“Now I truly understand that God is not partial…” Acts 10:34
Opinions, it is said, are like noses — everybody has one. And that’s true of opinions about a subject so touchy that many people prefer to stay away from it — publicly, at least — race.
That is not to say that people won’t talk about race, especially when they’re angry, as many people are and have been over a recently well publicized series of deaths or assaults against blacks while in the custody of police — often white officers. Locally in recent weeks the death, ruled a suicide, of Kindra Chapman in the Homewood City Jail, sparked a protest by the Birmingham chapter of the group Black Lives Matter.
Last year, Sheneque Proctor, another young black woman, died in the Bessemer City Jail. In that case, authorities ruled death was caused by drug overdose, but not before questions were raised by Proctor’s family and members of the community.
Such incidents here and in better publicized cases elsewhere have kept race relations in the news as have similar incidents involving suspects or citizens who were not African-American. Even cases where the police officers themselves were black, like the conviction this week in Huntsville of a black officer for assaulting a white suspect who was being held down by white officers, stir the racial pot.
So it may have come as no surprise when a New York Times/ CBS News poll recently showed that Americans have decidedly negative views about race relations. “Nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse,” the Times reported. “Only a fifth of those surveyed said they thought race relations were improving, while about 40 percent of both blacks and whites said they were staying essentially the same.”
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Head of Education Ahmad Ward read the NYT story. “For years there’s been a large distance between how black people view race relations and how white people view race relations as a whole,” Ward said. “Usually white people see it more favorable that blacks do. I saw that the number has dipped some. …
“It had to be because of what’s been happening over the last five years, really. And I would suggest to you that these instances — it’s not that there’s more of this happening, it’s that because of the current technological age, we are learning about them. This stuff has been going on, and we haven’t known about it. But now, everything is so automatic that it’s brought to the forefront. I think that you have challenges to people’s way of life, or train of thought.”
What may be surprising to some is that despite that poll and a general sense many have that race relations are worsening, the view from Birmingham is more diverse. Locally speaking, it’s not necessarily a person’s race that determines exactly what his or her views on race or race relations will be.
Weld asked a number of professionals in Birmingham for their views on race relations and how attitudes about race figure into the state of the city and the state of the state. Responses were passionate, but nuanced enough to show that race relations here are hardly a black and white issue, so to speak.
Below we present five of the responses to our question, “How much blame can we place on race relations for the current state of Alabama and Birmingham?” The answers were detailed and clearly the product of considerable thought, so our presentation will only minimally interfere with the comments of our respondents.
While their thoughts are hardly the last word on the subject of race relations (we view this as the beginning of as continuing conversation), they provide a place to start the discussion.
David Gespass is an attorney in Birmingham who has been a passionate advocate over the years for social justice. Currently active in Black Lives Matter Birmingham, Gespass was willing to offer his take on how well the races are getting along. “I don’t know that relations are worse or better, so much as different,” he said, before reflecting on a Facebook comment he made about, of all things, the wrestler Hulk Hogan being fired by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., “for his racist rant on a sex video.
“Shows both how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go,” Gespass said. “He got fired. He admits he was wrong to have used the language. That’s more than would have happened when I was a kid or, in Alabama, what would have happened 30 years ago.
“So, now racist language is unacceptable. That means it’s time to deal with racist practice and the ingrained disparities that come from centuries of overt racism. Which is to say, we need to deal with those things that the great majority of white people deny exist.
“As to Kindra Chapman, I think this reflects a rising consciousness particularly, but not exclusively, in communities of color both that police accounts of in-custody deaths or beatings, are not necessarily reliable. That doesn’t meant that they always lie or dissemble, but it does mean that people are going to be a lot more suspicious of their claims than they have been.
“That gets me back to what I said above. Racism today is less frequently overt. Rather, it reflects attitudes that are unconscious. When Hillary Clinton said that white people feel fear when they see an African-American in a hoodie that was a sound bite that opened her to criticism, but was really true. No one, regardless of race, who grew up in this country is unaffected by our racist history and, until we recognize that, we will never overcome it.
“White people who claim not to be racists inevitably are, not consciously, but because they do not understand or see the myriad ways in which being African-American subjects one to challenges that white people do not have. They therefore think those disparities are just normal. Thus, they are racist because they do not combat them and therefore profit from them. Until they become conscious of the disparities, they can honestly believe they aren’t racist, but that doesn’t change their subconscious responses.
“Back again to Kindra Chapman. For those who have experienced police misconduct, who have seen police distort the truth or lie, a public statement from the Homewood PD that she hung herself appears to be a cover-up if it is not accompanied by some level of proof. Those who grew up with Officer Friendly accept the claim without question. That breaks down largely, though not entirely, on racial lines because of the divergent experiences people have had with the police.
“All of that has been amplified by the huge number of videos that we now see of police acting like racist thugs. That doesn’t mean that every cop acts that way, but enough do, and enough are affected by ingrained stereotypes they don’t even recognize or realize exist, that their thuggish behavior overwhelmingly is directed at people of color.
“So, are race relations better or worse now than in the past? Recall that in the era of segregation (let alone chattel slavery), the white Southern aristocracy claimed that relations were just fine. In the north, relations were just as bad, but enforced by redlining instead of legal segregation. Whites were able to convince themselves that race relations were fine, but eventually things exploded, with rebellions in the cities following MLK’s assassination, with mass demonstrations throughout the south. That led to enormous changes, as I noted above, but hardly cured the disease.
“Perhaps now we are at another nodal point, where people will no longer be silent or suppressed in the face of out-of-control police. That doesn’t mean race relations are better or worse, it means that the underlying tensions that have always existed are now bubbling up for all to see. However calm things may appear on the surface, the water is always at 208 degrees.
“One never knows what will cause it to boil over, but it doesn’t take much. I think that is what we are seeing now.
Aubrey Miller has worked in leadership positions in corporations like Baptist Health Foundation, Southern Progress Corporation and for the state of Alabama, and in nonprofits including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the Shelby County Board of Education. He is now senior pastor at Faith Church in the Oxmoor area.
Outgoing but soft-spoken, Miller nevertheless has strong views about race relations, which he sees as a topic of concern and conversation “more prevalent in the city than it is in the state.” Still, he said, that’s not because things are worse than they were.
“I don’t think it has gotten worse. What has happened is, I think, a spotlight has been turned on it. I think expectations… have been great, [but] the millennium of racial harmony, which everybody sort of anticipated with a political change, has not taken place. Because at the root of it, it’s not a racial divide.”
Miller sees divisions between the races as primarily based on two things: economic realities and age-old social mythology.
“We have been taught over the years that the problem is racial disharmony, and that certainly is the way it plays out,” he said. “But it has always been an economic issue and it has continued being an economic issue. The divide is based on financial and you can trace most of the issues that we face to financial roots. And so in Birmingham and the counties that make up the metropolitan area you look at the racial divide… It’s housing division and socioeconomic division, and those are the roots.”
Even if the economics could be equalized, Miller said, “The solution for racial disharmony is truth and knowledge. And we’re struggling with generations of racial stories and manipulation and it’s not going to get immediately better just because the economy got better because we still didn’t get to the root of the cancer or the problem.
“The real root is one-on-one reconciliation. That has to take place and people coming one on one to an understanding that ‘I’ve been lied to for a couple of generations about who my enemies are. What my problems are, what the sources of my problems are.’ And I see great opportunities for change in areas like urban Birmingham. I’m excited. I’m fascinated by what can potentially happen. What is happening right now in the city of Birmingham, the neighborhoods around Birmingham,” he said.
“Millennials are really connecting, and they are not as ingrained with the lie that’s been told to so many people… about your enemy is that Hispanic person who has taken your job or that black person who is going to rape your daughter. … They’re getting to know people of diversity across the landscape because they’re neighbors, because they’re eating together, they’re working together. It’s a one-on-one breakdown of all those generations of myths.”
Despite that, however, Miller acknowledged that even removing economic disparities, if that could be done, will not eliminate the long process of breaking down the centuries of mistrust that stands between the races to some degree. “Once you get the economic playing field sort of leveled out, it’s still going to take some generations to get that stuff out of the system. One time, I had a diesel automobile that ran on diesel, and I stupidly put in super unleaded. Well, it didn’t run very well as long as that was in there. It stayed in there for a long, long time until I eventually took it to the dealer and got all of that unleaded gasoline pumped out and filled it up with diesel, I had a crappy-running car.
“And that’s what we’re facing now: A crappy running community because there’s still a lot of residue from racism that people don’t even understand why they practice, sort of playing its way out. You can solve the economic problems next week, but it’s still going to take some generations to get things fixed.”
The solution on the short term lies with individual effort, Miller said. “We’ve got to be intentional about it. I can’t just sit back as an African-American and say ‘It’s white people’s fault’ or ‘it’s Hispanics’ fault.’ Well, forget who’s to blame. The challenge is to be intentional, right where you stand, right where you live, right where you shop, right where you worship. You change the environment around yourself and don’t just look at a person because they are one color or one national origin and say, ‘I don’t have to relate to them.’ Well, we do.
“The world looks like it’s really big, but it’s really small. And I’m hell-bent on my environment where I live, work and play being a place of as much harmony as I can generate.”
Maury Shevin is an attorney and a shareholder with Birmingham law firm Sirote and Permutt. Asked how much race relations contribute to the current state of affairs in the city and state, he responded with an essay.
“And there it is. The elephant in the room. Just, how do I answer? Will Pollyanna answer for me? Do I answer in terms of how I want life to be in my hometown and state? Shall I answer in aspirational terms? Or, do I answer based on how I feel when the day’s news is full of Black Lives Matter and Judge Roy Moore? Wow.
“We are a peculiar people here in the South, in Alabama and in Birmingham. Actually, Birmingham may be somewhat misplaced. We are the proverbial blue dot in a sea of red — or are we a black dot in a sea of white? Perhaps both.
“The fact is that the majority of the South that doesn’t fit easily into the definition of the “New South” [e.g., Atlanta], is still in a state of general denial — we won’t, we don’t and you can’t make us… But, then, you have to explain Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai, Austal, Google, Boeing…
“The truthful answer to your question is that race relations have everything to do with the current state of affairs in Birmingham and in Alabama; and race relations have nothing to do with our current state of affairs in Birmingham and in Alabama.
“We have a Legislature that controls all and denies home rule to Birmingham and all cities. But, interestingly, this is done by African-American members of the Legislature in concert with white Legislators. They seem content in Montgomery to divide the pie, and eat the pie they’ve just divided.
“We had a Jefferson County Commission that committed highway robbery — a crime for which our people pay daily and will do so for near eternity…and by the way, the crime was committed by our African-American and white commissioners pretty much without regard to race.
“We have wealthy white suburbs which, until very recently, saw their destiny severed from Birmingham. But, interestingly, it is the young African-Americans and whites who are thumbing their collective noses at this division, and have come together to live, work, eat, drink beer, socialize, watch baseball, attend concerts and Art on the Rocks — together — in Birmingham.
“We have troubled Birmingham City Schools — albeit in magnificent new buildings– surrounded by wealthy suburban school districts. So, is this really so different from the rest of America? I think not. Nevertheless, is this clear inequality in education race based? Only someone completely oblivious to our history would say ‘no.’
“So, of course, the problems in every facet of our education system in this city and in this state are related to race. One only need look at the race-based division that still controls the AEA today.
“We have the United Way of Central Alabama working, striving and thinking how to help disadvantaged members of our community. Is this race based? Maybe, but I choose not to think so.
“And, then there are the multitude of civic and religious organizations working every day to improve the quality of life in Birmingham and Alabama — way too many to even begin to name here. Are these race based? I say ‘no.’
“So, what conclusion do I arrive at when I add all of this up to answer your question? I answer ‘Yes, race matters’ and ‘No, it really doesn’t.’ The answer to your question is that we in Birmingham and in Alabama know that race undergirds everything we are and everything we do—and so, it is for that reason, that we work hard, every day, to make sure that race will no longer divide us.”
Ahmad Ward believes that the more substantive aspects of the race relations issue are often overlooked while people focus on easier, more visible hot button topics like the continuing controversy over views of the Confederate battle flag.
“Personally, if you want to fly a flag in your yard, it’s a free country,” Ward said. “I know what it means to me. But I also have had to put up with the Ku Klux Klan having rallies in places and it being okay. That’s part of free speech. … Growing up as a black person, you have to deal with certain things. We’ve had to deal with the Confederate flag for years.
“What happened is, we are so used to creating knee-jerk reactions to things that because Dylann Roof had pictures of him holding the flag, then the flag must be one of the reasons [for the massacre] so let’s get rid of all the flags. Let’s get rid of all the Confederate monuments. Let’s do all this stuff. And then, things will be right.
“And that’s just never how things work,” Ward said. There’s more to the problem of race relations, he noted.
“People just refuse to look at the institutionalized, systematic racism behind most things,” Ward said. “That stuff that Dylann Roof was talking about in his manifesto, you know, ‘taking over the country, raping our women’ — that stuff has been around since black people were freed. That is not new. That is old doctrine. It is part of what’s embedded in race in this country and we just refuse to deal with it.
“So it’s a lot easier for us to take the flag down than to deal with actual issues and have honest conversations about what really happens. We like to deal with effect and not cause. We’re hung up on the effect that there’s black-on-black crime, there’s poverty, there’s drugs, but we never want to talk about how drugs got into the neighborhoods.
“We never want to talk about how redlining created poverty, starting in the ’30s and after the Depression, how marking places where people can live puts people at a disadvantage because it puts them in places where there’s just no growth. We don’t talk about food deserts and how these neighborhoods just don’t have many resources, no grocery stores. We don’t want to deal with these issues.”
Talking about those issues tend to make people uncomfortable, Ward said, with a laugh. “Somebody will be mad at me about it.”
Birmingham, he said, has reached a point where the institutionalized racism is subtle. “Once it was in your face — I don’t like you, you don’t like me — a lot of these things are just kind of built-in things that have been around for a while. You look at the discrepancy of resources between Birmingham public schools and the schools on the outskirts where the wealth is.” Inner city schools may have computers, but they’re old and obsolete, while schools in the suburbs have newer computers and in some cases, put tablets into the hands of every student, he pointed out, connecting that to the fact that little of the wealth in this community is controlled by blacks.
Ward also noted that while Birmingham’s so-called renaissance is a good thing, the media being used to promote this recently improved image for the city often overlook a substantial portion of the population. “You don’t see people of color in them,” Ward said. “This is not just something I’m just noticing. I’ve have people coming to me, going, ‘Have you seen this?’”
He referred, without specifics, to a couple of recent promotional items that make institutions important to black Birminghamians invisible. “When you have a list about what makes up Birmingham and you don’t include the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church?” he asked. “Either you’re doing it on purpose, or you don’t want to deal with it. You know it’s here. People come from out of town who know that place is here.”
And that institutionalized racial inequality goes beyond black-white relations, he said. “There is an obvious push to make Birmingham move to the next level, but it doesn’t seem like it’s including people of color, which is amazing when you consider that the city itself is — what — 68 percent black?
“In a town with that much color in it, there are magazines, periodicals, that come out of this city, where you will not see a person of color. I’m not talking about blacks. I’m talking about Asians. Hispanic, Latino. East Indian. There won’t be a person of color in it. Maybe one or two. This is such a diverse city. We’ve been talking in terms of black and white, but there are so many different people who live here.”
The lack of nonwhite faces in media promoting the city creates a problem for the cultural renaissance going forward. “For those pieces, or videos, or advertisers to really not have people of color in them… that underscores a larger problem about not having to see it, or not having to deal with it, or not having to look at people,” Ward said.
“I think it’s a problem because you have people in town who feel like they’re not being included, so it’s hard for them to get on board. And to push Birmingham where it needs to be, where it should have been 20 years ago, everybody’s got to be a part of it. You need everybody to do that. It’s such a great city.”
Ward acknowledged the much-touted rise in the millennial generation, the young adults who believe in inclusion and believe in the city, but he noted that there are still divisions manifested, among other ways, in a sort of cul-de-sac mentality. There are students in Birmingham-area schools, he noted, who seldom encounter students of another race.
“I mean, Mountain Brook versus Parker,” he said. “They’re both like 98 percent homogenous. When they get out in the real world in other areas and do other things, it’s culture shock. You go to a major American city, anywhere, and you’re going to see some diversity. You’re going to be working with people. And those attitudes that you had in high school, you can’t have them because you’re going to get fired.”
Is the millennial groundswell enough to overcome racial attitudes deeply engrained in local culture? Ward is not sure. “I think people mean well sometimes, or I think there’s an assumption that it’s going to happen,” he said. “You cannot assume that that’s going to happen.”
Even with more inclusive attitudes, the young adults who will one day control the power in the community need to think beyond their own comfort zone, Ward said. “I remember when that age group was leaving this place… Over the last five or six years you see them coming back, or staying and trying to do something here. But this place is more than microbreweries and hanging out on the Southside. There’s more to this place than Avondale and being seen.”
A big part of the issue as Ward sees it, is the reluctance people in general have toward talking about the issues. “We’re going to have to take some chances,” he said. “When things happen, instead of taking sides, you got to start listening to people and hearing what people are saying. … That’s easier said than done because people are naturally defensive.
“But until we start honestly talking about what race has done to this country as a whole, not just this state, we’re going to be stuck. Race is a social construct. But it has been the most successful created thing ever made. It does exactly what it was meant to do and put people in boxes and holes.”
Ward said that doesn’t mean that the solution is being “color blind” and not seeing the value in the differences that make people who they are. “If society could become color blind all the way around we might go somewhere, but we’re not there,” he said.
On the other hand, race need not be a point of division, he said. “If you treat everybody with respect, you don’t have to worry about seeing color. If you treat everybody the way you want to be treated, you don’t have to worry about seeing color because you’re going to do what you’re supposed to do.”
Kathryn D. Morgan is the director of the African-American Studies program, and an associate professor of Justice Sciences at UAB.
She doesn’t believe the post-racial society was ever a realistic notion. “I think race relations have always been strained,” she said. “They’ve gotten better at times, but I think that now, with the election of an African-American president… we are seeing those attitudes expressed without hesitation. They are free to say whatever they want to, call him anything. Be disrespectful to him.”
Morgan said that such attitudes come to the forefront whenever there is a crisis.
“We look at economics and again, I think that anytime there is competition for resources that are scarce — and we’ve gone through that in the last few years — intolerance is always going to be intensified. You’re going to always have more negative feelings toward the ‘out’ group. And so I think you have a combination of things and now you’ve got a black president to blame everything on. He’s responsible for everything. … And he’s also being blamed for the worsening race relations. I’m not sure how that’s possible, except the resentment towards him as a president.
“And it’s getting worse. The viciousness with which people express attitudes makes me a little nervous. … It’s a little scary that people are so free to generalize and stereotype everybody.”
Morgan said that she reads the comments posted by readers on AL.com and they give her pause. “Over and over and over again you hear talk about welfare checks and ‘they just sit at home and collect their welfare checks,’” she said “The lack of sensitivity on the part of many in this area to the killings in Charleston was almost appalling. Many said, ‘So what? They kill people every day in Birmingham.’”
While she does not see such attitudes as a new development, social media makes it easier to make such sentiments widespread, and the Internet makes it possible for people to hide behind avatars and screen names. Moreover, the level of hostility directed at Obama by even other national leaders gives ordinary citizens license to ramp up their own vitriol, she said. “You’ve got leaders that foster that, really encourage those kinds of negative attitudes, from the very beginning of the president’s tenure… And it’s not because they think he’s a bad president. I think it’s more because he’s African-American.”
Morgan believes that blacks and whites see racial issues from divergent perspectives, but that education can bring the races closer together.
Changing attitudes across races is a part of the mission of the African American Studies program at UAB. The program today focuses less on racial victimization than on teaching an understanding of black culture and history, Morgan said. Students are coming to the program from various ethnic backgrounds in an attempt to better understand, she said.
“I think that, if we can educate students at this level, at the university level, I think we can have some hope for tomorrow… We cannot give up,” she said. “We have to be optimistic about creating a better world.”
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