The Coronavirus in the Middle East: Its Impact on Sectarianism and Refugees

The coronavirus has spread to virtually every country of the world, but due to differences in privilege and access to resources, many countries are unable to adequately address this pandemic as well as other countries are. However, for countries in the Middle East, in addition to these differentials, the pandemic has also further exacerbated many preexisting problems that the region faces, namely political, economic, and social unrest. While this outbreak has had ramifications on several facets of life in the Middle East, this blog post will be focusing on the outbreak’s impact on sectarianism and the refugee crisis.

An image showing Shia Muslims visiting a shrine.
Shrine visitation. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Sectarian Conflict

The Middle East is marred by the Sunni-Shia conflict, and geopolitics are heavily influenced by this divide. Because of this, the divide is often invoked when something disastrous occurs in the region, with each side blaming the other, and the coronavirus outbreak has proven to be no exception. Although the coronavirus has spread to all Middle Eastern countries, Iran, a Shia-majority country, has been disproportionately impacted; as of March 31st, Iran has had 44,605 coronavirus cases and 2,898 deaths, making it one of the countries with the most cases in the world. Further, Iran has now been identified as the source of spread to other Middle Eastern countries; some of the earliest identified cases in the Middle East were all of people who had recently traveled to Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran. Despite the fact that people were aware of the outbreak in Iran, visitations to holy shrines in Iran were not discouraged, and people continued to travel to these holy sites. Any large gatherings during this time pose a risk, but shrine visitations are especially risky; many people engage in practices at shrines, such as kissing and touching the shrines, that lead to an increased likelihood of spreading. Since the outbreak is speculated to have spread from Qom, the city where one of the holiest shrines, the shrine of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahraa, is located, it is not unlikely that transmission did occur like this.

Because the spread has been identified as coming from Iran, many Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East have used this as an opportunity to justify further prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims. For example, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia who recently traveled to Iran for shrine visitations were labeled as traitors, leading some to call for their execution. In other countries, such as Lebanon, preexisting sectarian conflict has only gotten worse. It has been claimed that the first case in Lebanon came from Iran, leading many to blame the Shia Muslim population of Lebanon. Further, the Lebanese government continued to allow flights from Iran up until mid-March. Due to this, many have criticized Iran’s influence in Lebanon, specifically its influence on the government.

 

An image showing a Syrian refugee camp.
A Syrian refugee camp. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Refugees in the Middle East

There have been refugees in the Middle East for the past several decades, but the number of refugees significantly increased after the Arab Uprising in 2011. Because refugees often live in destitute conditions, the coronavirus outbreak would prove to be disastrous for them. Once a case of the coronavirus reaches a refugee camp, there will be little to nothing that can be done to stop its spread; large families live within the same tent, usually only five feet apart from other nearby tents. For this reason alone, social distancing is not an option for refugees living in camps, highlighting the intrinsic privilege of others’ ability to practice and call for social distancing. In addition to this problem, refugees also do not have access to the resources necessary for sanitization, namely due to lack of access to clean water. Further, there are often no established healthcare systems within refugee camps, making it difficult for them to access resources that would be needed to aid infected individuals. Even if refugees were to seek health care outside of the camps, it is not guaranteed that they would have access to this care. For example, many refugees are internally displaced in war-torn countries where hospitals have been demolished and those that are still standing are severely lacking in resources. Further, even when refugees resettle in other countries with established health care systems, it is not incorrect to assume that nationals of that country will be given preference over refugees for treatment and access to resources.

Despite the scarcity of resources and bleak outlook for refugee camps, measures have been taken to ensure that refugees are protected as best as they can be from the coronavirus. For example,  many refugee camps have been sanitized with anti-bacterial spray. Certain organizations, such as Islamic Relief, have donated supplies, including rubbing alcohol and medicine that treats certain symptoms of the coronavirus, to ensure that if an outbreak does occur within a camp, there are some necessary resources available. Finally, the UNHCR has appealed governments for $33 million in funds to provide refugees access to hygiene kits, protective gear, and sanitary water, among other things, that could help deter the spread of the coronavirus.

Recently, an IHR Intern wrote a blog about racism and discrimination that arises during outbreaks such as this one. While Asians have largely been victims to racism during this period, in the Middle East, Iran and Shia Muslims have been targeted, highlighting that people do indeed try to blame such events on others when, in reality, there is no one that should be blamed. Further, times like this also highlight the level of privilege many of us live in; while we have the privilege to access resources and to distance ourselves from one another, other groups who lack such privileges, namely refugees, cannot practice any of these things. Thus, while we are all impacted by this outbreak, it is important to recognize that many people, in addition to worrying about the coronavirus, face other obstacles during this time as well, and these groups should be kept in mind.

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

Under Pressure: How Court Debts Inform Racial and Wealth Inequality

On Thursday, November 7th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Students for Human Rights at UAB to present representatives from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. During their lecture and discussion with audience members, they addressed how racial inequality and systemic poverty influence court debts as well as what we can do to change the status quo.

Alabama Appleseed, and its 17 other offices across North America, work at the intersection of the legal system and systemic poverty. Helping to confront a system that harms impoverished and minority communities by placing them in an endless cycle of punishment, Alabama Appleseed employs a research and policy reform approach to highlight such inequalities.

They first addressed this issue by covering the racial wealth gap which can be told through the legacy of slavery, convict labor, redlining, school segregation, and hiring discrimination that has economically disadvantaged many communities of color, namely Black Americans. Thus, in present day, the poorest 20% of Whites have an average $15,000 in wealth, while the poorest 20% of Blacks have a mere average $100 in wealth.  As a result, receiving a fine can increase existing household costs, develop exorbitant interest rates, and even land one in jail if unpaid, meaning Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the looming threat of court debts.

In response, Alabama Appleseed sought to give this issue greater context by employing a statewide study, titled Under Pressure, which includes personal experiences with court debts from 980 Alabamians representing 41 counties  (56% of respondents were Black). Some of the main findings were:

  • 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt
  • 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt
  • 44% had used payday loans to cover court debt
  • 80% borrowed money from a friend or family member to cover their court debt
  • Almost 2/3 received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt
Alabama Appleseed presenting Under Pressure. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

They went on to address some anecdotal accounts such as people paying someone else’s court debt even though having their own and missing court dates that were scheduled while incarcerated. These findings suggest that impoverished and minority communities in Alabama must maneuver around isolated court systems that don’t communicate with one another, which further places them into a cycle of poverty and looming punishment. Furthermore, Alabama has the 5th highest incarceration rate in the world and is currently facing a 33% rate of employment in the prison system. This means that our criminal justice system not only disadvantages poor and Black Alabamians, but they are the ones funding these inequalities through a shadow tax system.

Thus, Alabama Appleseed offered a handful of recommendations for state lawmakers to address this system of injustice:

  • Eliminate court costs and fees, and scale fines to each person’s ability to pay
  • Fully fund courts from Alabama’s state budget
  • Send revenue from all court debt to the state General Fund
  • Create a mechanism for appeal and ensure folks have access to counsel throughout the process
  • Prohibit the suspension of drivers’ licenses except in instances of unsafe driving
  • Eliminate Failure to Appear warrants when the individual is incarcerated
  • Change the law that currently denies voting rights to people who are too poor to pay their court debt
  • Reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction with fines connected to the defendant’s ability to pay

As demonstrated, Alabama’s criminal justice system is a harvest ground for racial and wealth inequality. However, addressing such concerns at the community-level is one way that you can participate in real change. You can do so by communicating with your local representative about overturning the “Three Strikes Law”, pressuring Regions Bank to divest from the private prison industry, and joining Alabama Appleseed to be informed about pending legislation.

Facing the threat of missing rent, losing meals, and even being incarcerated is no way to live, particularly for those who already experience a list of other disadvantages. For this reason, it’s about time we put our lawmakers and local businesses under pressure.

“Who Are You?” Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five Shares His Story

On Tuesday, October 8th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Student Multicultural & Diversity Programs, and College of Arts & Sciences to present criminal justice advocate Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated 5 (formerly known as the Central Park 5). During his conversation with UAB’s Dr. Paulette Patterson Dilworth, they discussed his time incarcerated, race in the 21st century, and the recent Netflix special When They See Us, among other related topics.

In April 1989, following the sexual assault of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, five young Black and Hispanic youth were convicted for this heinous crime despite inconsistencies in DNA evidence. In the process of weathering the media storm and pressure from local authorities, Salaam claims he had a “spiritual awakening” that was being shaped by the hands of God. About six months into his bid, Salaam was debating if he was doing time or if time was doing him, when an officer approached him and asked, “Who are you?”. After giving the officer his full name, the officer replied, “I know that. You’re not supposed to be here. Who are you?”. This moment changed his entire trajectory because Salaam realized he was born with a purpose. As a result, Salaam earned a college degree while in prison and suggested this accomplishment means he could do anything. He argues that many in the public eye were looking at him with hatred because they saw his future self, an educated Black man fighting for racial and criminal justice.

After serving nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit, a confession and DNA match from Matias Reyes in 2002 allowed the release and exoneration of Salaam as well as Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Aside from Salaam and Wise’s acquaintanceship, the Exonerated Five did not know each other. Due to police profiling, they were rounded up by NYPD, interrogated, and pressured to confess to false narratives about one another, thus having to fight individually for themselves as well as their families. The Exonerated Five never discussed these events among each other because they assumed everyone had the same experience. However, upon a pre-release screening of When They See Us, which Salaam claimed was a “traumatic experience”, the Exonerated Five had the opportunity to process the series of events that would bind them together forever.

 

Dr. Salaam speaking with Dr. Dilworth. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights
Dr. Salaam speaking with Dr. Dilworth. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

Although, the story does not end here. As fate would have it, then future U.S. President Donald Trump actively participated in promoting the execution of the Exonerated Five through an ad in local newspapers. Furthermore, Salaam’s claim that President Trump is responsible for “cosigning folks in Charlottesville” suggests our current cultural, social, and political environment encourages racial and criminal injustice. In response, echoing Carter G. Woodson’s treatise “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Salaam exclaimed that history is trained and taught into a people. As a result, people of color, namely Black Americans, can become so destroyed by a system that they don’t want to participate. Although, Salaam said such a position suggests, “Non-participation is participation.” Thus, we, ourselves, are the answer.

This brings us to how we, particularly white folks who have orchestrated institutions to disadvantage people of color, can be the change we want to see. As Salaam suggests, “The system is working the way it was designed.” Thus, systemic issues disproportionately affecting people of color, such as police profiling, generational poverty, underfunded schools, and weakened voting rights, must immediately be addressed and reformed. Eradicating these injustices will unlikely be in in our lifetime, although current efforts by Black Lives Matter, Innocence Project, The Sentencing Project, and Woke Vote, among many others, shine a light on what we have, and can, accomplish.

Who are you?

Book Review: White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

by Mary Johnson-Butterworth

I recently read White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. Diangelo is an academic, lecturer, and author and has been a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice for more than twenty years.  She formerly served as a tenured professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University.” I picked up the book because I am trying to understand and eradicate any micro-aggressions directed toward people of color on my part and to woman up to my own racism.  Identifying as both white and fragile puts the onus for my education and change on friends and acquaintances of color, and I wanted to take responsibility for my own rehabilitation.

DiAngelo conceived of white fragility from years of facilitating diversity training where “good” white people became incensed when faced with any suggestion of racist identity in their own lives. How does it connect to racism? Racism, the oppression of a dominant group by a targeted group based on skin color, is a complex, multi-layered structure—not an event. “Racism hurts (even kills) people of color 24-7.  Interrupting it is more important than my feelings, ego, or self-image,” writes Diangelo.  She also maintains that, when it comes to racism in the U.S., no choir exists to whom we can preach.  Regardless of our upbringing as white people, we all are indoctrinated by a potent combination of entitlement, individualism, comfort, safety, normalcy, and supremacy that other races cannot access.  Diangelo suggests that a person of color may refuse to wait on me in a store, but I still have the power, as a white person, to manipulate which neighborhood she can choose and, therefore, the caliber of schools her child attends, hence debunking the existence in our society of reverse racism.

*Lack of understanding of what racism is

*Seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization

*Failure to understand that we bring our group’s history with us, that history matters

*Assuming everyone is having or can have our experience

*Lack of racial humility, and unwillingness to listen

*Dismissing what we don’t understand

*Lack of authentic interest in the perspectives of people of color

*Wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to “solutions”

*Confusing disagreement with not understanding

*Need to maintain white solidarity, to save face, to look good

*Guilt that paralyzes or allows inaction

*Defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism

*A focus on intentions over the impact

Aversive racism allows us white people to remain racist and still feel good about ourselves by rationalizing segregation in schools as the need for “good schools,” and the overabundance of whites in the workplace “because they [people of color] don’t apply.” White folks get away with the use of coded language such as urban, underprivileged, diverse, sketchy, and good/bad neighborhoods to belie their racist underpinnings.  The author relays a story of a white friend who called to say they had a mutual friend who bought a ridiculously cheap house in a New Orleans neighborhood, but her friend felt the need to buy a gun. When Diangelo responded, “I assume it’s a black neighborhood,” her friend said, “Yes, you get what you pay for.  I’d rather pay $500,000 and live somewhere where I wasn’t afraid.” The woman never used the word “black,” but the implication was crystal clear.  Toni Morrison alludes to “race talk,” designed to denigrate people of color, elevate white people, and keep in place the “us and “them” dichotomy.

While facilitating a workshop, the author questioned an African American man about what he would think if white people risked upsetting their white racial equilibrium to graciously receive feedback, reflect, and work to change their behavior. His immediate answer, “It would be revolutionary.”  “However, we aren’t likely to get there if we are operating from the dominant worldview that only intentionally mean people can participate in racism.” Color blindness (“I don’t see color.”) and color celebration (“I have a good friend who’s black.”) often exempt white people from examining the racism impacting them daily.  Most of us are taught to be kind, but “unless that kindness is combined with clarity and the courage to name and challenge racism, this approach protects white fragility and needs to be challenged.”  “An honest accounting of our racist patterns is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary.”

According to Diangelo, studies show that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool. Although many millennials profess to living in a postracial society, when 626 white college students at 28 colleges across the U.S. were asked to keep journals of racial images, racial issues, or what they understood to be racist behavior for 6 to 8 weeks, over 7500 blatantly racist comments and actions committed by family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers were recorded.

White fragility can translate as bullying when a racial point is made by a person of color, and a white woman cries needing comfort or all of the energy goes to soothe or assuage the guilt of the white people in the room.  The salient point is lost to white fragility, and nothing is learned.

Diangelo states that, in the U.S., anti-blackness is particularly prevalent, and white people’s history, as well as their present, is tied to abuse and devaluation of black bodies.  Slavery, lynchings, police shootings of unarmed black men, the school to prison pipeline, even the dissing of a black man who “takes a knee,” reflect a White disdain for African Americans in this nation.   Diangelo poses that it is a very different narrative to hail Jackie Robinson the first black man allowed by white people to play in the majors, rather than the first black man to have the skill to play in the majors.

Cover-to-cover, White Fragility is full of messages that are difficult for us white people to hear. I am indicted as a racist just by virtue of the society in which we live. We, White people, have the responsibility to transform our guilt into action.  We must move past defensiveness, discomfort, the conscious unawareness of our role in overt or often covert racism, and the way we look to others.  We must guard against allying with fellow racists in solidarity, forgetting that we are unconsciously invested in racism, refusing feedback from or not listening to people of color, and staying insulated in our cocoon of white equilibrium.  If we find ourselves open to shoving our white fragility aside, we may accomplish the following:

*Minimize our defensiveness.

*Demonstrate our vulnerability.

*Demonstrate our curiosity and humility.

*Allow for growth.

*Stretch our worldview.

*Ensure action.

*Demonstrate that we practice what we profess to value.

*Build authentic relationships and trust.

*Interrupt privilege-protecting comfort.

*Interrupt internalized superiority.  

Robin Diangelo offers us white folks the insights and the tools to explore and, with hard work, to overcome our white fragility in favor of transformation and enlightenment.

 

Mary Johnson-Butterworth, age 69, has been a social justice activist most of her adult life.  She has facilitated social justice workshops for middle and high school students throughout the Birmingham area and beyond with the YWCA of Central Alabama, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the National Coalition Building Institute, and YouthServe.  Mary has also been on staff at a residential YWCA diversity camp, Anytown Alabama, for 22 years and has facilitated trainings for corporate entities, Leadership Birmingham, and Project Corporate Leadership.  She has recently discovered the power of poetry to transform her own life and the lives of impacted listeners.

The Re-segregation of Schools

**Today is the 64th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision. The decision acknowledged and established the unconstitutionality of the notion “separate but equal”. This blog is a repost from the fall. 

The eraser ends of a pile of pencils.
Back to School. Source: Mark Bonica, Creative Commons

What do you think of when you hear the word “segregation”? You probably flash back to your high school history class, when you learned about the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bus boycotts, the Little Rock Nine, and Ruby Bridges. Segregation is something we generally think of in the past-tense, as a phenomenon that occurred throughout much of history but ended in the 1960s. A common assumption is that these issues of racial discrimination and segregation on a systematic level are over. However, this is not the case. Schools in the United States seem to be going through rapid re-segregation. A reminder of our nation’s shameful past of dehumanizing and oppressing people on the basis of skin color, the idea is a hard pill to swallow. Many people find it difficult to come terms with our history and find it even more difficult to admit that serious issues related to race are still present in our society.

In 2010, Jefferson County opened Gardendale High School, one of the few high schools in the county that were actually well-integrated. By 2012, the campaigning for the secession of the schools of Gardendale from the district school system had begun. The concept of city school systems has grown increasingly popular in recent years. Many communities believe that it would be best if the taxes from their local areas only contribute to local schools. They have made claims that they believe that this would greatly improve the academic success of schools. In the case of Gardendale, these claims are not well supported. Creating a new school system would actually make it more difficult for students to attend the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school (JCIB), which has been ranked by the Washington Post as the best school in Alabama and the seventeenth best school in the country. In order to attend JCIB, students would have to pay $1,500 in out-of-district tuition. In 2013, the Gardendale City Council voted to create a separate school system, and a new property tax was implemented later that year in order to fund the new system. An all-white school board and superintendent were then appointed for the system.

However, there were still obstacles for the new school system. Jefferson County is still under the desegregation order from the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Gardendale would have to receive approval from Birmingham’s federal court in order to secede from the district. There were three main forces that all agreed that allowing Gardendale to secede would create significant problems for the efforts to continue desegregation. Representing the black children of Jefferson County was Legal Defense Fund Lawyer, Monique Lin-Luse. The Obama administration had involved the revitalizing of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Jefferson County had just hired a new superintendent who was dedicated to desegregation. Though the residential area of Gardendale is 88% white, the schools are 25% black due to the busing of students from North Smithfield. For the majority of residents who want a completely separate school system for the city, the goal is to have a system that contains only students who live in Gardendale. Though this would not completely remove all of the black students, it would seriously reduce the number of them.

A row of school buses.
School Buses. Source: JohnPickenPhoto, Creative Commons

In the court decision regarding the Gardendale school system, the judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, found that the motivation for the secession of Gardendale was undoubtedly based in a desire to control the racial demographics of the city’s schools. Despite this, Gardendale was not exactly denied their request. For the 2017-2018 school year, the city of Gardendale is operating Gardendale Elementary School and Snow Rogers Elementary independently from Jefferson County. If the city is able to run the schools for three years “in good faith,” then they have a chance at a full secession from the district. They were given three requirements. First, they are obligated to appoint a black board member to the school-board. Second, they must work with the plaintiffs of the decision and the Justice Department to create a desegregation plan for the new district. Lastly, they must either give up Gardendale High School, which was paid for by the residents of Jefferson County, or repay the $33 million that the county spent building the school. If Gardendale can show “sufficient” evidence of integration, then they will be released from the court order.

The release from this court order would be much more significant than one might think. Let us consider Central High School in Tuscaloosa, whose city school system was released from its desegregation order in 2000. By the 1980s, Central had developed into a very well-integrated school. However, after the desegregation order ended, and a new school was built in the mostly white and affluent part of the county, 99% of the Central High School students were black. Combined with the United States’ long history of systematic racism and economic disparities, this also led to the school having higher rates of poverty and less access to important academic resources. This shows that even a “sufficiently” integrated school has the potential to re-segregate without a desegregation order.

Clearly, the inequalities re-segregation creates between black and white students are unjust and need to be addressed, but it is important to realize that re-segregation is wrong regardless of whether or not it has negative impacts on black students. Even in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Brown family was not pursuing the issue because of a dissatisfaction with the quality of education at the all black school their daughter attended, but because black and white children should not be separated simply because of race.

When it comes to specific cases, such as in Gardendale, it can be easy to be misled by what seem to reasonable claims, such as the improving of education, that do not actually have any solid support. We have to pay attention to the larger scale impacts of situations like the one in Gardendale. If we do not pay full attention to the things that are happening, we can overlook serious effects of seemingly small situations. Tuscaloosa and Gardendale are just two of many places in Alabama where systematic racism is still very much a living issue. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent or to think that racism is over. The fact of the matter is that slavery occurred over hundreds of years, and legal racial segregation continued long after that. It would be foolish to believe that everything would be perfect only 63 years after the Brown v Board decision and 53 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Change takes time and diligence. This makes it absolutely necessary that we be fully aware of what is going on in our own backyard.

 

Cornbread Millionaires: Reflections on Riva and Josephine

 by LEONARD SMITH
a picture of Birkenau in the snow
Birkenau. Source: Midnight Believer, Creative Commons

I was enthused and a bit trepidatious when professor Madden-Lunsford announced we would be attending, as a class, the lecture of a Holocaust survivor and an African American woman whose father had been lynched when she was a child. I knew their stories would be both amazing and difficult to hear.

During my undergraduate studies in the early 90’s at Auburn University at Montgomery, I took a history course on the Holocaust. Before the course I had considered myself knowledgeable of the Holocaust. I discovered how ignorant I was when I learned of: the depth and breadth of the brutality and mass murder; the willing collusion of many nations and millions of people; how many nations including the U.S. denied sanctuary by not increasing immigration visas; how entire educated societies and cultures readily accepted the expansion of racism and anti-semitism to point whole scale genocide without question, because it fed their fear and anger; the discovery that if a group can be successfully scapegoated almost anything can be done to them, with little resistance, because to defend a scapegoat with logic and reason is to become a scapegoat. The most shocking discovery for me was that despite mountains of irrefutable evidence, the number of Holocaust deniers was growing. The knowledge I learned in that course changed me permanently and profoundly. I lost much of my faith in mankind. For a period of time during and following the class I suffered recurring nightmares.

Before entering the class I had naively believed that such an event could never happen again. I now know that not only could it be repeated, but that it has, in Cambodia, and most recently Sudan.

However, I also discovered that individual human courage was boundless and that miracles large and small happen. That was where my last personal seed of hope took refuge.

It is with this background and knowledge that I intellectually looked forward to, and was emotionally apprehensive of, hearing Riva Hirsch and Josephine McCall speak. I knew that these women were and are courageous. I wanted to be near that courage and learn from it.

Riva is a force of nature. She spoke of her own miracles; being found in Ukraine by people who spoke German and because of her Yiddish background being able to understand them (She referred to Yiddish as Jewish and I hoped that didn’t confuse too many people in the audience); the guard not looking underneath the carriage where she was hiding during her flight to safety; being hidden by a nun, who also spoke German, and that nun paying the ultimate sacrifice for helping her. When she spoke of being all alone in the forest, battling malnutrition, typhus, malaria, and hordes of lice, I knew she was made of far sterner stuff than I.

Riva spoke of her father’s business and how her family and his workers were a close knit group, an extended family before the war came to the Ukraine. Yet, for fear of putting themselves and their families in danger, these workers shut their doors to Riva and her family during their flight. Only one offered temporary refuge and only after Riva’s mother gave him all her jewels. As Riva spoke, so many of the atrocities I had learned of in that Holocaust course came back to the forefront of my mind. My faith in mankind was eroding again.

Though I had girded myself for  Riva’s story, Josephine, was like so many neighbors, coworkers, and friends I have known over the years. I had heard voices like hers over countless retail counters, through back screen doors and hollered from front porches. Her soft Blackbelt accent lulled me into a sense of comfort.

Riva’s story had taken place in WWII era Ukraine; a place I had only known through books and movies. But, I am familiar with Lowndes County, Alabama. I spent my childhood in neighboring Montgomery county. I had crossed Lowndes county many times on both the Old Selma Road and Highway 80. I knew the upper echelons of white society in Lowndes county were mockingly referred to as cornbread millionaires. They lived in antebellum mansions full of antiques; they were land rich but money poor. So much so, that if you went to their homes for supper, the only thing they could afford to serve in their heirloom china and silver was cornbread and beans with hog meat. I had heard it discussed that this facade and lack of resources made whites in Lowndes County particularly brutal in their treatment of black folks.

I am well steeped in the culture and nuances of Southern race relations. Though my experience of it is as a white male, born in 1964. This was the first time I had heard someone speak personally of the loss of a family member at the hands of open, socially sanctioned racist. I was surprised to learn that lynching was defined as death at the hands of three or more people and was not limited to death by hanging. I should not have been as surprised, as I was, when Josephine informed the audience that indenture (the practice of holding someone on your land as a laborer if they owed you a debt, essentially de facto slavery) was still enforced by they law in Lowndes County in 1947.

Josephine stated that her father, Elmore Bolling’s crime in the eyes of white men was that he had succeeded and purchased land, resulting in a white woman having to move off the property. Even though Mr. Bolling helped the women move and found her exactly the accommodation she wanted, his actions still constituted a crime against an unwritten social code, punishable by death.

I knew whites who thought this way, including many within my own family. They believed that all black men were lazy and stupid. Therefore, if a black man succeeded and had wealth, he must have cheated a white man or had help from interfering Northern whites and/or the Federal Government, which was the same as cheating a white man.

That was what was most disturbing for me about Josephine’s story. Her father’s murderers could have been friends of my grandparents or distant relations. Many people within my family were certainly capable of such a crime. Even the more moderate older family members believed that if a black man was lynched he must have done something stupid to put himself in harms way.

Both Riva and Josephine talked about how we must continue to speak up and talk about such atrocities and not let the deniers corrupt history and attempt to repeat it. Silence is the enemy of justice.

My lack of faith in mankind was growing. I wondered if speaking out was enough. The attitudes of many whites I know, especially those young enough to know better, is still shockingly racist. Just this week, I spoke with a friend who teaches high school English. She was distraught because a student had turned in an essay that was essentially a white supremest manifesto. The student was not a child on the fringe but rather a well liked person very popular in the high school social structure. I am often gobsmacked when I hear well educated white colleagues use the N-word, assuming I am as racist as they. I looked around at the audience in attendance and found them to very simpatico with the Riva and Josephine. The people who most needed to hear the speakers were not there. Just last night the local CBS news reported that according to the Anti-defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents were at a twenty year high. Up 47% in just the last two years.

I am honored to have heard Riva and Josephine’s stories and bask in the presence of their courage. I will speak up and continue to seek to root out my own internal vestiges of racism.

I spoke to Josephine after the presentation. We chuckled about Lowndes County’s cornbread millionaires. She told me where her father’s historical maker, that she had worked so hard to get erected, was located in Lowndesboro, just two hundred yards from the yellow flashing caution light. I knew the spot.

I spoke of my racist father who carried a badge and a gun for the Montgomery police force for twenty-five years and then twenty years more as an Alabama State Trooper. I told her, with dismay, of my father’s braggadocios, I heard as child, after he had a few beers. He told how he and his friends in high school would lay in wait in the dark, to catch the black men walking to town along the railroad tracks on Saturday night to visit their wives or girlfriends who were domestics and nannies in town. They subjected these men to humiliations and tortures. Their favorite being to strip them of their clothes and put them in the trunk of a car. They would release them naked on the highway, hands bound with lit firecrackers tied to their ankles and backside. My father always smiled with glee when he told these exploits. Josephine, compassionate and understanding of my grief over having such a father, clasp my hand and nodded. She was familiar with these kinds of events.

I left the lecture remembering that in my youth, in the seventies and eighties, I had believed by now we, as a society, would have a more level field of justice and opportunity for all, and that hate crimes would become fewer and fewer as society became more enlightened and heterogenous. However, as I walked to my car, a fear chewed at me. Was the leveling so many had fought for, and were still fighting for, beginning to slope again, becoming muddy and slippery, rising in elevation to the disadvantage and injustice of minorities? Will there be enough voices speaking up to again seek a leveling? History does not make me hopeful.

 

Leonard Lee Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Auburn University at Montgomery. He is a non-degree seeking graduate student in writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham. He won a Hackney award in 2012 for short fiction. He has told stories for The Moth Radio Hour

 


Cycles

an old train cart
The old train cart. Source: Georgi Kirichkov, Creative Commons

“I had everything until the murderer came,” Riva Hirsch begins, clutching a microphone between two pale hands. “We weren’t rich, but we had a ball and a doll and a dog… There was no discrimination. We loved.”

Sitting in a sterile events space around circular tables, we watch as a map appears on the projector screen to helpfully show us exactly where seven-year-old Riva lived before that day: an area of Ukraine that used to be Russia. She isn’t sure where exactly she was taken. “A better place,” was all the Nazis told her as she boarded a train overflowing with corpses.

“Did you see any towns on the train ride?” the moderator of the talk asks.

“Piles and piles of dead bodies–that I saw. Children. Grown-ups. Babies. But not towns.”

A microphone fails, its battery dead. Some shuffling and chuckling, then Riva’s microphone is handed to the other guest speaker, Josephine Bolling McCall, from Lowndes County, Alabama. “Bloody Lowndes”, it used to be called because of all the murders.

“We thought someone was killing cows,” she tells us, describing the sound of her father’s lynching. His children found him lying in a ditch with his eyes open, shot several times. “The definition of lynching is not about the noose around your neck. It’s about the group of people. At the time, three people made a lynching”

The room releases a deep hum of a surprise.

Her father was rich for a black man, owning a storefront, some land, and several shipping trucks. The night of his murder, Josephine’s brother scrawled down the car tag number of the white men he saw driving away in the dirt outside their store. “The sheriff wasn’t interested. Lowndes County planned my father’s murder and planned to make it look like it wasn’t a lynching, because the county would be held responsible. Most of the blacks were afraid to talk. There was no mercy there.”

The two women trade their lone microphone back and forth, standing tall when it is their turn to speak with the kind of straight-backed poise that has been lost over the generations. Both look dressed for a nice evening out, their hair in big, loose curls around their shoulders, Riva’s white and Josephine’s dark brown, like their skin. Riva talks fast, with an Eastern European accent, her voice booming through the sedate hall. Josephine, by contrast, talks Southern slow and soft enough that we lean forward to catch her words. Riva speaks as if the horrors she witnessed happened only yesterday. Josephine speaks as if they happen to her every day.

“I was lying more dead than alive,” Riva says of her condition when the German man who smuggled her out of the camp to a convent. “Me as a little Jewish girl, I had never seen a nun. But I survived through them.”

“I decided it was time to get some recognition,” Josephine told us about publishing a book about her search to discover what really happened to her father. “They made my book required reading at Northeastern University.”

The moderator asks them what one lesson would they want us to take away.

“The intention was to terrorize,” Josephine says. “Terrorism is what they got… We must continue the discussion, but as it says in Hebrews 13:1, ‘Let brotherly love continue’.”

“Make sure to educate our students,” Riva answers, her voice reaching a fever pitch. “Because the future is in your hands to let the world never, ever let it happen again.”

The room is silent when her words stop ringing through the high ceiling, but in our ears, the shouts of Charlottesville echo. We clap to drown them out.

 

Mary Elizabeth Chambliss is a graduate English student specializing in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a CRM Administrator in UAB’s Enrollment Operations. She graduated from Lehigh University with a Bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology in 2015.

Black Panther: A Game-Changing Film

A laughing boy.
Child laughing. Source: cheriejoyful, Creative Commons

On February 16, 2018, the revolutionary movie, Black Panther, was finally released for the world to enjoy.  The film provides the audience with a much-needed source of representation for the black community, both on and off-screen.  Black Panther is part of a revolutionary change in an industry that has historically disregarded people of color.

Depiction of Black Characters

It is easy to see that Black Panther is a game-changer in the film industry in relation to its production, but it also includes a much-improved depiction of black characters.  They are multi-dimensional and have their own personal histories and experiences.  They are not forced into any one single role, challenging the idea that people of minorities are limited to the surface-level narratives that society usually expects.  They are real people who have struggles, fears, and triumphs.  It lacks the stereotypes that films often use to create characters of color.  The normative roles given to black actors are often of dangerous criminals with limited education, such as drug dealers and con-artists.  These kinds of characters worsen the incorrect and harmful perception that much of society has of black men.  When black roles are actually given positive characteristics, they are still generally given littles depth, and are used as nothing more than support for the white main character.

The Black Panther himself, T’Challa, is not just a superhero (though his being a superhero is significant in itself).  He is the king of Wakanda and acts as a diplomat, representing and speaking on behalf of his country at the United Nations.  He is respectful of women and recognizes their value and strength, as seen through his female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.  He does not let toxic masculinity impact his actions and has a strong connection to his family.  T’Challa is brave, intelligent, and compassionate, making him a well-developed main character and hero.

Even Eric Killmonger is given depth and undeniably human experiences.  If one seeks a traditional villain among the movies’ characters, most signs point to him.  All of his actions are focused around defeating the Black Panther and taking over the throne, and he does not care what it takes to do so.  However, if we look closer, the circumstances are not so black and white.  His anger towards T’Challa stems from the death of his father and Wakanda’s years of ignorance of the suffering of African Americans.  His primary goal in defeating T’Challa, is to send Wakandan resources to people facing oppression.  His methods were misguided, but his motivations are fairly easy to understand.

The development of Killmonger conveys the idea that we all think of ourselves as the hero in our own stories.  T’Challa sees himself as the hero, fighting to save the country he knows and loves.  Killmonger sees himself as the hero, trying to correct the wrongs of the past and seek what he believes to be justice.  The only thing that changes is the framework of the story, the perspective through which you are experiencing it.  In real life, the vast majority people make the choices they make because they believe they are doing the right thing (even when they are wrong).  While this does not excuse actions that harm other people or mean that everyone is concerned with doing the right things, it does suggest that wrongdoings are not independent events.  Every experience we have impacts the choices we make.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to address the causes and events that have led to different negative situations.

People are complex.  The fact that this concept is explored in a film about characters of color is indescribably important because it goes against the stereotypes and archetypes that are often used to create such characters.  It gives the characters dimensions which reflect the human experience that connects all people.

Depiction of Women of Color

The film’s use of well-rounded characters does not end with those who are male.  The character stereotype of black women in films is loud and dramatic and is perceived as having an attitude problem.  They are considered bossy, aggressive, and sometimes even mean.  The female characters in Black Panther defy traditional expectations and radiate empowerment.  Black Panther depicts numerous powerful black women without objectifying and over-sexualizing them as many movies do.  They are just normal women.  Realistic, intelligent, kind, and brave. These characters stand on their own and serve a greater purpose than supporting the development the male characters.

Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister, is a sixteen-year-old genius who leads the development of Wakandan technology.  She offers representation for increasing number of women and young girls, especially those of color, who aspire to be part of the STEM field.  She is not limited to being “the smart one.”  When the time comes, she is ready and more than willing to be part of the fight to protect her country.  In addition to her brilliance and strength, she is also equipped with a vibrant personality.

Okoye is a member of Dora Milaje, the group of women who act as bodyguards for the Black Panther.  She is a fierce warrior, dedicated to serving her people to the best of her ability.  She is strong and loyal, ready to sacrifice her relationship to do what is right for her country.  She would do anything to protect Wakanda.

Nakia is a Wakandan spy, who goes undercover in an effort to undermine human traffickers in the beginning of the film.  She takes action and puts herself in dangerous situations in order to help others.  Her work is her passion and main priority, and she refuses to sacrifice it for the sake of romance. She also encourages T’Challa to share the resources of Wakanda with the rest of the world.  She is driven and wants to make the world better place.  She is a world-shaker.

A smiling boy.
Jamaican. Source: Ashley Campbell, Creative Commons

Watching Black Panther as a White Woman

This film is not just important for the black community, or even just for minority groups.  It is important for white people to watch the film as well.  As a white woman, I originally went to watch Black Panther to simply support a film I knew was important for people of color and to enjoy the experience.  However, as I sat in a theater full of children of color, listening to their reactions to the dialogue and every plot twist, I truly believe that I gained a deeper understanding of the film’s importance.  The kids were excited and absorbed in every moment.  I realized the extent to which I am privileged to have characters I can identify with in just about every movie and television show.  It is something that I have taken for granted for a long time.

I also realized how important it is that black people have an increased opportunity to speak.  White people need to be close allies of course, but we should not dominate the conversation.  We need to support the creation and maintenance of platforms from which they can represent themselves.  We have a history of making everything about us, and we need to ensure that that does not continue.  In the past, white people have stolen land, enslaved entire nations of people, and destroyed families for their own selfish gain.  We now need to be a part of fixing the damage that our ancestors have caused and work to empower people of color in every way possible.

Why Does this Matter?

There are some people who question the importance of representation in the media.  They do not understand why it is so vital to have well-developed characters of color and female characters.  Dr. Christopher Bell provided a thorough explanation of this in his TED Talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes!”  In his talk, Bell explains public pedagogy, or “how societies are taught ideologies.”  This involves concepts such as what it means to be a member of the different genders, how to behave while in public, and how to be polite.  According to Bell, we now live in a 100% media saturated society, meaning every part of our lives, including public pedagogy, is influenced by what we seen on television, in films, and on social media.  The characters and the people that children see through the media are key in their understanding of the world.  When children are unable to see people they identify with as leaders, scientists, or artists, it is difficult for them to see a future where they are doing those things.  The media you consume impacts your outlook on who you can be.

The film shows traditional gender roles being smashed through all its characters.  Women can be warriors, scientists, and world-changers. They can be protectors and leaders. Men can be compassionate and emotional. They do not have to fit into ‘traditional masculinity’.  People can support each other in their choices, regardless of how it fits societal expectations.  In the film, the country of Wakanda contains a society in which gender roles do not seem to apply.  The proposal of a woman becoming the leader and Black Panther is not questioned.  The king’s guards are women, and no one tries to fight it or questions the Dora Milaje’s ability to protect their leader.  All people are equal and are offered the same opportunities.

In addition to its being a huge leap in representation, the film also acts as a proof that change is possible.  More representation, better opportunities, and a better future are all within reach for marginalized groups.  It is crucial that we maintain this momentum.  The Black Panther film is an immense milestone, but there is still more to do.  There still needs to be more representation for the black community and similar representation for other people of color.  We need to work towards a future where such a representative film is a norm rather than an anomaly.

 

UNITY: A BEAUTIFUL GUMBO

by GABRIEL WRIGHT

a photo of a jacket that reads "we're all in this together"
togetherness. Source: Jonny Hughes, Creative Commons

** I read and utilized Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. book, Why We Can’t Wait, as the basis of this blog. The page numbers (xx) refer to the specific edition in the hyperlink.

One of my grandfathers was an old Cajun from south Louisiana who cooked gumbo when I was a kid.  His gumbo was always different because it was always full of whatever meat he had available at the time. Once, it consisted of duck with sausage and crab, while another time, it contained shrimp, chicken, and sausage. No matter what the ingredients, the gumbo was always good.

Growing up my parents were pastors and missionaries. We moved…a lot! I learned at a young age that to have friends I would have to accept people with all their differences. I attended eight different schools, in two states and three countries from kindergarten through graduation.  I was the outsider often.  Rejection became my norm. In 7th grade, we lived in Auburn, Alabama. I was not cool enough to sit with the white kids at the lunch table so I became the palest face in at the end of the other table. In high school, my friends and I called ourselves, “The Losers”,  a ragtag bunch of racially diverse rejected kids that included guys from the Philippines and Nepal.

Accepting differences is an essential step to developing unity. Every person, regardless of skin color or background, can wage war against injustice without having a national stage. The fight to right injustice is overwhelming; the enormity of the task can produce fear that paralyzes, causing many to do nothing. Therefore, I prefer to think that there are small battles to be won every day which come through the removal of fear and the creation of change. Unity exists on the other side of the willingness to change. Here are some strategies and keys to remember that can help us bring about change to achieve unity.

First, discrimination, including racism has a spiritual element. I used to think that racism was a preference or color issue. Now I realize racism is a heart condition. If I were to offer any solution to our current state of unrest and violence, it would begin with prayer. I realize it does not sound like a solution because there is no visible action; however, not everything is visible. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, says that we do not fight against flesh and blood enemies, but against spiritual unseen forces. Dr. King understood this principle well.

The nonviolent direct action of the Birmingham Civil Rights movement was brilliant. King understood that combating people like Bull Connor with physical violence would result in colossal failure. To be a part of the movement, each participant had to commit–not only to the cause of freedom and the values of non-violent direct action–but to prayer (68). People say, “we need to pray for our nation” to no longer remain divided by racism. Often, prayer for the nation looks like an outward one, directed at the heart of someone else, rather than an inward one, directed at your own heart. King David, prayed in Psalm 139, “Search me…know me…test me, and see if there is anything in me that offends you…”  The first step in overcoming division in the nation is identifying division in the heart. Ask God to reveal if there is division in your heart. The Bible calls for repentance. It sounds like a fancy church term but it simply means to turn away from what is wrong and move toward what is right.

Second, stereotypes distort and divide. Stereotypes are widely held but fixed and oversimplified ideas or perceptions of people. Dr. King asserted that the March on Washington dealt a heavy blow to the perpetuated stereotype about blacks. “The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comment, which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants.  If the press and expected something akin to a minstrel show, or a brawl, or a comic display of odd clothes and bad manners, they were disappointed” (153). The decision to shatter stereotypes is not about being or becoming a false version of yourself; it is more a decision to recognize that we are not bound to act like the stereotypes placed upon us.  As a pastor, one of the stereotypes I battle against is that all I want is your money. My plan was to be generous toward our people and to never ask for money from our visitors so when I planted my church, I decided that I would not give anyone a reason to believe that stereotype. Stereotyping is the byproduct of a spirit of division. Abraham Lincoln famously quoted Jesus Christ in saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. The best way to bring down a nation, organization, or family is through division.

a picture of Dr. King at the March on Washington 1963
Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site, Creative Commons.

I can see that spirit operating against Dr. King and the movement in 1963. The bombings began after the movement achieved great victories and won many converts to the side of justice. “Whoever planted the bombs had wanted the Negroes to riot. They wanted the pact upset” (128). The stereotype of blacks had been unsubstantiated rhetoric, used to undervalue and suppress. It was with this in mind–the spirit of division–that pushed men to plant bombs, knowing it would give rise to violence and division, not only between black and white, but within the African American community itself. Thankfully, Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth had taught the African American community about the spiritual as well as the physical. “I shall never forget the phone call my brother placed to me in Atlanta that violent Saturday night.  His home had just been destroyed.  Several people had been injured at the motel.  I listened as he described the erupting tumult and catastrophe in the streets of the city. Then, in the background as he talked, I heard a swelling burst of beautiful song.  Feet planted in the rubble of debris, threatened by criminal violence and hatred, followers of the movement were singing ‘We Shall Overcome’” (128). The movement realized that they were not fighting flesh and blood, which would be a losing battle; but in the spiritual, with prayer and song.

Never let a stereotype define you. Look for opportunities to deal stereotypes a “heavy blow”.

Third, understand that meekness means strength under control. Many people were against Dr. King’s stance on non-violent direct action. For them, action without retaliation was weakness, not strength, specifically when Connor turned water hoses on protesters. Jesus once said, “The meek will inherit the earth”. When we are meek, it doesn’t mean that we are lowering ourselves, but we are controlling ourselves and taking the ammunition away from our enemies.

Next, we cannot expect to overcome injustice and racism without setting up the next generation. I’ll never forget my friend Cedric. He lived in a very violent, crime ridden government housing project. I lost track of him (this was before Facebook and cell phones) because he moved away. His mother decided that she wanted better for her son; therefore, she worked hard, saved money and looked to provide her son a better situation. Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois developed an ideology called the “talented tenth”, in which some African Americans to rise, pulling the mass up with them. King disagreed with this philosophy in the 1960’s because, at the time, African Americans had no real way of creating a better life as individuals, let alone as a group (28). Today that is not necessarily the case.

a picture of a puzzle piece fitting into another one
Putting The Puzzle Together. Source: www.SeniorLiving.Org, Creative Commons.

I understand that things can always be better, but in today’s world, there is a path for success. There have been many African Americans that have navigated the ladders of success in politics, sports, entertainment, medicine and business. You may say, “it is easy for a white person to rise up”, and while that is true, it does not mean that a person of color cannot.  We will only accomplish what we think we can accomplish. I love to hear about millionaire athletes, who, through hard work and good choices make it out of bad situations, turned their lives around, and give back to their community.  There is a need for more people to show the way; to educate and mentor the next generation in the ways of life, including finances and relationships. Over my years of ministry, I have found that people need more than a handout. The old saying, “give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime” is true.  As the “talented tenth” begin to use their influence to not just help, I feel we can and will see a shift in the balance of justice and equity. When people understand that their platform and influence is not for their glory, but to serve others, then we will be on the path toward victory.

Finally, as a friend and I were talking one day, he told me of a church that wants to become more multiracial but just can’t seem to “crack the code”. Curious, I asked him, “Why do African Americans attend our church?” We don’t sing gospel. I don’t preach like T.D. Jakes or Tony Evans, and we don’t do anything to appeal to any one race over another. I believe his responses are simple and effective ways to begin the healing process between the races and start moving toward justice in our nation:

  1. You don’t try to appease.  People know when you are being fake.  When we try to be something we are not, we usually come across as offensive.
  2. You have African American friends.  We need to make friends with people of different races, not to put a notch on our belt, but to really expand our circle of relationships.
  3. You love people.  When you set your heart to love and accept people, it become contagious.
  4. You promote African American people.  At our church, we don’t have token African American leaders.  We have leaders, and some of them happen to be African American.

I pastor a wonderful little church in Birmingham, Alabama. Our church is a beautiful “gumbo” of colors, classes, and countries. In this current climate of racial tension, it is my heart to have place where people can catch a glimpse of heaven…a glimpse of Dr. King’s dream for America; a place where black and white don’t just attend together, but do life together. We aren’t perfect but we fight for unity, peace and most importantly, love. I believe our nation should be like that gumbo…different flavors and backgrounds coming together to create something wonderful.

 

Gabriel Wright, along with his wife Perry, started and pastor Gateway Family Church in Birmingham, AL. They have three children.