Lately, our weeks have been haunted by incidents that are hard to explain, that are hard to fathom happening to one of our own. Lately, we have heard divisive rhetoric and seen acts that have divided us. But it seems like we haven’t had a real opportunity to talk about the real issues because we have not made it past the clamoring to always be “correct.” Before I get much further into this post, I want to warn you up front that this may make you feel uncomfortable and you must have an open-mind to continue reading. Because this post is about fixing the canyon that separates our society and not about dividing it further. Because, lately, I have seen racism.
The last time I was writing about Dan Gilbert, I was discussing the excitement that surrounds the madness of the bid for Amazon’s HQ2. This past week, Dan Gilbert was on CNBC to discuss (and prop-up) Detroit’s bid for Amazon, but in the midst of the positivity about the City he loves, he was forced to discuss the ‘vile’ voicemails that he received from people as a reaction to LeBron James calling Donald Trump a “bum” (which by the way was well-deserved). Gilbert said he “received voicemails after LeBron tweeted that were some of the most vile, disgusting, racist” he has ever heard. He went on to say, “there’s an element of racism that I didn’t realize existed in this country this much.” I think much of America has this same thought. That racism is taboo and a thing of the past, whether they choose to ignore it or just don’t really know what is happening elsewhere in their cities.
I was lucky enough to see Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta speak a couple of weeks ago about the National Campaign Against Racism. She began working on this program when she was still working at the Center for Disease Control. She spoke about the three levels of racism (institutionalized, personally-meditated, internalized), but focused much of her attention on Institutionalized Racism, as this is something that the City Planner and Public Health professionals of the future can truly impact. “We have to be alarmed…” she said, which I think is pretty clear if you simply look at the health of our inner-cities and the police incidents we have seen happening around the country for years. Camara used a cliff and the current make-up of our medical system to speak about how institutionalized racism and hate impacts us all. She uses this cliff metaphor to describe the health disparities in our country and how pushing everybody away from the cliff will make our society stronger, not weaker, and in turn would make our healthcare costs go down. The metaphor goes like this…
There is a cliff that has an ambulance at the bottom for those running through life toward the cliff. There isn’t much more to solve the problem pushing these people off the cliff, but at least there is something at the bottom to keep the hope for survival alive. The other cliff with the less-fortunate doesn’t have an ambulance at the bottom, i.e. an example of slow ambulance response in the inner city.
To save more lives, the more-fortunate (predominantly white population) have safety net programs and secondary healthcare added, which creates a net that catches most falling towards the bottom of the cliff where the ambulance is waiting. The other cliff where the less-fortunate are running through life towards the cliff, there is still no healthcare, or there is a net with a lot bigger holes.
Finally, society decides to build a fence at the top of the cliff (think vaccines). This Primary Care and Prevention stops those that are more fortunate from falling off the cliff all-together. The less-fortunate, they have a weak fence or no fence at all.
Now, all of these interventions are based on healthcare alone, but what about the issues that push people closer to the cliff in the first place, or have people moving towards the cliff faster. These issues, and the lack of access to the healthcare in the first place, are the issues caused by institutionalized racism. One of the many examples that immediately placed people closer to the cliff than others was redlining, which became illegal barely 40 years ago. Redlining made it nearly impossible for a low-income or black person to qualify for a mortgage for a better home. At the same time, access was quick and simple for the others and was what drove the development of our Nation’s suburbs. Soon, neighborhoods became undesirable and left room for gang-activity and crime to grow and schools to weaken, pushing those left behind closer to the cliff. Until there is further intervention to push these people back away from the cliff, there will be disparities and racism. Think about it, a kid in Metro Detroit might grow up thinking that those in the poor neighborhoods of Detroit are dangerous and poor, and it is hard for the kid to not relate those negative attributes to race because over 80% of the population in these neighborhoods is black. I don’t believe this kid is inherently racist, there is just the institutionalized racism that exists in their brain.
I was reminded of a situation early this year that I found myself in that deeply taught me what privilege I have, without even earning it. I was reminded because the friend, and fellow classmate, on the other end of the situation was also in the Camara Jones presentation and turned around during it to put his hand on my shoulder and sincerely thank me. I knew exactly what he was referring to. My friend is a Caribbean, Black American attending graduate school at Georgia Tech to earn a Master of City and Regional Planning degree, with which he wants to focus on environmental issues and climate change. He and I attended a concert in April, which was a blast, but on the walk home, suddenly nature called and my friend had to urinate with no public restrooms in sight. Without thinking, he began to urinate into a bush on the side of a busy Atlanta highway. Admittedly, it was a poor choice, and we both should have had the foresight to find him a better spot. Immediately, a police officer pulled up with his lights on. The officer got out of the car and asked my friend what he had been doing. My friend was scared out of his mind, clearly never having been in trouble with the police before. He quickly apologized again and again, as the officer was asking him if he had anything on him and as I stood there in disbelief. My friend said he didn’t have anything, but the officer apparently didn’t believe a kid who was nearly crying and putting up zero fight, turned him around, and handcuffed him. Then he put him in the back of the car to take him in, for urinating in public. Not knowing what else to do, but understanding how serious this could be and knowing how much my friend has going for him, I asked the officer to stay outside of the vehicle for a moment to talk to me. I told the officer how much my friend had going, that he is a great person, and basically begged him to let him go. The officer thanked me and went in the car. A couple of minutes later, which felt like an eternity, the officer rolled down the window to tell me I could leave, but I declined and said I would be waiting. The officer called me back over and said that he would be giving my friend only a city ordinance citation, thankfully.
Why did this situation make my friend turn around and thank me? Why did this situation make me believe in my White Privilege? I do not believe that I would have been handcuffed if I were in the same situation and I do not believe I would have been put in the back of the police car. And I truly believe that talking to the officer outside of the vehicle helped my friend get off. There are two factors here… It is likely that a black adult would not feel comfortable approaching an officer like I did if they were not in trouble themselves. And it is likely that had I not been white, the officer would not have listened to my entire opinion and plea. I do not believe this officer was a bad person, I just think his internal, subconscious stereotypes have been tainted through his life by institutionalized racism.
Last week, the nation saw the NFL’s largest protest to date, where players either did not come on the field, or they kneeled on the field in solidarity during the National Anthem. They kneeled with purpose for positive change, not to disrespect others. And definitely not to disrespect the flag, in the same way that Kid Rock wears the flag as a cut-off. I have found myself dumbfounded by some of the posts I have seen on social media of people complaining about the kneeling, one person even going as far as to say that they will not be watching professional football anymore. Our Nation’s president spoke in ugly terms to a large white crowd in Alabama saying that the league’s owners should “get that son-of-a-bitch off the field…” Every time we see a post or a quote like this, it digs a wedge into our society even deeper. Why are people so angry about this? Why do people refuse to attempt to understand that these folks feel like lesser of Americans than those who have the privilege to protest without a backlash? Following last weekend into this weekend, we found ourselves reading another Twitter tirade by the President about Puerto Ricans “waiting” for help instead of taking action. Did he feel the same way about people in Texas and Florida?
There are so many questions and so many gray areas when it comes to these incidents, but the first step to solving these problems is realizing that we have a bigger problem. Institutionalized racism and hate puts individuals in these situations in the first place. There are solutions. Let’s put the arguing and misunderstandings aside and come together for these long-term solutions. Let’s meet at the top of the cliff and start pushing everybody away from the edge.. Together! We are born as curious, open-minded individuals based from love. There is no such thing as a child born racist or hateful. We are one race. We are the human race.