As a nation stumbling toward humanity, we recognize change is often slow to come and even slower to be accepted. Fifty-five years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, preventing employment discrimination due to race, color, sex, religion or national origin. This Act also ended segregation in public places. Later expansions brought in people with disabilities, the elderly and women in college athletics. Follow-up laws included the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. According to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this Act was a “second emancipation.”
Today, many people might feel the outcome or goal of this Act has been achieved. In many ways, they would be correct. Access and opportunity to engage in employment has improved across the board. Segregation in public places has abated.
Unfortunately, we still pay the cost of institutional racial practices of the past. Because people are encouraged to connect with others most like them, they are not likely to extend themselves beyond well-established networks. Networking is critical to employment opportunity and often determines your success or lack thereof. Sadly, if you have no connections because you or people like you have never worked in the field, it can be harder to become a professional staff member. You may have the qualifications; you simply lack the connections.
De facto segregation might be over, but we still live with the history of redlining, subprime loans or no loans at all, which means many minorities have lost out on the generational wealth homeownership offers. To make it personal, let’s borrow a line from Mr. Rogers, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” Alternatively, let’s ask a question Dr. King asked in 1960, “Is the most segregated hour of Christian America still 11 o’clock on Sunday morning?” Not, a churchgoer? Think about the places you do go — who else shows up with you?
I raise these issues because an old conversation has returned to our community. One that takes the actions of a few and attributes them to the many. To be specific, when talking about crime and/or criminal behavior, what I am hearing is that black men kill. That black men specifically are predators. That recent tragedies across the Wasatch Front are what happen when you teach inclusion or when the races come together.
Let me be clear, killing people is wrong. My heart goes out to the families and friends of all crime victims. These crimes reflect the worst of our common humanity. They break us apart from one another. They allow us to dehumanize each other. They segregate people into them and us.
That today, black men in our community are suspect because of the actions of two people who happen also to be black, is overwhelming. That black men are being demonized in general is devastating.
Rather than holding our collective breath, I am going to ask you to think about the men you know. They may be your husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, grandsons, friends, neighbors, co-workers or merely someone you see in your day-to-day activities. Ask yourself which brushstroke you use when you consider the content of their character. Do you see another person, or do you see a killer? Would your brushstroke tell you the same thing if they identified as white, black or brown? Dig a little deeper. Ask yourself if the brushstroke you use with black or brown men is different because of the recent murders. Then ask yourself if you use that same brushstroke with white men.
Perpetrators can be found in every ethnicity, religion, sex and socioeconomic group. We would no sooner say all left-handed people are murderers than we would say all fill-in-the-blank people are murderers.
Discrimination and segregation drive us apart, whether today or 55 years ago. Minds have been changed that overt discrimination and segregation are wrong. However, it is time for our hearts to catch up with our minds if we want to see the world as it can be rather than maintaining the status quo which, in the end, hurts us all.