Can We Overcome?

One day, when Amiri Airey was in seventh grade, he was invited to his teacher's house in West Hartford. Airey and another student set off from Hartford on their bicycles. They never made it beyond the city limits. A West Hartford cop stopped them at the town line and asked where they were going. When they said they were going to visit their teacher, "He said, 'No you're not. We don't want you here.'"Airey is now 42-years-old, but he's never forgotten that day.At 69, Harry Hartie recalls his first racist encounter as if it happened yesterday. It was during the Depression. "I was 4 years old when white sales people would demand that my mother buy stuff she did not want. They would also threaten her with words about paying bills. My mother was always worried about me getting too sassy with them. She did not want any trouble."Hartie recalls talk of lynchings in Glastonbury and South Windsor. "When I would deliver milk before school every morning for Kaeggan's Milk Company, I would hear black people talk about the hangings in a hush. All of that stuck with me through the years," Hartie says. "This was not in the South. This happened right here in Hartford."Many years have passed and it would be nice to think this blatant racism is ancient history. But the experience of most people of color suggests that while racism may not always be blatant, it persists -- and it shapes the way people interact with each other.In 1989, Airey decided to conduct his own research on the topic of racism. Armed with a tape recorder, he approached African-Americans from every walk of life and asked them about their experiences. Surprised at people's willingness to talk, he was even more surprised by what they said."I talked to everyone, from lawyers to bus drivers, and no matter what level they were on, they all felt they were not given the same opportunities," says Airey. "They shared this fear of, if they walked into a restaurant or the lobby of a building, how white folks would perceive them. They were always conscious of who they were. It surprised me."The problem of racism -- in this case, the relations between whites and African-Americans -- remains one of the most troubling and deep-seated problems in our society. Policies designed solve the race problem, from the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 to affirmative action programs to laws punishing racially motivated crimes, have been put in place. Yet the problem persists. With racism so entrenched, the prospect of overcoming it, no matter how much we confront it, seems dim indeed.An African-American can enter an office building, carrying a briefcase and wearing an Armani suit, and still be told by the receptionist that "deliveries are 'round the back." And white people who see an African-American with a Harvard degree and a good job, particularly a job they themselves want, still point to affirmative action, not talent or experience, as the reason the African-American was hired in the first place.We've tried raising awareness. We've introduced the idea of politically correct language and expanded school curricula to include African-American history. Diversity training seminars have become commonplace in virtually every profession, and public service announcements aiming to "erase the hate" are broadcast daily. And yet, when Rodney King stood up and asked why can't we all just get along, his question was greeted with silence."Whenever I speak someone invariably asks me about the notion of institutional racism and makes the point that, quite apart from what individual people feel in their hearts and minds, institutions like schools, like the way in which we elect people to office, can have the effect of perpetuating racial hierarchy," says Harlon Dalton, professor of law at Yale University and author of Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks & Whites (Doubleday)."In retrospect, I wish I'd taken somewhat greater care in the book to articulate what I see as the connection between personal transformation and social change. I think people are pretty vague and imprecise when they talk about institutionalized racism. The point I make these days is while institutions have a life of their own, they're also creatures shaped by human beings."In short, blaming the system for perpetuating racism is a cop out. It gives people an excuse to feel powerless to make change. So when people, weary of the debate about policy ask 'What more can we do?' the answer Dalton gives is very simple: Find common ground and stand on it together. For Dalton, it's singing in the Salt 'n' Pepper gospel choir in New Haven. But it could be something as basic as inviting a colleague over for dinner.As trite as that sounds, this simple answer goes to the heart of why, despite all our apparent programmatic progress, stereotypes and racism still exist. Simply put, we don't know each other. "How can you have a discussion about race relations when you have no relationships?" says Richard Sugarman, founder of the Connecticut Forum, a corporate supported organization that organizes discussions about "hot button" topics."We can talk forever about race relations, about the fears and apprehensions, but unless we can put those people together, sitting together at dinner, meeting with people from different races and have real interactions, thousands of hours of talking does not get any attention," says Sugarman. "All the time I ask people, 'When was the last time you had someone of another race in your home to have dinner?'"Dalton says the same thing comes up when he lectures on racism. "When ever I speak to people about issues of race, invariably a white person in the audience will ask, 'Where do I find black people? In my daily life they just aren't there.' That's a statement about the way we are segregated."There have been plenty of attempts to legislate integration. Most have failed. The Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation suit has yet to result in greater racial integration locally. The primary response of both black and white parents has been to protest the idea of busing. They question why their kids should have to leave their communities to obtain a decent education. Others question why we live in separate communities to begin with, and stress more affordable housing in the suburbs as the answer.But frankly, many people don't really care if their communities are integrated or not. They want a nice place to live in a safe area, with good schools, period. "People want to be with people who look like them," says Airey. "I don't perceive racism if someone doesn't want to live next door to us. It's when someone denies you opportunity."Airey, for instance, recalls applying for a job as a cook in Glastonbury. The restaurateur was impressed with Airey's culinary knowledge over the phone and keen to meet him. He told Airey the job was still available if Airey wanted to come down for an interview. Airey drove straight over. The second the restaurant owner saw him, Airey says, his face changed. The position, which had been vacant just an hour before, had been filled."There was a time in this country where middle class blacks started achieving, and with that came the idea we could blend. That perception has been blown away," says Airey. "We moved into suburbs that, for the most part, have been hostile."Hartie says that subscribing to the old you-just-need-to-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and you can have the American dream theory is foolish. "Too many of us are bought off thinking that we are going to gain something. Many are handkerchief head-wearing blacks with a slave mentality," says Hartie. "When a person understands that racism in America is about maintaining a position or class, then you understand that power between the races is maintained through racism."Racism, as Hartie and Airey see it, is all about power. Whites have it and they're not about to give it up. Confronted by racism so many times, Airey decided to give up his dream of being a chef and set a new goal. He now runs his own business selling incense and African arts and crafts. "You can't get a piece of the pie by trying to bit of someone else's edge," he says.Indeed, many believe that building the political and economic base of the African-American community is the only way to deal with the problem. Why hope for other people's table scraps if you can set your own banquet? "After a period of time, I resigned myself to knowing that I was going to free myself, nobody was going to free me. I was going to be independent. Anybody who tried to step on my feet, I will step back on them," says Hartie. "I hate the song 'We Shall Overcome' with a passion. If we ever think that the idea that we shall overcome some day does not charge us with doing something about racism ourselves, we are sadly mistaken."Of course, whenever people of color talk about building their own businesses, critics seize on it as an example of self-segregation. Rarely do the people leveling such critiques pause long enough to notice that, in fact, whites are also segregated and have never displayed much interest in integration.There is one crucial distinction, however. "Whites can isolate themselves from the black experience, create an all-white community to live in and they don't really have to deal with anything else unless they want to," says Airey. "We can isolate ourselves in a ghetto, but we have to go into white America to achieve some of our dreams."The term "white America" is interesting because most whites in America don't identify themselves in terms of race. For African-Americans, this country's history of slavery and Jim Crow laws has a distinct and very personal connection, a connection that for most white Americans just is not there.Perhaps that's why, when President Clinton issued an apology for slavery, Newsweek wondered if an apology was really necessary. It was, the magazine mused, so long ago and not every white was a slave-owner. African-Americans, meanwhile, wondered why the concept of an apology was even being questioned.The U.S. government apologized to Japanese Americans for imprisoning them in internment camps during World War II and paid $20,000 per person in reparations. And didn't Germany apologize to the Jews for the Holocaust? Meanwhile, any discussion on slavery is likely to get a defensive reaction from most whites: If everyone keeps looking back how are we ever going to move forward?Hartie has very little sympathy for whites who say they were not the "perpetrators" of racist acts committed by their ancestors. " Even if they [whites] had not done it, they still embrace it because racism is white people's problem. Racism is really carried on through denial," says Hartie. "Most white people deny that they are racist. When we talk to each other, we do not open up and say what is on our minds."As a result, notes Dalton in his book Racial Healing, most conversations about race end up being more carefully worded than instructive."I suspect that many white folk shy away from owning America's race problem because they recognize that it is a steady source of discomfort, anxiety, and uncertainty," writes Dalton. "Many suffer from race weariness as it is. They fear that the struggle is never-ending, and are of the view that nothing we have tried to date has worked."Yet, adds Dalton, the idea of striving toward a "color blind" society is misconstrued. "That people come in different colors is not a problem, nor are racial differences necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, they may well provide an important counterforce to mindless assimilation. What needs changing is the negative value our society places on racial difference, and its use of race as a basis for maintaining a social hierarchy."Despite a few celebrated incidents such as the Rodney King beating or the O.J. Simpson case, racism has grown more subtle and insidious. When studies show that African-American motorists are pulled over by police more frequently than whites, or when African-Americans describe being followed by store detectives everytime they go shopping, too often no one says anything.A white person probably wouldn't read anything into a long wait to be seated at a restaurant, or the fact that the table was in the back, near the kitchen, for instance. But given the history of racism in this country, African-Americans can't help but notice and question why this happens to them."At what point do you let little things like that bother you? At what point do you go off on a person because you think they're being racist?" says Airey. The answer, for most people, is you pick your battles. Airey didn't say much when he noticed that a restaurant he worked at only employed people of color in the kitchen, not as waitstaff, because he worked as a chef so it didn't matter much to him. But he wrote a letter to management to complain about memorabilia that depicted African-Americans as Sambos and other unflattering characters. The restaurant removed it all immediately. Until Airey pointed it out, no one had ever noticed.That's why it's important to speak up. Still, Airey says, "I can't be optimistic about a racism free society. There are individual pockets of people who have gotten along, [and] it's always been that way, but it's this big entity out there and it's overwhelming and at this point I don't know that I care enough. It's always black people having to make white people feel what it's like, which brings about guilt, which leads to fear and resentment, which brings us back to the beginning."No doubt about it, dealing with racism is tiring. Even for someone like Sugarman, who has made it a personal mission to try to bring people together. Growing up Jewish in the Jim Crow south of Richmond, Virginia, the 49-year-old investment banker "saw a lot of prejudice."Sugarman organizes discussions of racism today to foster greater understanding and tolerance. And for his efforts, some dismiss him as "the ultra-liberal white guy." Others view his efforts with suspicion. "They seem to be asking themselves, why are you really doing this or what are you doing here?" says Sugarman.Knowing how entrenched most people's views are, Sugarman's main hope is that the next generation will grow up without the prejudices of their parents. Students who are active with the Connecticut Forum created The Student Exchange Forum in 1993, hosting annual conferences on racism. E.R.A.S.E. (Eliminating Racism And Stereotypes Everywhere) formed by the students of Renbrook and Hartford Public High School is another organization that was born out of the forum.Will all this have an impact?"Unfortunately, there are no guarantees," Dalton writes of everyone's collective efforts to eradicate racism. "We are trying to climb out of a hole that we spent three hundred years digging. But I have to believe that by focusing on the problem together, as equal partners with equal responsibility, we can harness the wit, the will, and the energy to create a new day."Dalton admits to being an optimist, but while it may seem as if one person can't make much of a difference, remember Rosa Parks was just one woman who sat down at the front of a bus. Her simple act of defiance helped launch the civil rights movement. We may not be home, but whether everyone knows it or not, we're all on the same bus now.


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