As I've noted previously in this space, I believe fully that my single-parent mother sent her two sometimes-troublesome boys out in the world with the fear that they would get in trouble and embarrass her—or even break a bone or require stitches, as we did perhaps a little too often.
But I'd wager that she rarely, if ever, had the thought when she saw us leave the driveway and turn onto the street that the police might kill us that day.
I happen to know it's true that black mothers have a different take on that because they've told me. It's one of my personal "a-ha" moments from the time I've spent in the Dialogue Circles program. I've had the privilege to be a part of such discussions in a facilitated setting by virtue of my time on the board of Jackson 2000, a nonprofit dedicated to building dialogue around issues of race and ethnicity with the goal of fostering understanding and new relationships.
"The talk" is very real for parents of color, and it's not the same one that most white parents are faced with giving their kids. That's one part of what we mean by "white privilege" in America. But there are others.
As a white person, what "privilege" means isn't necessarily that there's a secret bank account set up in your name at birth or that you get your own special dessert plate in the buffet line at the company's cafeteria.
It means "the system" was set up with you in mind, and it puts fewer barriers in the way of your progress than it does for others.
Both of my parents came from relative poverty—Mom in a country setting in Maryland and Virginia, and Dad in the 'hood in Baltimore. Both of them have worked hard to be successful in their careers and to create comfortable lives for themselves and their families. But it doesn't diminish their personal struggles and triumphs to recognize that the system, in many ways, was designed to help them move toward success. College was accessible, the military offered additional education and economic opportunities, and—perhaps more to the point—they never faced a challenge or a red line over a mortgage or insurance policy or other financial vehicle because of the color of their skin. Fact.
Of course, there were millions of people of color who were productive and successful adults in the same Vietnam-era time and were able to benefit from GI and other benefits while building wealth for their families. Fact. But ask yourself this—can you imagine my parents not getting a loan or being steered away from a neighborhood or being passed over for one the corporate jobs they got when they came out of the military because they are white?
If you're honest with yourself and history, then, of course, you can't. But you can imagine the same thing being a reality for people of color. The 1970s were a time of reactions, not just to Vietnam protests, but to urban rioting in the form of "urban renewal" programs based on "spatial deconcentration" principles that came out of the Kerner Commission reports designed to break up and destroy neighborhoods of color. Those programs dramatically affected the economic security of countless people living in those neighborhoods.
The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (not 1954 or 1932) was a legislative attempt to reduce discriminatory lending practices and make up for some of the egregious ways that banks and governments had done business with peoples' mortgage since the Great Depression. Redlining, race-based mortgage denials or pushing people of color toward subprime options all are barriers to getting good mortgages for good homes.
But that's forever ago, right? Read the headlines: BancorpSouth is facing millions of dollars in penalties in 2016 for racially based loan denials—i.e. recent redlining.
In this day and age, in this country, the color of your skin might determine whether you can get a mortgage. Fact.
In this day and age, in this country, the color of your skin may very well determine how a police officer treats you, and what assumptions are made about your intentions, about your movements and even about whether you are properly exercising your Second Amendment rights. Fact.
Let's say you're a white person who is willing to face those facts. Let's say you believe that access to quality education is important for people to get ahead, and that jobs are critical to the success of troubled neighborhoods. You realize that there are good people who have a harder time of it than you do—even though your life is no doubt tough—and that there's an unfairness to the way the system has been set up in the past, so much so that it still affects our community today.
So ... what do we do about it?
For many white folks, the first step is to be willing to acknowledge that there's a problem, and that the problem runs deep. We need to take civic responsibility for facing the issue—talking about it, encouraging community and political action to address it, and using our individual talents and skills to make it better.
You can start by getting involved in the dialogue. In the wake of the violence in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas—not to mention all the violence and hashtags that have come before—Jackson 2000 will be working with other local groups and individuals in the next few weeks to pull together a community dialogue to address these issues.
We're going to need sincere people with an open mind and a desire to see these challenges from multiple perspectives to participate. There's a whole lot that can be done simply by applying democratic principles and engaging as a community to work toward solutions that lift up everyone.
Follow Jackson 2000 at www.jackson2000.org and watch the Jackson Free Press for alerts about the dialogue events, as well. (To explore how Jackson 2000 does some of this work, visit www.everyday-democracy.org where we get some of our curricula and guidance.)
And if you're reading this before Thursday, July 14, at 6 p.m., please come to the JFP's Town Hall with Dr. Kai Smith of Harlem at Millsaps' Gertrude C. Ford Academic Complex in room AC215. Let's get started now! Email Todd Stauffer at [email protected].