Everything is coming to a head all at once in this country and those in favor of progress (not everyone, alas) agree we need to talk about these issues. Racial justice; transgender rights; sexual harassment; gun regulation; patriotism, protest and the star-spangled banner; climate change; social media; women’s reproductive rights; educational equity; and the defilement of democratic governance, to name just a few.
Lucky us. No, really. Bring it on. What community is better suited to hold these conversations than ours? We have more history wrestling with race, women’s rights, gun regulation, pro-life issues (starting with climate change), and grassroots democratic action than most communities. We have experience talking about things that make us uncomfortable. We don’t cut and run at the first mention. We don’t take refuge in denial. And we do something about them.
This is our heritage. We were ahead of the curve with our fair housing ordinance (50 years ago next April), our domestic partnership registry (more than two decades before same-sex marriage became legal), our handgun and assault rifle bans (in the ’80s), and making educational equity a top priority at the high school (since the late ’90s).
A forum on “The Intersection of Race & Education,” the latest in a long line of discussions on race (dating back 25 years to Rodney King and Bill Clinton’s call for “courageous conversations”) will be held tonight at 7 p.m. (if you’re reading this online Tuesday afternoon) or last night (if you’re reading it in print on Wednesday) at OPRF High School’s South Cafeteria, prompted by a racially insensitive incident that surfaced recently, thanks to our best friend and worst enemy — social media, which amplifies the loose cannons of the human psyche. To be fair, it also highlights the better angels of our nature. But guess which one spreads like wildfire?
Having attended a number of these conversations over the years, here is my opening statement:
This would be a much poorer country, culture and community without our African American heritage, and my life is much richer for all the African Americans I have met here and gotten to know. They have taught me a great deal about character.
Our society has made progress in reducing racism. That should not be dismissed or denied. But there is still plenty of residual racism, which also should not be dismissed or denied. Ferguson, Missouri, and myriad incidents like it over the last three years, certainly schooled me on how hidden and institutionalized we have allowed the “New Jim Crow” to become. I thought we were a lot further along. It has been humbling.
I don’t think all European (aka “white”) Americans are racist, but all of us are implicated because we live in, and benefit from, a society that was built on racism (slavery) and we contribute to perpetuating the system of “white supremacy” in ways we may not even realize. It is our moral responsibility, I believe, to understand how that operates and commit to changing it.
African Americans, who have been most directly on the receiving end of racism, have an acute — and very understandable — sensitivity to this issue. So if they are a little (or more than a little) wary of European Americans when it comes to race, I don’t take it personally.
I acknowledge that “white privilege” exists, regrettably, and that I have been the beneficiary of it. I believe African Americans, in general, have a tougher road to travel through life. And it isn’t fair. We don’t all begin at the same starting line and most African Americans face obstacles I do not.
Without hesitation, I declare that “Black Lives Matter,” with no need to attach the painfully obvious corollary that “all lives matter.” African American lives have not always mattered, and to this day they do not always matter, as much as European American lives. That must change.
Thanks to my experiences here in Oak Park over the past 28 years, when I meet African Americans, my comfort and trust levels are high and I am seldom disappointed.
A friend of mine says it better: “My respect for African Americans comes from living a life where our lives are intertwined. I am grateful for the positive partnerships and friendships that have resulted in mutual respect. Living in a multiracial community asks us to uphold each other’s dignity and extend our humanity with generosity and grace.”
It’s time to surrender the biases that too many European Americans still carry, based on young African American men wearing their pants too low or swearing too much in public, the often-exaggerated fear of crime or the “stridency” of protests against police shootings.
We need to surrender our certainties, hardened opinions and “motivated reasoning” (drawing conclusions, then searching for evidence to support them). These conversations don’t require courage so much as humility, admitting that we don’t have all the answers and being hungry to hear from others, meeting one another as imperfect human beings who want to become better citizens and neighbors.
Let’s not worry so much about saying things “correctly.” We’re going to make mistakes. That’s how we learn.
If not now, when? If not Oak Park, where?
If not us, who?
Let’s talk. Then let’s walk, together, toward a better community and country.