For me, an African-American male in America, I’ve experienced blatant and subtle racism in my life. I have never allowed it to stifle my success though.
My first racial experience was quite introspective. It was an “awakening” encounter—a moment when my consciousness was pricked and my worldview changed forever. This occurred when I was sixteen years old during a stay-in-school internship at WJLA ABC TV-7 in Washington, DC. I would ride the 32- Metro-bus from Alabama Avenue, in Southeast, to the television station on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest. I was fascinated by the dynamics of the bus as I rode from a predominately Black neighborhood to a mostly White area in N.W. The bus went from one-hundred-percent (100 percent) Black to one-percent (1 percent) Black and I represented the one-percent. By the time I arrived at my stop, even the bus driver changed colors.
When I got on the bus in my neighborhood, I saw rundown schools, dilapidated neighborhoods; trash in too many places, poorly landscaped communities, plenty of carry-outs and fast-food “joints”, almost no sit-down restaurants and several liquor stores.
In contrast, when I got off the bus on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest, I saw people walking their dogs, couples walking on the sidewalk— happy; beautifully landscaped lawns, quality businesses and several fine dining restaurants. I saw bikers, and people jogging and I loved it! Then I realized there weren’t many folk who looked like me. Not much has changed today if you ride the 32 from Alabama Avenue to Connecticut Avenue – the south to the north. You can clearly see the race and class struggle in the street names too.
Then some years later when I studied African American culture in seminary, some startling statistics from the American Correctional Association; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Census Bureau; Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed to me that my color still plays a role in my ability to live the “American Dream”.
They showed that the Poverty rate was 26 percent for Blacks; 11 percent (Whites); 14 percent (Asian/Pacific Islander) and 27 percent (Hispanic). Median incomes were $25,000 for Blacks; 45,000 (Asians); 40,000 (Whites) and 26,000 (Hispanics). Of the 1,023,572 inmates in federal and state prisons, 488,000 were Black (48 percent of population); 364,000 White (35 percent of pop) and others 171,000 other or 17 percent. Black youths are 30-times more likely than Whites to be detained for drug offenses. African-Americans have the highest death rate, excluding the elderly.
The disparity among the races is obvious. If you couple this with biased media coverage, what you have is a self-fulfilling prophecy being played out all across America with African Americans being portrayed indirectly as a lesser race and more prone to dysfunction. The statistics confirm that we have not dealt fully with ending segregation and discrimination. Blacks are no longer physical slaves but psychological ones.
Now imagine you are in your geography class back in grade school. Your Caucasian teacher is asking you to look at the “industrialized” “First World” countries, juxtaposed against those countries that are seen as “developing”, “unindustrialized” or “Third World”. You are a little African America girl and you raise your hand. Your teacher allows you to speak and you say: “Why is it that the Third World consists of the darker-skinned peoples like Africans, Brazilians, Haitians, Indians, Arabs and Asians, and the First World countries have many of the lighter-skinned peoples like the English, Germans, Spaniards, French, and Americans?” The teacher, perplexed, looks again at the globe, and responds, “Sweetheart, that’s just the way the world is.” Through your eyes, something is wrong with this organization, but through the teacher’s eyes, that’s just the way life is.
Have you ever examined the globe? The countries above the equator are Northern Hemisphere (mostly “First World), and below, Southern Hemisphere (mostly “Third World”). In space, scientists tell us there is no such thing as north, south, east and west. These are human measurements. There is no time, no month, or labels. Space just is. When you descend from the splendor of the infinite to the impropriety of the finite, you find classifications, stigmas, and cultural biases that keep the world separate and unequal.
We have a long way to go to solve the race problem in America and the world. How do we create Dr. Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community where we sit at a round table of mutuality and diversity, not a board room table of exclusivity?
My first suggestion is that we must be aware of the problem. We have to raise our level of consciousness. We have to listen more, read more and think more. Then we will begin to see and hear mother culture’s flaws and work to change them.
Second, we all need more exposure to other nationalities and ethnicities. If you’ve ever spoken to a well traveled person in the military or some other service, you find in many instances that their experiences changed their perspective. They tend to be progressive and open-minded. Many I have spoken with said they witnessed thousands of non-Americans living by a different code. They experienced different diets, saw different religions, different customs, and different mores. The lesson for them is that life had to be much bigger than one religion’s exclusive claim. We all need a heavy dose of multi-culturalism so we can see that our way, our belief, is not the “end all-be all”.
Echoing the thoughts of Dr. King, we are all a part of a beautiful symphony of sisterhood and brotherhood. And science confirms this fact as well. Studies tell us that we are all 99.9 percent alike biologically. Yes, we have to shed our individual arrogance and learn more about other people, places and things.
Third, we have to let go of superiority syndromes and understand that systems may be superior to other systems (Democracy is brilliant in theory but flawed in praxis) but there are no superior and inferior races. We cannot subjugate other peoples based on a premise that our way is the ultimate way. We cannot force nations to succumb to our will because we feel we have a mandate from God or some other source to make the world like us.
Solution four, we must develop a new story that embraces all people. We cannot accept a story that is built on the notion of dominance. Mother Culture is “the song of the universe.” Her tune is similar all across the world but based on where you live and what you learn and are exposed to, you sing a variation of her song. Therefore, we must find a song that embraces diversity instead of erases! This song is like listening to jazz or to a symphony where many instruments play their part; each one important; each one contributing in its own way. And when it all comes together, it is beautiful music— a polyphony of sight, sound, color, motion and emotion. We have the power to change or world! We must deconstruct and reconstruct any mythology that divides instead of unites.
Then perhaps we can begin to build a world where peace and justice are the order of the day. We can build a world where people use their intelligence, not their tribal instincts to solve problems. We can build a world where people will not live distant and in fear of the other. We can build a world without the “us against them” mentality but a world that embraces the “we are together” reality. This will be a day when goodness and conscientiousness will not be brutal forces leading to more and more shameful crucifixions, but a time of healing and understanding as we celebrate life, that great web of interdependence of which we are all a part.
By Rev. John T. Crestwell, Jr
He serves as the Minister of Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church.
He is also an adjunct professor at Potomac College in Washington, DC, teaching Comparative Religion, African American History, and Public Speaking.
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