21st Century and Race in America

By Edwin Buggage

America’s Original Sin

Racism in America is nothing new; from its inception it has played a part in shaping racial behavior and policies for centuries. Conversely, there’s also been a response where there have been those both Blacks and Whites who have been committed to fighting back this scourge that is a stain on a country founded on all people having the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We are again at a crossroads of where the U.S. will stand at this time in its history as issues of race and racism are once again in the forefront of conversations around the nation. We have seen an escalation in all things racial since Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. His rise some would argue has ridden on a wave of racially charged incidents and language that has not been seen in decades. If we were to examine some of the rhetoric it seems that we are in a time warp confused about whether it is 2018 or 1918; with the latter being a sad time in the nation’s history where segregation and the lynching of Black bodies from trees were a way to keep Blacks in their place. This nadir in the history of the U.S. also saw some of the vilest racial rhetoric spewed by many Whites from those at the bottom rungs of society, to those who occupied positions of power, to the KKK, who were at their most powerful at the time.

Today America is in the midst of the un-civil war, where the gap of political polarization is widening. This is something that not only threatens racial relations, but democracy as we have come to know it in this country. It is in this time that the U.S. needs to re-examine a few of the words that appear in the Preamble to the Constitution “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union establish, justice, and insure domestic tranquility.” We must ask ourselves what that means for America in the 21st Century.

Trumpism is the New Normal

In recent times race and racism is a topic some would rather ignore than talk about in a frank and open way. This practice of avoidance hasn’t gotten us any closer to solutions. Bart Everson is a founding member and past President of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, a columnist for Mid-City Messenger, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. He is currently serving as chair for the Green Party of New Orleans.

“It seems at first blush racism is obviously worse with Trump’s rhetoric. Since he’s come into power it is bringing out the hardcore old-fashioned racist. The Nazi, White supremacist types; they are not trying to dress it up or hide. It seems he has given them the confidence to say what they want without fearing any repercussions,” states Everson.

But he also believes that the recent rise in racism among Whites did not start with Trump’s ascendance and was always there taking many different forms, “Some have pretend racism disappeared all of a sudden and was no longer an issue of importance especially among White Americans, maybe they have this luxury or fantasy because it does not impact their lives in a direct way; but I would assume people of color were a bit more cognizant of the hate mongering and racial bias that goes on in their everyday lives.”

Everyday Bias: Starbucks, Blacks and Boycotts

This everyday bias recently came to a head when two African-American men in Philadelphia were arrested at a Starbucks when the store manager called the police on them while they were waiting to have a meeting with a business associate. This incident was captured on video and went viral. Starbucks in response decided to recently take a day closing its stores early to give the first of what they call sensitivity training so that these incidents would not happen again.

Dana Smith works in the mental health field and has lived in multiple states across the U.S. and regularly uses Starbucks as a satellite office space and to relax with friends. She has friends and associates of different races and feels the day of training is a good thing, but that the organization is not as much the problem as individuals who feel when they see Blacks they assume the worse and overreact. Making her point she says, “The employees of Starbucks spent a day to do this training; any training you can get is wonderful. As far as the boycott I disagree, and think the focus is misdirected. Starbucks in their official policy that discriminates against Blacks; it was the individual manager who made the decision to call the police. And while it is a good first step for the company as a public awareness piece and conversation starter, I don’t believe it will change many of the White employees at Starbucks of who have prejudices and negative feelings about Blacks because they are so ingrained in American society.”

All Words Matter

Recently, Actress and Comedian Rosanne Barr had her hit TV show cancelled because of a tweet about former top Obama Aide Valerie Jarrett, likening her to if the Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes had a baby. Much of this type of rhetoric online was also the case during much of the Obama Presidency where he and his wife were both attacked, called monkeys and other racial epithets. And the one with one of the largest bullhorns attacking the legitimacy of Barack Obama and the Birther Movement is oddly enough Donald Trump, who began his climb to the highest office in the land clinging to this falsehood that President Obama was not born in the U.S.

This sort of ignorance is something that is troubling to Xavier University Professor Robin Vander, where some of her work focuses on race. “I believe we are at a tipping point where a crisis is coming on. It is not just about language, some of this has led to violence,” says Vander. “Look at what happened in Charlottesville. It is a clear reflection of the language, the discourse and the current administration that licensed and unleashed people’s fear which is being acted out.”

She says while some strides have been made there is still a long way to go to eradicate racism in America, “It is willful ignorance at play and is part of a pattern in this country that for every stride forward on the racial front there is a backlash.” Continuing Vander says we must begin to fix the root causes of racism if the society is to move past it, “I would suggest people read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, because I think we cannot any longer underestimate how deeply woven racism is in the fabric of society. These issues are not new, we have never addressed race in a way to move beyond this social construct once and for all.”

Confederates Closer to Home

During the past administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the prior City Council made the decision to remove several Confederate Monuments. This was a flashpoint in racial relations in New Orleans as council meetings as well as in the media and online things got heated on both sides of the issue. So much so that the statues were removed it was not publicly announced and when it was done there was heavy security by NOPD.

Everson has been a grassroots activist for decades and published a piece in the Mid-City Messenger addressing this issue. “It is a great example of how true leadership comes from the grassroots, so it is my understanding this campaign started to remove the monuments started with grassroots activism take Em Down NOLA. Mitch then took their cue and it just so happen to be a political opportunity for him as well. But I think it took the momentum they had built and took it over the edge and the former Mayor and the City Council used their political power to make it happen.

Everson says he was surprised when he saw groups of people coming out waving confederate flags, led by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and other supporters of keeping the monuments. “It was shocking and troubling to see people in New Orleans and waving confederate flags. This is something I have not seen very much in New Orleans in the past 20 years. I didn’t grow up here to have the same associations; I never got to talk to anyone pro monument until after they’d been taken down. I disagree with these people having an uncritical response to change. People I spoke to who have a fondness in my opinion had not thought through what they’d symbolized and the history of how the monuments were put up.”

Finding A Place of Peace in America

Slavery was America’s Holocaust and alongside the genocide of the Native Americans, its greatest sin. Dana Smith who has traveled throughout Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean says the confederate monuments have no place in a City that’s multi-racial and represents the worse time in America’s history. These people in her mind were traitors and not patriots and should not be celebrated.

Speaking of her travels to Germany where Hitler and the Nazi’s led a reign of terror during World War 2, that included the Holocaust where there was the murder and slaughter of six million European Jews. “There are no statues of Hitler in Germany, instead of them having statues of the Nazi’s they have the survivors of the holocaust. I think that can create a different type of conversation among the country as opposed to having the oppressor and their symbols being showcased on public land. It can say as the Jews often say, ‘Never Again’ would we as a society accepts these atrocities.”

Moving toward Solutions

While it is important that we understand the problem of race, it is time to move towards solutions. One of the biggest two things that is important is overcoming the fear and ignorance that arguably are the two key ingredients that creates racial animus. “Educating people and putting them in safe spaces to have these conversations are important if we are to confront and combat racism,” says Professor Vander.

To further illustrate her point she says, “I was in grad school as a teaching fellow in N.C. Chapel Hill. The first time I taught a class called ‘The Black Experience in America, students were silent. They were afraid, so I took a stack of index cards in the context of this class what is your greatest fear and the other side what is your greatest pleasure in this class? Many were afraid of upsetting others are things getting volatile. These are the White kids fearing saying something stupid or being attacked or called racist.”

Dana Smith agrees and says Blacks cannot always be offended because Whites do not know that some of the things they may say are racist. And while the outrage is justified that we must not always be emotional and irrational, but use these moments not only to teach individuals, but in the case of Rosanne Barr, but the society-at-large that certain types of language is not acceptable.

Vander, who was chosen last summer to facilitate a four-part series of conversations on race sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities, says more of these conversations need to take place. “I found these conversations as they went on to be very helpful, because these were places where all people could talk about their thoughts on race and at the end respect the different perspectives. For it is not very often that there are spaces people can have honest and open dialogs about race without it being overly emotional or people being afraid to be offensive. So, this was quite refreshing, and I feel should be something that continues.”

Black and White and the Future of New Orleans and America

As the City continues to reflect and look back on 300 years and say there are great things this City should celebrate. But as it relates to issues of race New Orleans continues to have problems surrounding equity, fairness and justice.

Bart Everson who has a daughter in elementary school and he and his wife live a very integrated life; is somewhat pessimistic about the future of the City unless there are systematic and structural changes to address the inequities. “I worry my daughter will not have a New Orleans to live in. The focus should not only be on the City 300 years of looking back; but can we even imagine will the City even be here 300 years from now. This question should be governing or at least informing everything we do; finding ways of living that we address issues of equity and social justice.”

Today the City is at another historical moment electing its first female mayor LaToya Cantrell, and questions abound about how she will govern, and will she be able to in some ways bridge the wide divided that is race in New Orleans? “I supported LaToya and I endorsed her publicly and I have high hopes that she will do great things. She comes from the community activist background, so I would think that she would understand engaging the community “says Everson.

Much of what will happen in the areas of race on a local and national level remains to be seen. But solutions will begin with people seeing each other as fellow humans and that difference does not mean deficient. This is the true starting line if New Orleans and the world can get to the finish line of all people being treated equal. This does not simply lie at the doorstep of whoever is the president, mayor or any elected leaders. It begins with everyday people, ordinary people, listening to each other and respecting each other, and working together to become extraordinary.

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