We mourn for the families of the dead at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. As we grieve it's time to rekindle a conversation about race in America and press for the changes that the Emanuel congregation championed for centuries — changes that also made it a target.
The conversation needs to be inclusive of whites, African Americans, Latinos and every other part of our society. It must honor our different viewpoints but be grounded in data. And it must change attitudes as well as actions and policy.
The face of racism for many is the South Carolina shooter and the terrorist cults he associated with. People of color across America feel less safe and secure because of them.
This was not an isolated event. The shooting occurred in a state represented by a congressman who tried to shout down President Barack Obama during a State of the Union Address. Across the South polarization is up, segregation is up, rhetoric is superheated and meaningful dialogue is near absent. When we tolerate language that dehumanizes people of different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations or political beliefs — when we allow people to debase our institutions of self-governance — then we condone a culture of intolerance that creates terrorists.
But racism is not always a terrorist with a gun.
Subtle racism is the daily experience of many black and brown Arkansans. They face it trying to vote, with the police, on the job, at the doctor, at the bank and at school. But many white Arkansans live in a bubble where racism does not exist because we don't see things like the South Carolina shootings everyday. In multiple surveys, people of color regularly report that racism impacts them daily while whites report that it doesn't exist. That disparity in viewpoints alone is a major social problem.
Racism is so ingrained into our society that discrimination often occurs even without racist intent. Institutionalized racism — policies that create unequal outcomes for people whether those outcomes are intended or not — is shortening the lives and limiting opportunity for millions of people of color as well as whites.
Consider some data: Black and brown children are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school than white children, twice as likely to die in childbirth, twice as likely to be unemployed as adults (even with college degrees), and will earn half of what whites do. They are much more likely to be incarcerated. And for every $141 in savings a white family has, blacks have just $11.
These facts make some people defensive. Many whites think evidence that our society is racially unjust is an attack on them because they know they don't hate anybody. It makes some whites uncomfortable because they know they struggle to get by and they know a lot of other white families do as well. The growing wealth gap and shrinking middle class has exacerbated the problem — it feels like more and more of us are scrapping for less.
Some people of color are uncomfortable with this data as well. It makes some feel ashamed, and others feel hopeless. Many are concerned that whites will simply dismiss the data as evidence of people of color's inferiority. And there's the ever present fear of violence should we try to change it.
These levels of inequity are immoral. Race should not determine destiny. We need to change hearts and minds, but we must also change policy to create opportunity.
Arkansas lawmakers recently put opportunity further out of reach. They made one of the most unfair tax systems in the country worse again by lowering taxes on the wealthy. They cut unemployment benefits by 20 percent. They refused to ensure that money spent on low-income students is used effectively.
None of these actions were taken with racist intent, but they disproportionately hurt people of color. Meanwhile we are the last state that criminalizes being late on your rent, one of only two states with no civil rights commission, and one of only five states without hate crimes legislation that prosecutes terrorists like the South Carolina gunman.
Many are reluctant to talk about race because we fear the conversation will explode. Our society is so segregated that we often have few relationships across racial lines and our communities often see the world quite differently. But we have had these conversations before. Moms of school children started the Arkansas Public Policy Panel where I work in 1963 precisely to have these conversations. Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller had these conversations.
It is not hopeless. Many in our communities have been trying to have these conversations for a long time. At the Panel we are recommitting to these conversations and hope you will join us.
The hate groups of America hope to spark a violent revolution. Let's create a counterrevolution of opportunity by shining a light on our uncomfortable inequities, tearing them down together and building a healthier community led by love.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
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