MLK wants YOU – Racism is about all of us

2008.08.25 30D 047There’s been some exciting buzz in the city of Madison  lately on the topic of race.  Since a local pastor, Alex Gee, wrote an excellent and honest newspaper article about being an angry black man (in the very best possible sense) he’s been bombarded with requests for more writing and television interviews and such.

I’m glad people are noticing.  I’ve lived in Madison off and on over the past fourteen years, and I know how easy it is for racism to linger in silence.

But the stats are mind blowing.  We can’t ignore this:

  • Three-quarters of the county’s African-American children live in poverty , compared to 5 percent of white children.Blacks are 5.5 times more likely than whites to be unemployed in Dane County.
  • African-American children are 15 times more likely than their white counterparts to land in foster care.
  • Wisconsin has the nation’s worst rate of incarceration of young African-American males on a per capita basis, and Dane County is much worse than the state average.
  • Wisconsin has by some measures the widest academic achievement gap between African-American and white students in the country, and Dane County is worse than the state average.

If you can stomach it, there’s a lot more in this Racial Equity Report.

I’m posting this now in part because MLK day is this Monday and that might catch the attention of a few more readers.  But  these things are not going to get better just because we’re all taking a day off work on a Monday or nodding our heads along with an article by a nice black pastor.

This stuff is getting worse, not better.  There are some pockets of courage and determination making big local impacts, like Madison Area Urban Ministry, and the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development at Alex Gee’s church, and Richard Davis’ Institute for the Healing of Racism.

But let me be honest.  When I start talking about this stuff, I feel a little like people are wondering, “Why do you care? You’re not black.”

Alex writes: “My experience is that many white Madisonians have an inordinate fear of being seen as racist. That fear is so paralyzing that it impedes honest dialogue about discrimination, systemic racism and white privilege.”

Preach it.

I admit I get scared that black people will think I’m a silly little white lady do-gooder who doesn’t really have a clue what she’s talking about.

And I get scared that white people will think I must have some guilt complex I need to deal with instead of meddling in other people’s business and trying to fix stuff that we just can’t fix.

I feel like I need to excuse myself by explaining that I have a close relative who’s black, and I’ve spent time in countries where black people are the majority, and therefore racism can matter to me too.

Hey white people, we shouldn’t need that kind of an excuse to make this our issue, too. We’ve all got “close relatives” who are black–they’re our neighbors, our classmates, our kids’ friends, our coworkers. Or more importantly, if they aren’t in any of those categories, we need to ask why not.

I’m not pretending to know what it feels like to be black. But I am insisting that we can make an effort to listen and learn and ask what we can do.

Here’s a couple places we can start:

Read Alex Gee’s original article, or join the facebook group talking about it, or listen to his sermons.

Or pick through this list of 50 daily effects of white privilege by Peggy McIntosh (scroll down to find it), or this blog post reminding us MLK’s life wasn’t “safe” to model our lives after.

Or read one of these books: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

or Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria

or one of these books on racial reconciliation.

Or attend Madison’s White Privilege Conference this spring.

Or investigate something like this happening in your own city.

As I starting clicking on sites to find links for this blog post, I noticed that suddenly all the ads popping upon my computer started to show black people. Huh – It seems the cyberworld has decided I’m black, because I read articles about black people.  I hope they’re wrong.  I hope there are a whole lot of white people out there who also read articles about black people, and live differently because of it.

And one more thing. Way back in 1922, at a time when race relations were really ugly in the United States, a report was written trying to figure out why riots were breaking out, killing mostly black people in Chicago and elsewhere.  Here’s a piece of what they wrote. (I decided to copy it just as I found it reprinted in The Warmth of Other Suns, so please excuse the 1922-appropriate word “Negro.”) This reminder is as important today as it was back then.

It is important for our white citizens always to remember that the Negroes alone of all our immigrants came to American against their will by the special compelling invitation of the whites; that the institution of slavery was introduced, expanded and maintained by the United States by the white people and for their own benefit; and they likewise created the conditions that followed emancipation. Our Negro problem, therefore, is not of the Negro’s making. No group in our population is less responsible for its existence.  But every group is responsible for its continuance.

Whether you’re white, black, or anything in between or otherwise, what does being responsible for racism look like for you?  Share your ideas here.

3 Responses to “MLK wants YOU – Racism is about all of us”

  1. Stacy says:

    Have you ever considered that those stats are because WI has generous welfare benefits and people come to Madison from other areas to enjoy them? What am *I* supposed to do, anyway, when a people seems to perpetuate a stereotype (that’s truth) because they won’t do for themselves? And it’s not limited to a certain shade of skin tone, either. I believe that individuals are largely viewed based on their initiative, how responsible they are, how they treat others, and the level of respect with which they treat themselves, no matter what their heritage. There are plenty of highly regarded people who are other than “white” to prove it!

  2. Stacy says:

    Admittedly, I am probably an ignorant white dreamer.

  3. christine says:

    Stacy,
    You’re articulating what is actually a fairly common belief in the Western world, especially among people of European heritage: that people become poor or rich, successful or unsuccessful, good or bad at school, and so on, primarily because of what they do or don’t “do for themselves.” By that reasoning, these stats on tendencies of black people to “succeed” or not are nothing but evidence that black people–for no reason except that some inherent correlation to their skin color–tend to be lazy. Do you believe that to be true? I know I don’t. So if that’s not true, then what IS it that causes these statistics? Might it be circumstances beyond any individual’s control, or beyond just the black community’s control, that all of us are responsible for? I can’t find any other logical conclusion than that there must be some injustices making these stats happen beside just individuals lacking initiative. Like MLK said, injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere, which means we all have to care, not just pat ourselves on the back that we really do respect a few “other than white” people.

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