This is the launch of a monthly series – “Chairman’s Corner” – where our Board Chair, Paul Taskier, will write about a variety of topics that impact Bread for the City and indeed the community and nation at large. We invite you to Read, Enjoy and Share!
We have all just witnessed momentous changes in our national landscape. June, 2015 will long be a month remembered for the changes it ushered in, or cemented in place.
President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, has now survived two serious legal challenges and appears firmly in place, providing protection and affordable health care for millions who were refused coverage or who simply could not afford its substantial costs.
Deeply held religious beliefs to one side, this month also marked the demolition of barriers that prohibited same sex marriage, finally erasing a prohibition that denied equal protection of the laws to those who love and wish to marry a person of the same sex.
These are sea change events in American life, but I believe that while we celebrate now that our world has changed for the better, we will, as time passes, adjust to the ‘new normal’. We, or our children, will take these as indisputable truths. Of course we have health care insurance that covers us notwithstanding prior conditions, of course we all have to share, depending on our means, in the cost of care for everyone, of course anyone can marry anyone he or she loves, of course it’s unacceptable to discriminate against someone because of sexual orientation.
But this month we have also confronted the shocking and horrible murder of nine righteous people who opened their hearts and their church to a stranger. And while we witness national outrage at that act of terrorism — ostensibly undertaken to provoke a race war — and are gratified that the Confederate battle flag, a mark of racist hatred to blacks, is finally recognized as being inappropriate outside a museum, the struggle against the systemic racism in our society is barely in its infancy.
Why, when the Emancipation Proclamation was over 150 years ago, and Brown v. Board of Education was 50 years ago, do we still have issues? If we can readily accept that there is a sea change in how we approach universal health coverage or whether it is a civil right to be LGBT, why is there still any issue about full racial equality? Why is it not universally accepted in America that of course it doesn’t matter what color your skin is? How is it that we can accept sea changes in other parts of our national life and blithely deem full racial equality as unattainable in our lifetimes?
There is no doubt that our national landscape has changed from the times of slavery and segregation – an African-American President is solemn witness to that. But as President Obama said in Charleston at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral, we’ve had conversations about race, endlessly; it’s time to stop talking and start doing.
I have previously written about Bread for the City’s commitment to racial equity, and how we require all of our staff members to attend two days of training on racial equity. It is, essentially, sensitivity training to help us understand the daily burdens that our society’s history of racism places on black Americans. Our clientele is almost wholly people of color, the vast majority of whom are African-American. So, in the way we approach our clients — and in the way we understand ourselves — we need to embrace the stark divide in racial equity and in our awareness of racial inequity.
White people, I am sorry to say, are mostly unaware of their sense of societal privilege vis-a-vis black Americans. Centuries of oppression, slavery, degradation, denial and diminishment weigh heavily. Do we really need to ask why white financial net worth is, on average,14 times greater than black net worth? Or why more black men are imprisoned, mostly for minor drug offenses (many of which are no longer crimes in many states and the District of Columbia), than there were people in slavery before the Civil War? Or why the cities with majority black populations have significantly higher percentage populations living below the poverty line?
After Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Grey in Baltimore and the tens of thousands of other, less known, victims, is there any question that black men are treated differently in our society? Can it be in any way acceptable that black children have to be carefully taught how to interact with police lest they become victims themselves? Or that African-American drivers always have to be concerned lest they be pulled over by the police for DWB – Driving While Black? A grim joke – far too often a reality.
Our national conversation on race must take on new urgency. One hundred fifty years after the end of slavery we should not learn that good people were slaughtered because of their color and to force others, through fear, to “go back.” Go back to Africa?! After 300 years in America, after building this country, shedding blood in its wars, and taking part in every piece of the American story? How can such a demented narrative even be enunciated in this day and age? I myself thought that narratives like this were the product of a past long overtaken, and I am horrified to learn that apparently hundreds of thousands of Americans still subscribe to profoundly racist beliefs, and belong to organizations deemed racist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. If nothing else, we must support the Southern Poverty Law Center and help it in its struggle to identify and shut down seedbeds of racial hatred.
But we also need to engage in introspection. White attitudes to people of color are steeped in privilege, entitlement and, all too often, a sense of superiority, fostered by the systemic racism that pervades our society. We need to think more deeply about attitudes that are so ingrained that they are almost reflexive. How often have I heard racist or anti-Semitic jokes or off-hand comments by ostensibly good people? How do those words even pass their lips? I think it’s because they don’t question the underlying assumption of superiority that whiteness in America provides. That – the underlying assumption of superiority – must be challenged, from within and without. We cannot achieve racial equity unless that is purged from our common understanding.
I fear though, that the ‘new normal’ of health care coverage and LBGT rights will not translate as easily or readily to racial equality — not with the burden of 300 years of oppression weighing it down.
Bread for the City addresses the daily burdens of that oppression: poverty – poverty that limits food, limits housing, limits representation and limits medical care. We alleviate the burdens of poverty and make poverty survivable. A modest goal, and a worthy one. But we also strive to address the conditions that perpetuate poverty. Racial inequity over-arches all those conditions, but three main areas can make real differences: housing, jobs and education. With stable housing, a good job and an education that makes a good job attainable, people have the basic tools to lift themselves from poverty.
Bread is already a leader in preserving housing options for the poor. Our Legal Clinic lawyers have saved thousands of people from losing their affordable housing, often the one thing that is keeping their families stable. Bread is also engaged in helping people prepare themselves for a good job. Without any experience in a work setting or any exposure to the routines, norms and mores of a daily office work life, people in poverty often fail to make a transition into the working world. To change that dynamic, Bread has a Pre-Employment Program in its Southeast Center, a six week course that over the last decade, has taught hundreds of people how to manage a job. And we provide paid internships after the program that can lead to a full-time job.
These are approaches that are within our collective reach, modest in scope, but deeply important to the people whose lives they change. As I’ve recently noted in another blog, our May Board strategic planning retreat committed us to ramp up our advocacy, to engage with others in the city in leading the charge to obtain 22,000 new affordable housing units over the next decade. We hope that will make a real difference in preserving our city neighborhoods, protecting diversity, preventing gentrification that uproots families from their homes of decades, and gives housing as a stable base for education and work.
One of Bread’s bywords is “Justice.” The Bible teaches us: “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.” The commentators explain that because God gave us every word in the Bible, every word has meaning, and so, when God repeats a word, it is because He wants us to pay special attention. So we are particularly commanded to pursue Justice, in all its manifestations.
We have far to go to achieve a sea change in racial equity comparable to the sea change we are witnessing with health care and LGBT rights. I wish people were as impassioned about seeking justice in racial equality as they are celebratory about gay rights.
We need to look within and root out the attitudes that were implanted by a society imbued with its own superiority. If we can do it with gay rights, something that could hardly be spoken of in decades past, we can surely make the same efforts with race. It is long, long overdue.
Over 50 years ago, one of the giants, and martyrs, of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Let us focus on that and make it happen now. All of us are equal; all of us deserve equal opportunities. Let us take that into our hearts and work within ourselves, and with others, to make that a reality.