America and the part they play in the process, it is especially important for white Americans to understand just how complex racism is in the US.
The complexity of racism
Racism is a fiendishly difficult process to unravel. Relationships are rarely straightforward or linear. It is difficult to discern the causes of racial inequalities because one problem is inevitably connected to other problems, and the people trying to solve one problem may be unknowingly contributing to another.
Yet the realities are impossible to ignore.
A current reality is that African-Americans experience higher rates of poverty, gun violence, maternal mortality, and incarceration than any other group in the US. They also experience less access to jobs, education, and other opportunities.
Another reality is that white Americans have certain privileges due to their being white, whether they consciously seek these privileges or not, and these privileges extend beyond access to opportunities to encompass even the most subtle aspects of daily life. For example, most whites never experience other people averting their gaze when they approach, or crossing the street to avoid them, or ignoring their presence. Their self-respect is never attacked, and this privilege, like other privileges, is never connected by the whites, who enjoy them to history, laws, or practices.
Racism towards blacks was an organizing principle of American government and daily life. The inherent inequality of blacks and whites was part of the original US Constitution and was codified into subsequent laws with deep and enduring ramifications. Laws and public institutions in the US are largely based upon, and operate within, a “system” that uses the dominant white culture as the point of reference for what is acceptable or not, what interests should be prioritized or not, what concerns should be addressed or not. This system largely determines how Americans move about in the world and interact with one another, wittingly or unwittingly.
Because their interests are served by a white-dominated system, it is difficult for most white Americans even to understand how racism affects another person’s everyday quality of life, as well as that of their families and communities who suffer the racism of the targeted individual when they try to provide support and assistance.
The power of a system that has been entrenched for 300 years and the confusion over cause and effect make it easy to ignore or explain away any given inequality, even the most blatant and common. Instead of focusing on race, discussion focuses on poverty or housing segregation or education or job training. Thus, for example, the persistently high unemployment rate for African-Americans is identified as a consequence of lack of skills instead of structural discrimination in employment and economic opportunities. More insidiously, disparities in income, wealth, educational achievement, incarceration rates, and so on are dismissed as poor individual decisions, and African-Americans and other minorities are faulted for the inequalities they experience.
The long and painful list of ways that life is limited for people of color in the United States suggests that race cannot be separated from these issues, and trying to solve these problems without considering race is to ignore the realities of racism.
And, painfully, racism in the US is more than black and white. It has been easy for a system based on the inequality of skin color to tolerate discrimination based on, for example, gender, sexuality, dress/cultural practices, religion, disability, and age.
Currently, forces are at work in the US, which serve to reinforce racism. The seemingly endless restructuring of the American economy, the increased number of international immigrants entering the US in search of a better life, the growing wealth gap between the haves and have-nots, and the growing economic insecurity for the middle and lower classes generate a sense of fear among many white Americans of having to concede some or all of their economic, social, and cultural privileges.
On the other hand, racial diversity and multiculturalism are increasing rapidly in the United States. More and more Americans are choosing a spouse or partner of a different race. Almost half of all people in the US aged 25 or younger are non-white, as are almost 40 percent of all those under age 40, according to the US Census Bureau.
Racial and cultural diversity is demonstrably increasing in the United States, evidence, arguably, that most Americans value multiculturalism, feel a responsibility for safeguarding it, and want to build on this positive aspect of American history; indeed, many Americans protect their individual interests by protecting their communities’ interests. Multiculturalism, in other words, is not a process that occurs naturally; rather, it is the result of people and groups and institutions taking positive actions, as well as challenging those who argue that diversity has a negative impact.
The power of respect
Respect is central to people’s thoughts and actions, regarding both themselves and others, and has a long historic connection with racism and discriminatory beliefs and practices in the US.
In 1857, the US Supreme Court ruled, in the Dred Scott decision, that African-Americans, free or enslaved, were not citizens of the United States. In the words of Chief Justice Roger Taney, African-Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Moreover, wrote Taney in the majority decision, a slave was “an ordinary article of merchandise” and, while the slave had no rights, the rights of slave owners as property owners were protected by the Constitution.
One hundred years later, in a 1960 speech to the National Urban League, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that it was “growing self-respect” that allows a person to “come to feel that he is somebody” and inspires people “with a new determination to struggle and sacrifice until first-class citizenship becomes a reality.” Conversely, a lack of respect “relegates persons to the status of things.”
Both Taney and King realized the creative power of respect and the destructive power of lack of respect.
Being respected individually helps build feelings of trust, safety, and wellbeing. It communicates that a person is valued and his or her thoughts and feelings matter. It confers a sense of agency and builds self-confidence. A lack of respect is dehumanizing. It tells people they are not good enough and can never relax because they will never feel safe and secure in themselves or society.
A key to understanding racism is the connection between respect and the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution; that is, the connection between respect and meaningful and stable lives.
Signs of a systemic lack of respect include the suppression of voting and other political rights, workplace discrimination, disparities in health care and other vital services, the use of racial epithets, subtle forms of exclusion, and so on. Respect has to be consistent in a society it has to come from those in charge, from the particular institution at work, and from average citizens for a community to feel secure.
Respect doesn’t have to come naturally or be legislated. It can be learned, and thus is crucial to initiatives intended to combat racism.
Learning respect involves becoming aware of ongoing, everyday injustices experienced by African-Americans and other minorities, understanding America’s history and the unrealized tenets of its national creed, examining deeply entrenched notions of racial difference and hierarchy, and working together across racial, ethnic, and class lines to create and implement solutions to overcome longstanding injustices and to isolate those who persist in hatred and bigotry.
Learning and demonstrating respect is also an intensely local experience. By definition it moves beyond rhetoric to improve the day-to-day experiences of people at the local level by addressing local manifestations of racism.
Mechanisms to help people
learn respect include:
• Creating safe and supportive spaces for individuals to publicly recount their personal experiences of discrimination, leading to a greater sensitivity of the general community to the effects of racism.
• Communicating from public and private leadership that everyone, without exception, has a responsibility and a role to play in combating racism. Just as businesses have target markets, public education campaigns could be targeted to particular sectors of society such as young people, older people, and people from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds, as well as particular geographies.
• Providing anti-racism education in schools at all levels, including content in elementary and high schools that involve the parents and guardians of students and give both students and parents/guardians a direct voice in developing anti-racism strategies, and content in professional university studies such as law, finance, and medicine.
• Developing positive programs on the internet to combat racism, including how to be discerning readers and users of the internet.
• Disseminating greater information about the need for affirmative action and similar measures to redress disadvantage.
• Involving powerful people in the design of solutions, not as spectators but as participants, together with the recipients of discrimination. Those in power would then have the mission of going out into the wider community and selling the solution.
Helping people at the local level to respect one another, that is, to value and appreciate the lives of other human beings, is not rocket science, but it is the necessary precondition for enduring, positive, systemic change to occur.
Blacks were deemed
unworthy of respect
American racism is no hoax
My longtime friend and colleague, Tony Favro, has provided an expert analysis of American-style racism, through his experiential lens as a White American. My approach will be from the opposite perspective. I have lived my entire life as a Black American who has experienced the unrelenting implicit and explicit toxicity of racial bigotry. I should not have to explain the implications of racism. They have been in plain sight ever since the founding of this nation, over 400 years ago. During that long period, many attempts have been made to remediate and eliminate it. But whatever solutions have been offered, they simply have not been enough.
Racism must be directly confronted and totally dismantled. Whatever respectability has been afforded it in the past, whatever excuses have been offered by its practitioner, they must be shredded. If people persist in engaging in or exonerating racist behaviors and policies, they must be pushed to the fringes of society, where all extremism resides. I will readily concede that individuals have the right to be racists. They do not have the right to force their views upon a majority who clearly reject this odious ideology.
We are at this place in history because of the swift, excruciating and unlawful death of George Floyd at the knee of a law enforcement officer, a person who had taken an oath to faithfully uphold the law - and a person who had been professionally trained to discharge his duties in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. In this specific instance, he desecrated his oath, and repudiated every training protocol he had been taught. Many people have taken to the streets and airwaves in protest, because they are tired that the body count continues to increase. That body count is disproportionately Black and male. The leading objective of this massive movement is the end to unconstitutional and targeted policing in this country, most visibly reflected in the actions of the officer who took George Floyd’s life. And while we are at it, the rest of the inequity/disparity agenda must be remediated.
I am best known as the 64th Mayor of Rochester New York, the state’s third largest city, which is well known as the 19th century home and workplace of Frederick Douglass, a leader in the movement to abolish American-styled slavery; and Susan B. Anthony, a leader in the movement to provide voting privileges to women. Rochester is also the hometown of George Eastman, Chester Carlson and Joseph P. Wilson, and John Jacob Bausch and Henry Lomb, founders and creators of three of the most iconic consumer brands in 20th century American technological and commercial history: Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb. Thus, I was Mayor of a city with a rich social justice history and rich resources to solve socio-economic problems. At the time of my election in 1993, I was one of a handful of African American mayors elected in a predominately white city. At the same time, I was not just the first African American elected to that office in Rochester, but the first elected in any major city in the state north and west of New York City.
I am not a native Rochesterian, having been born in the segregated south, in Lynchburg Virginia in 1942. (One quick clarification: the city’s founding father was John Lynch, a Quaker and abolitionist, who had no connection to the act of lynching Black people.) Every city neighborhood was strictly separated along racial lines. I was educated in all-Black schools through high school, even though the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case (1954) outlawing racially segregated schools was decided while I was in the 6th grade. It took nearly a decade before the first two Black children integrated the Lynchburg public school system (1962).
Rather than comply with that ruling, private school systems were established across the South as an escape mechanism for the White families who could not imagine their children sitting in classrooms with Black children. Meanwhile, while the burdens of the Brown case were being absorbed by Southerners, largely because they had legislated racial separation and incorporated it in policies, practices and social convention, no such scrutiny was focused on non-Southern communities. There it was felt that any segregation systems were derived from “coincidences” like neighborhood patterns: Blacks and Whites lived in their “own” neighborhoods, but there was no honest discussion of how zoning practices, housing subsidies and legal practices like “restrictive covenants” had contributed to racist patterns and practices. There has been a major effort to distinguish between “de jure” (Southern) and “de facto” (Northern) segregation. It is a distinction without a difference. It has also been a political machination to salve the conscience of White liberals.
I lived in Lynchburg for the first 18 years of my life. Neither I nor any of my Black contemporaries (or either my parents’ or grandparents’ generations) had any White child that we knew as friends. I did not sit in a classroom or socially engage with a white person on an equal footing until I went to college. The kind of normal intramural, interscholastic, or even neighborhood extramural activities of adolescence did not exist, even where Whites and Blacks lived in reasonable proximity to each other. Let me illustrate with this anecdote: In 1993, shortly after my first election as mayor, I was honored at a large gathering in Lynchburg. Its current mayor joined in the festivities. I was meeting him for the very first time, even though he and I had graduated from high school the same year (1960). He had been the student government president at all-White E C Glass High School; I was the student government president at all-Black Dunbar High School. There were absolutely no interactions, scholastic or otherwise, that would have placed us in the same space. Even more striking was that his father owned a new car dealership that was located in the heart of the Black business community, and as far as I can tell, there would have been no expectation for him to meet and mingle with any Black person, unless they were employed in that business.
There are many similar stories that can be told of the social and legal machinations that were in place to keep Blacks and Whites physically and socially separated. That separate status (segregation) was only part of the story. It was the degradation, the oppressiveness, and the humiliation, which were taken as natural, unchallenged practices that have to be clearly understood. I was raised to respect elders. When addressing them, we always used the proper title, such as Mr., Mrs., Uncle John or Cousin Edna. Yet even the youngest White child was privileged to address our elders by their first names, with impunity. A Black person, young or old, could exercise no such familiarity. Remember the deadly fate of Emmitt Till for merely looking at a white woman?
I was also raised to value honest competition, yet the rules were always bent to ensure that the White competitor would prevail. An example is the Soap Box Derby competition [a national car racing program in which youth compete in motorless cars they build themselves]. I am certain that Blacks were only able to participate because the national sponsors required it. But we became suspicious when Black racers were always assigned to the same lane, and heat after heat, year after year, the results defied the law of averages: no Black kid during my generation ever won the Soap Box Derby. In my city, a Black person could purchase clothing in a department store, but we could not try them on prior to purchase. Once you took that article out of the store, it was not returnable, even if it did not fit properly. I do not have the space to continue this list of degradations.
A White child is born with full rights of citizenship. In my adolescence, Blacks had to apply for citizenship once turning the legal age. Even then, it was not automatically conferred. In some places you had to take a test or pay a fee; in more dangerous places, you might have to contend with raging dogs, fire hoses, fierce policemen, and even the threat of death, just to vote. If you believe that this picture has improved, just witness the large number of 21st century voter suppression laws aimed to lower Black participation that clearly confirm an attempt to return to the old status quo.
The power of respect
Tony Favro wrote about the lack of respect being tied to racism and discriminatory beliefs and practices. Let me explain that further.
The Declaration of Independence (1776) and the so-called “three-fifths compromise” (1787) are at the root of this problem. The newly formed United States of America had the opportunity to end chattel slavery but refused. While liberating themselves from colonial oppression, the founders of this nation declared that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Those words were contemporaneously condemned as hypocritical, since these rights were not extended to Blacks and women.
Shortly thereafter, when determining how the legislative branch would be organized, there was a major fight over how the slave populations in the south would be counted. This was a fight between the small and large states, as to where the balance of congressional power would be assigned. Faced with the choice of permitting a one-for-one count, as the South wanted, versus not counting the slave population at all, the aggregate Black populations would be counted as 60 per cent of their total numbers. Even so, allowing Southern states to count people who had no rights of citizenship gave them enormous power, which they used to maintain the institution of slavery for nearly another century. The Founding Fathers totally abrogated their humanity by denying the humanity of native-born persons.
This point was emphatically reinforced in the Dred Scott ruling (1857) at the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition to ruling that Scott, who had been living as a free man after being freed from slavery, had to be returned to slave status, Chief Justice Roger Taney also ruled that slaves were not, and could never be, U.S. citizens. But the following words in that decision are, in my opinion, the reason America finds itself deeply enmeshed in racist ideology and traditions today.
I am adding the emphasis to Taney’s vile pronouncement: “[The Negro] is of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
One hundred and sixty three (163) years after what is widely considered by constitutional scholars to be the worst decision in Supreme Court history, these words are completely embraced by all adherents of White Supremacy ideology, who target racial minorities: A Black person has no rights which a White person is bound to respect. Thus, to understand how one human being can keep his knee on the neck of another human being until he dies, or how a human being can shoot another human being to death, or how one human being can drag another human to his death, or how one human being can menace another in a life-threatening manner, it is because the menacing human being does not consider their intended victims to be their equals at any level. They dehumanize them and then treat them with depravity.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, during his 1960 Vice Presidential campaign, was deeply concerned about symbols of racism and intolerance he encountered on the Southern campaign trail. When reflecting on this public display of hatred, he relied on his Southern roots to explain it to young aides who were very shocked by such ugliness: “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” (Emphasis added.) Literature from the post-Civil War era is replete with similar statements, of leaders assuring poor whites that despite their wretched socio-economic status, they had one thing going for them: their white skins. Maybe this was one the earliest manifestations of “white privilege”, or what one writer has better described as “white protectionism”.
It must be noted that Dred Scott v. Sanford was never overturned by the Supreme Court. It was, in effect, repealed by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. While these legislative actions bestowed citizenship and civil rights to the freedmen, the heinous words of Roger Taney were never repudiated. This record must be corrected, with a legislative or judicial declaration that “there are no rights of Black Americans that can be disrespected or denied by White Americans or anyone else.”
If you really think about it, this inculcated belief of White superiority and Black inferiority may be the major reason that so many people have extreme difficulty enunciating the words, BLACK LIVES MATTER. They just can’t bring themselves to say something that they absolutely don’t believe.
The record is clear that racism, racist practices and racist conditions are deeply embedded in our society. Yet, in the face of recent events, they are fast becoming unsustainable and are being denounced by a greater number of whites. The officer who killed George Floyd may have unwittingly woke the White American conscience to clearly see things that have been so blatantly apparent to Black Americans for centuries.
The widespread protest movement, spearheaded by Black Lives Matter has applied unrelenting pressure on communities and powerful institutions to end racism and create new pathways to diversity, equity and inclusion. To capitalize on the evolving national consensus for sustainable solutions, they must be undertaken in each local community. For example, my hometown city and county governments [Rochester] have jointly appointed a Race and Structural Equity Commission, which I will co-chair, and charged it with examining and developing policies and legislation to overcome racism and systemic and institutional inequities, in the critical areas of policing and related areas of criminal justice, education, health care and social, among others. Hopefully, many other communities will undertake this same type of comprehensive examination and sustainable solution identification.
At a minimum, this process will include the following elements:
• A process, which allows community members to repudiate racism publicly and explicitly, with a pledge to confront others who exhibit racist behavior.
• A new focus on community-oriented policing that includes more relevant training of current and future law enforcement officers who are assigned to neighborhoods and communities of color.
• A new focus on the development and delivery of a range of quality and restructured community-based services, such as public education, health care, housing, etc.
• A new focus on employment, including the retraining for people who are being displaced from their jobs due to transformational technology and losses due to Covid-19.
• A new focus on ways to stem and reduce the huge income disparities between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. This includes having the political will and capability to roll back the obscene tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.
• A new focus on restoring the practice of corporate social responsibility and corporate community reinvestment strategies, so that those resources benefit the US communities they operate in.
• A new focus on ways to make permanent every change in policy, regulation, practice and laws that comes out of these community-wide examinations.
America is at a crossroads, where progressive and permanent changes can be made to structures, practices and personal conduct that have created barriers, inequities and disparities. In my lifetime, we have been at this crossroads before, and each time we have failed the test of sustainability. Something invariably comes along which to shift attention, focus and commitment. The political winds shift, which have allowed people to revert to the old status quo. This history cannot repeat itself. For the moral health of our communities, we must have the will to finally do what is right and necessary.