I’ve tried writing this a few times, only to realize that race is difficult to write about because of my own limitations in understanding what others experience. Racial inequality affects so many of the social issues we are facing – and there are so many bridges we need to build. A big part of what is happening is acknowledging this imperfection and committing to improvement.
Our work program, Wild Tiger Tees, works with youth experiencing homelessness. The majority of the youth we work with are black. These youth have been through tough experiences – abandonment, abuse, drugs, and generational poverty. It is a constant, visible reminder of the disparity in opportunity based on your race.
To understand what’s happening, we need to understand the bigger picture. And we need to acknowledge our past with intentional racism, redlining and segregation. While redlining is now illegal, this segregation still exists and there really hasn’t been a sustained organized attempt to make reparations. A great piece from 2018, The Roots of Columbus’ Ongoing Color Divide, explains this:
“It’s the hidden part of our history up here,” said Jason Reece, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State. “Everyone thinks of segregation and they think of the Jim Crow South, but you look at places like Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus — all these cities in many ways were just as segregated as Southern cities were.
In the 1960s, the construction of I-71, I-70 and, later, I-670, gutted the Near East Side, demolishing homes and forcing residents to relocate. “Not only did you put a freeway through minority areas, but then you walled it off and made one way in and one way out,” Buzz Thomas said. “Once you did that, you cut the economic carotid artery of that neighborhood, and it began to die.”— Joel Oliphint
One of the challenges is that you don’t need to be actively racist to promote this inequality. Someone recently reminded me that the greatest predictor of your success is the zip code where you were born. It is likely to determine your education, peers, and personal networks
In the world of employment, we often hire people who we naturally relate to, who are a “fit”. We are naturally biased towards people of our perceived peer group. If you’re black, growing up in a poor neighborhood, then the chances of you having the educational opportunity and cultural “fit” to even compete for a higher paying position is so much smaller. This is only compounded by the inherent stereotypes and negative perceptions we hold, which affect our decisions merely by association.
“Job applicants with “white sounding” names are chosen more between equally qualified candidates. An employer may associate a “black sounding” name with being from the “ghetto/hood” and all the assumptions of what “negative characteristics” come with that upbringing.”— S. Creastam
Basically, if you’re not living in the right place (even by association), then your access to change and opportunity is hampered. And the jobs you find tend to be the first ones that get removed during a crisis. In very real terms, this job insecurity has disproportionately led to unemployment for people of color during COVID-19, especially as restaurants, retail and other low-income jobs evaporated overnight.
Further, we’re less likely to develop cross-cultural understanding when we perceive “the other” to be dangerous or feared. Pay attention when news articles, media outlets, pop culture, policies, politicians and other people frame stories feeding these stereotypes. For example, if a news anchor paints a mass shooter as a victim of mental health or a victim of police brutality as a menace. You recently witnessed Donald Trump calling armed protesters protesting the stay-at-home orders “very fine people” and validated their frustration as being understandable. Moments later, he labeled unarmed peaceful protesters protesting police brutality as “thugs”, and governors who didn’t take stronghanded action against these thugs as “weak”. These are deliberate measures to frame a story.
The issue of drugs must not be ignored in this conversation. This is complicated and interwoven with so many social issues we are facing. When people don’t have access to employment there is a rise in drug dealing and other criminal activity. The path through criminal activity is often filled with violence and incarceration… which creates further barriers to employment. But crime and drugs have a correlation with unemployment… not race.
However, policy exists targeting blacks and minorities that imprison them at a disproportionate rate and with significantly longer sentences for the same crime as those who are white. In his book, “How to Be an Antiracist”, Ibram Kendi explains how non-violent black offenders often serve sentences as long as violent white offenders.
But it runs deeper. Ibram Kendi touches on how Lindon Johnson and Nixon deliberately fed policy to vilify the black and minorities that had spoken out against them under the guise of a war on drugs. Regan rolled back protections for these same people, to the benefit of middle-class white Americans. These actions were done intentionally to harm black populations.
Police are actually encouraged to pursue and target black people and people of color. And right now we’re learning how deeply this racism is embedded in the police force.
Policies targeting African Americans have unfairly skewed this population in prison and fed an over-generalized stereotype of “dangerous” associated with skin color… which I can only imagine reinforces and creates a false justification for the racism that we see in the police brutality we’re facing today.
Breaking Down Barriers
Back to the work we do with Wild Tiger Tees. I love our work program, even though our impact is small… I’m always surprised by how much I relate to the youth. When I was 18, I wasn’t that different. I had dreams of college, a good life and didn’t have any clue what I wanted to do – much like the youth we work with. The single biggest difference is that I had parents who supported, guided and pushed me.
In the conversation with Kristine Snow & Chelsea Akers of Level D&I, a company training organizations on diversity & inclusion, they pointed out that the solution is not “hiring black people to fill quotas”. It is about doing the work in your workplace to develop an environment that supports people from different cultures. If the environment isn’t supportive, then it’s like putting orange juice in milk… it just curdles up and doesn’t work.
The work to build that culture starts with awareness, curiosity, listening and conversations that they described as “productive discomfort”.
Creating Space for Change
For me, that work is about engaging in conversations, developing that understanding and building connections so that we can lift each other up.
It’s also about developing my own awareness of the people around me. And that work is ongoing. But what does that mean?
For example, in the recent podcast with Tanya Vora of Spice Up, we were talking about building connections with refugees, and the conversation took a turn to Tanya’s personal experience growing up as an American of Indian parents who immigrated to the US – and her own feeling of separation, feeling at times like an outsider in both the US and India.
It caught me off guard, because I have my own notions of what it’s like for an “Indian” living in the US (my wife grew up in India), and I didn’t realize how different Tanya’s experience was – or how my judgements were getting in the way of understanding.
The point is to find a way to hold space for these conversations. Space where we listen to each other. Space where it’s not about you, but about understanding. Through that, we connect in new ways, and that leads to breaking down these barriers that we’ve erected. It also opens us to a pool of infinite ideas that we’ve never been exposed to, simply because we’ve been locked in our own way of seeing the world.
The dialog that is arising through these protests is powerful. And it’s up to all of us to take part in that conversation. There are a lot of inspirational ways to get involved.
If you don’t know where to start, donate to the Columbus Freedom Fund (or the George Floyd Memorial Fund). And then start doing some real work to contribute to change. Here are a couple of resources that have in-depth guides & information:
- Resources for Accountability and Action or Black Lives
- Obama’s Resources on Anguish & Action
- The book, How to Be an Antiracist (Which, if you’re in Columbus, select Third Way Café as your local bookstore – they’re a local social enterprise and libro.fm will support them with your purchases.)