“Systemic racism” is a term has been in the news a lot of late.
I remember an incident during exam week, about 1990, when a local resident called me to report that two Black teenagers in a car that had a BGA decal had been seen driving around her neighborhood.
After she described them, I told her that I knew them and that they were good kids and they would not bother anybody or anything.
“We don’t care,” she replied. “They have no business here. They don’t belong here, and we don’t want them around here.”
I assured her that I would address the matter.
After I called them into my office, I told them of the white woman’s complaints. I also said that I did not think for one second that they were up to any mischief.
They said that between exams they were just driving around town.
“We just like to look at nice houses,” one explained.
It saddened me that I had to tell them they had to be careful about where they went under certain conditions only because of the color of their skin. I emphasized that this white woman and others like her were wrong, but, unfortunately, they would be the ones to suffer too much of the time.
They thanked me for trying to help.
While it was sad that two Black kids could not drive down a public street just to look at “nice houses” — the likes of which they hoped to be able to afford one day — without being suspected of sinister motives, some things have not changed much in 30 years.
Systemic means “pertaining to or affecting the entire body.”
When I was younger, I thought prejudice toward black people was mainly confined to the South. But as I traveled and met people from other sections, I found that not to be true.
While some may say that we are not a racist country, marches and protests about racial issues say the opposite.
Also, we need to remember that our country was founded by protesters and the First Amendment guarantees us the right to assemble peaceably “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Of course, vandalism and looting should not be tolerated. And even though the vast majority of these assemblies have been peaceful, some have not. Those are the ones that tend to get media coverage because a bunch of people standing around with signs or walking down the street ceases to be newsworthy very quickly.
While counter-protests are just as legal, a convoy of large trucks filled with private militia members wearing body armor, carrying automatic weapons and trying to intimidate marchers is hardly peaceful.
I have heard more than one minster say, “My job is not only to comfort the afflicted but also to afflict the comfortable.” That last part of phrase is the function of protest. The idea is to make those in power uncomfortable.
As one leader said during the civil rights protests of the 1960s, “You cannot just ask those in power for reform. You must demand it.”
Current protests in every part of our country are demands for reform. Those in power need to recognize that some citizens do not have equal standing in regard to justice, education, economics, employment, housing and elsewhere.
Just look at history. Reform almost never comes from the largesse of those in power without demands from below.
Where would we be today if the English colonists had not protested, if women had not been willing to be arrested and force-fed as they demanded the vote, if Rosa Parks had not been willing to face arrest over a bus seat?
And we in the South have an additional onus. Too many Southerners need to stop fighting the Civil War. They need to recognize that slavery was the primary issue and stop inventing causes that do not agree with historical evidence. They need to admit that the Confederacy aspired to be a country founded upon the principles that black people were an inherently inferior people whose normal position in life was one of servitude.
Also, organizations that perpetuate and promote the “Gone With the Wind” image of the antebellum South and give heroic stature to those who fought in the conflict should disband themselves and work toward unifying our country.
I was doing graduate work in the early 1960s, when the centennial of the Civil War was being recognized. A student asked one of our history professors about the “celebration” of the war. He answered, “Celebration? Why would anyone want to celebrate folly.” Yet some Southerners are still doing it.
Well, are there any answers to all this? First of all, we should recognize what will not work.
One of our presidential candidates is touting a law-and-order solution. That was tried against crime, drugs and political protest beginning in the 1960s and it did not work. It may suppress the problems for a time, but it will not solve them.
Our state legislators chose the law-and-order route to deal with the protesters who had been camped out on the capitol grounds for several weeks. They had been peaceful, with few citations. But our legislators, in special session, made what they were doing felonies, with long jail time. The protesters left, but you don’t solve problems by criminalizing peaceful protests.
The U.S. incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other developed country. Our prison population mostly consists of people of color.
I’m not sure there is a silver bullet answer to racism in our country. However, there is one thing of which I am certain. Both sides are going to have listen to the other.
Protestors at the state Capitol asked to speak with the Governor, as did the Legislative Black Caucus. He would speak with neither, saying, according to news reports, that the meetings would not be productive.
Athletes in many college and pro sports have come to the front in the current wave of protests. They have refused to “shut up and dribble.” And, unlike last fall, coaches and owners are beginning to listen to them.
Games have been cancelled. Schedules changed. UT football coaches changed a practice time so some players could lead a peaceful march in Knoxville. Duke University placed symbols on their football helmets in support of the movement.
When pro football players kneeled during the national anthem last fall, the president called them SOBs and wished the owners would fire them all. This is a textbook example of how not to find a solution.
In spite of poor examples from all quarters, our city and county have opted for a positive process.
The Fuller Story initiative, which produced the new markers and the forthcoming statue of a U.S. Colored Troops soldier for the square, has been on-going for several years. The special committee to examine our county seal recommended unanimously that the Confederal flag be removed.
Cooperation always brings better results than contention. However, there is much left to be done as recent reports of racial bullying in our schools show.
The search for solutions to systemic racism in our county and country will require years of diligent effort. We need to remember a Chinese proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”