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Putting Race on the Table

June 15, 2011

by Terri Lee Freeman
President, The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region

Tonight, June 15th, The Community Foundation holds its annual meeting, “Putting Race on the Table.”  We will be gathering at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History with 300 of our donors, supporters and partners to have a conversation about race and racism, with an incredible panel of local and national experts. The title of our meeting is not just provocative, but is a challenge to every one of us to enter each day with blinders off and our eyes wide open.  “Putting Race on the Table” is about recognizing that race still plays a significant role in the creation and maintenance of an “underclass” in both our region and our nation.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m not at all suggesting that everything that happens negatively or positively to a person is determined by his or her race, but it is my perspective that it colors (no pun intended) the opportunities and challenges that present themselves on a daily basis.  Let me give you a couple examples.

My grandfather was a sports cartoonist.  He liked to tell me that when Joe Louis made his first $50 he also made $50 doing the promotion for the fight.  He was incredibly talented and his work appeared on the sports pages of the Chicago American.  But the color line drew a line when it came to him being employed by the tabloid. They wanted his work, but they didn’t want him.  He received no recognition, but was humiliated each time he was turned down because of his race. In 1945 he created a column called Interesting People highlighting the accomplishments of African Americans (although back then we were Negroes) throughout the nation.  After he retired from the Postal Service in 1969, he recommitted himself to his artwork and became a syndicated cartoonist with the Chicago Defender, and black newspapers throughout the country.  But I know what you’re thinking:  “That happened before the civil rights movement of the 1960s!’”

Fast forward to the 21st century.  Several years ago, I was talking with a friend trading kid stories.  Her son (let’s call him Edward), who is a few years older than my eldest daughter, was having some challenges with substance abuse and was finding himself having trouble staying in school.  He had been put out of both public and private schools, but had been re-admitted to the local public high school.  Most concerning was that on several occasions Edward had been picked up by the police and brought home because he was caught smoking pot.  I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if that were my son, if the police would have escorted him home or to the county lock-up.’  Oh — I failed to mention that Edward is white.

Just this past fall a young man my husband and I have a close relationship with, let’s call him Xavier, was “picked up,” handcuffed and arrested for having some type of drug-laced cigarettes in a car where he was a passenger.  They were not speeding, the car was not stolen, so we’re not sure why they were pulled over, but they were three, young, African American men in a car late at night in a very nice part of this region.  In fact, it was the same part of town Edward lived in.  In both of these instances it was not their first time interacting with the police.  And I’m pretty sure the drugs found in the possession of Xavier were no more illegal than those found on Edward, but their experiences were totally different.

Xavier’s mother, a single-parent, didn’t know where her child was for several hours until he was processed.  Edward’s mother was given a report from the police officer as her son was escorted to his front door.  Were both of these young men wrong?  Absolutely.  Were both mothers concerned?  You bet.  Was privilege provided to one family over the other?  I think so.  Edward’s interaction with the justice system was limited to the officer questioning him, giving him a warning, and taking him home.  Xavier was booked, documented and locked up in a cell for several hours.

While I’m unaware of the outcome for Edward, I know that Xavier had a court date, was given parole and required to participate in weekly meetings with his parole officer.  Are these two similar stories with such different outcomes a result of race?  I can’t say with certainty, but my gut and my experience tells me “yes.”

While the racism my grandfather endured was overt and very painful, the covert, institutional racism that plagues society today is no less painful for those who often suffer in silence.  So what can we do?  I’ll finish as I started:  we can take off our blinders and open our eyes.  It is our hope that through our convening this evening, a series of community tours that begin this fall that we are sponsoring, new expanded information and resources on our website and our ongoing work in the community, we can introduce you to ways in which communities in our region are coming together collectively to increase understanding and decrease racial, ethnic and class inequities that can impact access to opportunity.  Come along with us on this journey.

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