#blacklivesmatter— it’s all over social media, and we’re seeing it on posters, flyers, and graffiti. This sentiment – coming from our heightened consciousness about race, responding to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but also from pop culture sources, like the films “Dear White People,” “Twelve Years a Slave” and “Belle” – has ignited a heated discussion that is good for our nation, even though the circumstances that are bringing it about are not.
As Americans face these recent controversies, black communities’ historic issue with law enforcement remains a focus. While these matters are definitely important, I would like to see others also surface as a result of this broad and far-reaching discussion.
As I see it, part of the problem of race in America, which needs to be addressed honestly, stems from the fact, for white people, that being told that you’re hurting people is hard to hear. That message may be especially difficult for the millions of white Americans who don’t know or ever personally encounter a single black person, and consequently don’t regard issues of race as systemic and with daily repercussions. According to recent census data, 13.2% of the nation is “black,” which means about one-in-eight Americans. However, the black population is not evenly distributed geographically. In Alabama, the black population is about 23%, and in Montgomery County, where I live, the black population is the majority racial group, at 56.3%. However, in Maine, the black population is 1.4%; in Nebraska, 4.8%, and in Utah, 1.3%. Some white people have a long way to go to understand what they’re being told right now, but the rest of us, who live in diverse communities, have a role to play, too.
The millions of white Americans who are discomfited by #blacklivesmatter messages, especially those living in homogeneous communities, need to join the national dialogue first by listening. Yes, as a white person, it is hard to hear some of what is being said. Though we can never fully know what it’s like to be black, we can listen. Then, we can accept difference, and we can respect the validity of other people’s perceptions and ideas. Change can start there: by listening, even to assertions that are hard to hear.
Another aspect of our national character that needs to arise out of the #blacklivesmatter discussion involves racial disparities in education. In March of last year, The Nation‘s Steven Hsieh wrote “14 Disturbing Stats about Racial Inequality in American Public Schools,” and here are three of those “disturbing” facts:
“2. Black students were expelled at three times the rate of white students.”
“4. Black girls were suspended at higher rates than all other girls and most boys.”
“13. Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.”
(To connect these facts to Michael Brown and the events in Ferguson, read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “How School Segregation Divides Ferguson— And the United States,” from the New York Times on December 19, 2014.)
In examining the racialized aspects of our education system, we need to concentrate on the realities of the historic disparities. Looking at the Census.gov document “Table 229. Educational Attainment by Race and Hispanic Origin, 1970 – 2010,” we see some glimmers of hope over a forty-year period, but problems remain. From 1970 through 2010, the percentage of black people with a high school diploma increased from 31.4% to 84.2% – which means that rate nearly tripled – but the most recent percentage still lags behind the white rate of 87.6%. Unfortunately, the discrepancy in the area of college education between black and white people is greater, at 19.2% versus 30.3% respectively. So about one-in-three white people has a college degree yet about one-in-five black people does. These factors are directly related to Hsieh’s “disturbing” facts.
By contrast, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ statistics on Inmate Race, black inmates make up 37.4% of our prison population, a rate that is nearly triple the rate of the nation’s black population as a whole (13.2%). Coupling the above facts with this one, a direct connection between education and opportunity should be obvious. Again, see Hsieh’s facts . . . that’s where it all starts.
Looking further deeper into the social and economic truths of American life, the American Psychological Association’s Public Interest Directorate on “Ethnic and Racial Minorities & Socioeconomic Status” provide these factors:
“• African American children are three times more likely to live in poverty than Caucasian children. “
“• African Americans and Latinos are more likely to attend high-poverty schools than Asian Americans and Caucasians.”
“• African Americans are at higher risk for involuntary psychiatric commitment than any other racial group.”
The root issues extend beyond the classroom, into the real world. The factors that have led to the swelling frustrations are real, no matter who claims that America is a meritocracy where self-determination is the rule. That may be hard to hear for people who believe that hard work alone yields a person his or her socio-economic position. But, put simply, we have to start by listening, and considering that our social structures set some people up for failure.
As national-scale examples of our racialized culture, we can look at one of our most powerful institutions: Congress. Of our one-hundred US senators, two are African American, both men, one Republican and one Democrat— so the US Senate is 2% black. Of the 435 seats in the House, forty are held by African Americans, twenty-seven men and thirteen women, all Democrats— so the House is 9.2% black. Adding it all up with forty-two black office-holders out of 535 total seats, Congress is 7.8% black. (Source: Roll Call) How, in a nation with a 13.2% black population, can that be? Well, because a lot of these uncomfortable assertions are true.
Yet, the causes for hope exist, too. The demographics of American voting is changing. For more information about that phenomenon, you can read the Census Department’s “The Diversifying Electorate— Voting Rates By Race And Hispanic Origin, 2012 (And Other Recent Elections).” In Table 2, we see how the numbers of Black, Asian and Hispanic voters increase with every election cycle. As more diverse peoples show up to vote, out leadership will change with them.
Black lives do matter, because every life matters! And I hope that these protests – both in the streets and online – will incite a critical consciousness in more Americans about the adverse side-effects of our social and cultural realities. Many white people may continue to be resistant to these messages, because no one likes to see himself as an oppressor. However, progress will come when these frustrations are heard and answered with action and change.
For my part, I have to side with many race-conscious thinkers who say we are not in a post-racial society and that change is still needed. However, I cannot agree with hyperbolic assertions like “Nothing has changed since the Civil War,” or “Our country hasn’t moved forward since the 1960s.” Those inflammatory statements aren’t true. Once we deal honestly with race, discarding both denial and hyperbole, especially in the fundamental area of educational opportunities, we will make even more progress— and our nation will be all the stronger for it.