Tag Archives: racism

But I’m not racist….

“I treat people equally. I oppose racism. I’m not racist.”

I’ve thought that. between-the-world-and-me_cover

But lately I’ve been reading some thought-provoking writing that shifted my perspective. One is the 2015 book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which Toni Morrison says is “required reading.”

Ask yourself: Do you believe in the reality of “race”? Do you think there are really bone-deep features of some people? Choosing to categorize people as different is one way that slave owners justified mistreating other human beings. Why are we still seeing people as “other” today?

Or consider how you label yourself. Do you believe yourself to be white? The author uses that phrase, “people who believe themselves white,” which got me thinking. I would check “white” on a form that asks race, without thinking twice. But definitions of race change over time and vary by country. There may be things that some people have in common with each other, but you also could say that race is made up.

“…race, while it has some relationship to biology, is not mainly a biological matter. Race is primarily a sociopolitical construct. The sorting of people into this race or that in the modern era has generally been done by powerful groups for the purposes of maintaining and extending their own power.”

“…For purposes of the laws of nine southern and border states in the early part of [the 19th] century, a ‘Negro’ was defined as someone with a single Negro great-grandparent; in three other southern states, a Negro great-great-grandparent would suffice. That is, a person with 15 White ancestors four generations back and a single Negro ancestor at the same remove was reckoned a Negro in the eyes of the law.”

“…What is a person of mixed race? Biologically speaking, we are all mixed. That is, we all have genetic material from a variety of populations, and we all exhibit physical characteristics that testify to mixed ancestry. Biologically speaking, there never have been any pure races – all populations are mixed.

— Paul R. Spickard, Ph.D., “The Illogic of American Racial Categories,” PBS Frontline.

If some people in power, such as some police officers, have abused and even killed people, who’s responsible? It’s too easy to say it’s only the individual who choked or shot the victim. What cultural norms/expectations made that possible? Who pays that individual’s salary? (Hint: We, the taxpayers, do.)

Or consider: How have you benefited from being white? Or from presenting yourself as white? Access to a good public school, perhaps, because decades of housing policies — funded by our tax dollars — segregate people and schools. Perhaps connections to a job or to a college. Or just the luxury of expecting, as you walk down the street or into a store in the middle of the day, that you’ll be welcomed and treated kindly. My parents never had to have “the talk” about how to act so that I won’t be treated as a possible criminal.

Society is set up by people. What can we, as individuals, do to change it?


Great reading or watching:

I, Racist essay by John Metta.

Video: White bias in color film, and then in face recognition software.

Twitter: #RacismEndedWhen

USA Today story about my hometown, Rochester NY: Three boys apparently arrested for standing while black (waiting for the school bus).

Would you be as quick to hire Lakisha as to hire Emily? Racial Bias in Hiring 2003

A related New York Times article 2015: Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions

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Solving urban education

P1000741 If you saw a child drowning in a river in front of you, you’d rescue the child, right? And then if there was another, and another? For 25 years, my church (First Unitarian Church of Rochester) has been reaching out a hand to city school students who need help to succeed in school – and in life. It’s critical work and it makes a difference in children’s lives.

I’ve been wrestling with the root problem: How do you prevent children from winding up struggling in the river? You want to go upstream. Stop whoever is pushing youngsters in, or fix the weak place where they’re falling in. But I don’t see one cause of urban education failure that can easily be fixed.

The long list includes broken families, lack of jobs, crushing poverty, teen pregnancy, child abuse, language barriers and the stress of a parent’s mental illness or drug/alcohol addiction. Don’t forget racism, prejudice, inequitable incarceration policies and unequal school resources. It’s not so easy to walk to school if your neighborhood is unsafe.

I think many people throw up their hands and try to ignore the river. But we need to consider our role, as a society, in creating the river. And lately the waves have gotten bigger with tougher standards.

Imagine a long staircase. Many poor, urban students start on the first step, arriving atImage kindergarten without knowing letters, how to count or sometimes even the names of colors. One study found that by the age of 4, children in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than the children of professionals. But in a middle-class setting, many children start kindergarten already about six steps ahead, so it’s not hard to get them to “proficiency” on, let’s say, the seventh step. When low-income students work hard and have great help from teachers and volunteers and climb from the first to the fifth step, they’ve made incredible progress. But they’re still failing in the eyes of the state. Now the state has raised the bar to expect everyone to reach the eighth or ninth step.

Why has our community created school district boundaries that effectively segregate poor students? How do we expect to educate students who start out so far behind, and have great stresses in their lives, at the same costs as more advantaged students?

While wrestling with the big picture, we can’t ignore the children who are struggling right now. The first step toward change is to form connections. By being in the schools, tutoring students during the school day, we get to know people and better understand the issues and the needs.

In the past two years, we’ve tripled the size of our school volunteer program.  I am proud of the dedicated work of more than 100 volunteers last year to help children climb out of the river and up the steps.

More volunteers are needed. For information, see www.rochesterunitarian.org/22UUCS.html

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