I Know Nichelle Hayes

I Know Nichelle Hayes

Once again, when it comes to issues of racial equity, justice and reconciliation, Indianapolis has made national news for all the wrong reasons.  Last week, the National Conference of African American Librarians (NCAAL) cancelled their upcoming July convention in Indianapolis in response to the refusal of the Board of the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library (IMCPL) to hire Nichelle Hayes, a Black woman and the interim CEO of IMCPL, as their new CEO.  In their statement, the NCAAL described Indianapolis as a “inhospitable location” for their conference.  In this context, “inhospitable location” is a nice way of stating “racist.”

Since, until last week, this story was a local one, let me give you some background.

In June of 2021, the Indianapolis Recorder – the local Black owned and focused newspaper – printed a story exposing a long litany of incidents of racial inequity, hostility, and discrimination within the Indianapolis library system.  In response, the Library Board and then Executive Director, Jackie Nytes, either diminished or outright rejected these complaints.  This gaslighting provoked a strong response from community leaders, library staff and patrons.  More and more people demanded change.  By August of 2021, Ms. Nytes had resigned, and a search began for a new library leader.  Community leaders made it clear to the Board that this should be a person capable of helping the library address and resolve systemic racial inequities and create a more inclusive culture.

In April of 2022, Nichelle Hayes, the Director of the Library’s Center For Black Literature and Culture, was selected to serve as the Interim CEO.  This was widely acclaimed as a step in the right direction.  In the summer of 2022, Nichelle decided to apply for the permanent CEO position.  After a several month-long process, Nichelle was selected as one of two finalists for the CEO position.  However, in December, the Library Board, by a 4-2 vote, selected Gabriel Morley, a white man, to lead the library system in “resolving its systemic racial inequities and creating a more inclusive culture.”  The community response was immediate and negative.  Within days, Mr. Morley turned down the job offer.

In response to this development, the Library Board announced Nichelle Hayes would not be offered the job, even though she was the other finalist.  Indeed, the Library Board put out a statement saying “Nichelle Hayes did not have the qualifications and experience necessary for the position” and that they would restart the search process.  Nichelle Hayes was removed as Interim CEO.  Even when the Indianapolis City Council voted in favor of the Library Board hiring Ms. Hayes, the Board refused to budge.  In response to this, the National Conference of African American Librarians – understandably – cancelled their conference scheduled for Indianapolis in July.

Let me be clear. I have no inside information about the workings of the search committee, the deliberations of the Library Board, or the interactions between the Board and Nichelle Hayes.

However, I know Nichelle Hayes.

In 2017, when Jackie Nytes, the CEO of IMCPL, hired Nichelle Hayes as the director of the Center For Black Literature and Culture, she invited me to meet Nichelle.  Jackie was aware of my work in Indianapolis on racial inequity and reconciliation and thought Nichelle could benefit from my support.  Ms. Nytes explained Nichelle would be asked to create the center from scratch, to envision its work and scope, develop its budget, create its collection, work with foundations and donors, and market and promote the Center.  She described an executive position of which she thought Nichelle especially fitted.  At the end of our conversation, Jackie said something which seems both ironic and prophetic now.  She said, “We both know Nichelle is going to face racist resistance and opposition to building and promoting the Center and I hope you’ll help her.”

Over the past six years, I’ve had many opportunities to work with Nichelle on events and workshops.  In these interactions, I have come to deeply appreciate and value her vision, creativity and excellence.  I don’t know all that happened behind the scenes in this fiasco of a job search and hiring process, but I do know Nichelle Hayes.

The Library Board statement that Nichelle Hayes is not qualified for the CEO position is a lie.

The Library Board obviously thought her qualified enough to serve in this position as an interim.  Did they do so because they valued her capabilities?  Or did they do this hoping she would fail and thereby diminish their responsibility to hire the first person of color to lead the library system?

The library search committee and the Board obviously thought her qualified enough to be selected as one of their two finalists for the CEO position.  Did they do so because they recognized her competence?  Or did they do this as a token act to give the impression of a fair and racially equitable hiring process?

I know Nichelle Hayes,  These statements about her inadequacies for the job are insulting and, frankly, racist.  As the National Conference of African American Librarians stated in their announcement, “The actions of the Indianapolis Public Library Board are a reflection of what happens within our profession, where hardworking, talented and qualified people are used to clean up messes, fix problems, and to just be seen enough that a diversity goal is ticked without any substantive change. When entities believe you are not ‘the person’ they create imaginary barriers designed to stop progress both for the professional, and the profession.”

Well said.

Nichelle Hayes is not the only person I know in this mess.

I also know Pat Payne, one of the two Board members to vote against Mr. Morley.  Pat has repeatedly expressed her support for Nichelle Hayes.

Years ago, when I began my journey to explore issues of racial inequity, discrimination and reparations, I began to seek people in Indianapolis who shared that passion.  One of the names I heard repeatedly was Pat Payne, an educator and administrator in the Indianapolis Public School system, who had been working for racial justice for over 60 years in Indianapolis.  Eventually, I had the good fortune to met Pat, hear her story, learn from her experience and call her a friend.

I quickly realized that when it comes to issues of racial progress in Indianapolis, whatever side of a racially fraught issue that Pat stands on is where I want to stand.

In 2017, the Indianapolis Recorder exposed the deeply embedded racism within the Indianapolis library system.  In 2023, it has become obvious that the racist rot goes all the way to the root of the tree.  In their latest statement, the Library Board advocated for a fresh start in seeking leadership for the IMCPL.

In this, I agree with the Library Board.

We need a fresh start.

It is time for the four members of the Indianapolis Library Board who voted for a white man over a black woman to help IMCPL “resolve its systemic racial inequities and create a more inclusive culture” to resign.  This will allow their appointing organizations to choose people who can approach the challenge of seeking a new CEO for the library system without the taint of this failure in leadership.

The time for tree trimming is over.

We need to plant a new tree.

UPDATE:

(Yesterday, January 17th, The Indianapolis Library Board held a special session which I attended.  They did not allow public comment and passed a resolution to hire a Chief Administrative Officer to handle an interim period of no more than 12 months. In their opening statements, I was shocked by the apparent inability of the Board to recognize its own failures in this recent process.  Public comment will be allowed next Monday, January 23rd at their 6 :30 p.m. regular Board meeting.  I will be there and commenting.  I hope you’ll join me.)

Black Women As Superheroes

Black Women As Superheroes

I recently attended the move “Wakanda Forever” with my wife and Black daughter.  Based on the comics of my youth, I’ve seen and enjoyed many of the Marvel movies.  Though my wife isn’t a fan, I’ve taken my daughter with me often.  She likes them, too.

Wakanda Forever was different.

My daughter, who is fifteen, sat next to me during the move and was visibly moved.  During several scenes, tears would stream down her cheeks.  At the end of the movie, she sat quietly in her seat until every single credit rolled.  Then, with a sigh, she stood and we left the movie.

I’ve thought a lot about her emotional response.  What was she seeing on that screen that I wasn’t seeing?

She was seeing herself.

Wakanda Forever is a movie about strong black women.  Black women who lead nations.  Black women who successfully fight for justice.  Black women who face adversity and triumph.  Black woman as superheroes.

Yes, Wakanda Forever is based on a comic.  It portrays a nation and world that does not exist.  It presents Black women with powers they do not presently have. 

That’s the point.

All of the Marvel movies are based on comics.  All of them a world that does not exist.  All of them present human beings with powers they do not presently have.  That is their allure.  As a child, I dressed up as Superman for Halloween precisely because of the attraction of having superpowers and saving the world.

As a white boy, Superman was just one of my many options.  I could be Spiderman, Batman, Ironman, Antman, Aquaman, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, Wolverine, and on and on.  White boys grew up immersed in images of white men with superpowers.  White girls had Wonder Woman and Supergirl.  Note that a female superhero couldn’t even be called Superwoman.  Black men had a single option in the Black Panther. 

Black women were largely absent from the comic universe.  Ironically, one of the more popular female superheroes – the Black Widow – was a white woman.

All of which brings me back to Wakanda Forever.

What my daughter experienced in watching that movie was something new and unique for black women and girls.  In this movie, a Black women, surrounded by other strong Black women, was the lead character and superhero.  As much as my daughter liked the original Black Panther movie, it did not impact my daughter like this sequel.  Black Panther was still a movie where the primary character was a man.  Wakanda Forever announced to the whole world that Black women can be superheroes.  In this movie, we continue the dismantling of the long-defended white supremacy, racism, and misogyny of the comic universe.

For those you think this judgment of the comic universe severe, please remember all the objections when Spiderman was recently portrayed as a Black man.  Thousands of white men objected that “Spiderman was white.”  Think about that assumption.  An imaginary superhero must be white.  Though many argued for some kind of historic sanctity of the original character, what they were really arguing for was for a world where even fantasy is reserved for and dominated by white men.

During the previews before Wakanda Forever, the live action recreation of “The Little Mermaid” was highlighted with its Black lead character.  In response, there have already been white people complaining that “Mermaids aren’t Black.”  If I have to explain how utterly ridiculous such a statement is, you probably don’t see systemic racism either.

Indeed, the history of our American comics are a vivid demonstration of the power of white male supremacy and systemic racism over the past sixty years.  Superheroes were white men.  Women and people of color were either the villains or those in need of rescue.  Female superheroes were often known more for their cleavage than their powers.  The existence of a Black superhero was so incredible that Stan Lee had to create an imaginary country for him.  Only gradually and begrudgingly, have comics allowed women and minorities into its universe.

While Wakanda Forever is a fantasy breakthrough, it is also surprisingly realistic about the world we live in.  In the movie, the US and European powers are working against this all Black nation, hoping to steal its resources.  In the movie, the primary Black male character still challenges the Black woman for power, implying she is inadequate.  In the movie, instead of fighting white supremacy, Blacks are pitted against Indigenous people.

It will be fascinating to watch how Hollywood advances the storyline in the sequel to Wakanda Forever.  Will Wakanda survive in a white dominant world?  Will the female Black Panther remain primary or be supplanted by a man?  Will Blacks and Indigenous peoples unite to fight a common oppressor?  Will the comic universe have room for a comic that paints an alternative to white supremacy?  Or will this whole endeavor be characterized as “woke” and abandoned?

I don’t know those answers.

Tonight, I am simply celebrating my daughter saw herself as a superhero.

Diversity Is For White People

Diversity Is For White People

It is a sad commentary on US Supreme Court that it’s single Black male representative – Justice Clarence Thomas – does not think diversity valuable.  In a recent hearing on Affirmative Action in college admissions, Thomas argued he was not educated in racially diverse schools and did fine.  He added, “I don’t have any idea what diversity means.”

That he doesn’t understand what diversity means calls into question his claim to a good education.

It’s not that complicated.

Diversity is what occurs when an organization, population or institution is made up of people from a vast variety of backgrounds and life experiences, including race, ethnicity, gender, age etc.  Diversity is valuable because more and more research shows diverse groups are more productive, creative, and effective.  In other words, the US Supreme Court is more likely to make good decisions if it has Female, Black, Asian, Latino, Native American and other members with a wide spectrum of life experiences.

It is hard to imagine Thomas would argue the US Supreme Court would be a better institution if it were nine white men, though he might.  White conservatives pushed for his inclusion on the Supreme Court in 1991 precisely because he didn’t value racial justice, equity, or diversity.  In other words, he shared and voiced the opinions of white supremacists.  Ironically, while Thomas claims to not understand diversity, those who sponsored him saw his nomination as meeting the nation’s increased desire for diversity while as the same time protecting the status quo.

While I have serious disagreements with Justice Thomas, I want to acknowledge something I do think Thomas understands from his experience.  Diversity is not necessary for Black people to succeed.  Indeed, the history of Black success and progress in America is one of Black people, during heavy-handed racial discrimination and inequity, banding together to encourage and support one another.  Thomas is a product of that segregated system.  For him, arguments for affirmative action are an affront to all his personal efforts to succeed.  They suggest, in his opinion, Blacks cannot succeed without their inclusion in more diverse settings.

In this critique, I agree with Thomas.  Too often, including in this recent Supreme Court hearing, the language of diversity is couched in terms that suggest diversity helps Black men and women succeed and thrive.  This is not true.  What minorities need is inclusion and not diversity.  Black people exist in diverse populations, organizations, and institutions from the moment of their birth.  They do not have to seek diversity.  It is continually thrust upon them.  They are constantly in situations where they are the minority.  Black people do not have the possibility of living their lives without interaction with people who are different than them.   That is a white problem.

Progressives who argue diversity is good for students need to be very careful.  By this argument, Black students who attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) are in less diverse settings and therefore receiving a poorer education.  For a black student, a HBCU is an often unique educational opportunity.  It is an opportunity for solidarity within a minority group.  For white students, an educational experience without diversity is the norm.

Progressives should be arguing that diversity is good for white students.  It is these students who often grow up in rural and suburban setting with little diversity and the assumption that everyone looks, acts, and thinks as they do.  State college and universities benefit from diversity precisely because they have historically been largely white institutions.  They are strengthened by the presence of Black, Asian, Latino, Native American and other representatives.  Ironically, white students are the chief beneficiary of diversity.  Minorities are the chief beneficiaries of inclusion.

Unfortunately, much of the Affirmative Action argument has been framed as state colleges and universities giving less qualified Black students opportunities over those of more qualified white students.  While I believe there are good reasons – reparations, equity, past injustice – for doing this as well, it is time to reframe this discussion in terms of creating educational institutions that look, act and interact in ways that prepare students for a diverse world.

Predominately white college and universities prepare white students for a white dominant and supremacist world.  They do this whether they intend to or not.   Diverse universities and colleges prepare students to interact in an increasing diverse world.  Those who argue – including Justice Thomas – for eliminating affirmative action and diversity in education are arguing for an archaic educational system which can only increase polarization, intolerance, and racial animosity.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black women on the Supreme Court, has a much better understanding of the value of diversity than Justice Thomas.  Jackson asked those opposing any role of racial identity in college admissions this question,

What if one applicant writes in his essay that it is important to him that he be admitted because his family has lived in North Carolina since before the Civil War and he would be the fifth generation of his family to proudly attend UNC and another applicant writes that his family, too, has lived in North Carolina since before the Civil War, and it is important to him that he attend UNC because he is the descendant of enslaved people and his ancestors were barred from attending the university?  Should the racial identity of the second applicant matter?

In other words, is the University of North Carolina a better educational environment if it honors and gives preference to white students – who have long been the majority of the student body – or would the University of North Carolina be a better educational environment if it intentionally included both white and black students?

It is time for our society to see the experiences and perspectives of a first generation Black student with ancestors who were enslaved and grandparents who were unable to vote and parents who struggled against racial discrimination as a valuable addition to the university student body.  Not because they have the best grades, but because they have overcome obstacles that their white peers cannot understand.

Indeed, without their presence, their white peers will never understand.

White people need diversity.

Democracy Has Always Been In Peril

Democracy Has Always Been In Peril

Note to my white self…

I know you’re worried about the upcoming elections.

You see dozens of Republican candidates running on the big lie of “stolen elections.”  You hear Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona saying that she “will either win the election or it will have been rigged against her.”  You watch media pundits constantly talking about voter fraud even though there were only about 475 cases of fraud in over 25 million votes cast in 2020 in battleground states.  Based on the big lie, Republican legislatures have made it easier to obstruct voters and overturn elections.  Gerrymandering is at an all time high with fewer and fewer competitive races.

You worry that our democracy is in peril.

This worry is only new for you.

Blacks and other people of color have been worried about elections and democracy for generations.

Even before the Emancipation Proclamation, Blacks knew the noble words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were hollow and empty.   The assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” did not include women or any person of color.  “We, the people” was limited to white men.  Racism and misogyny have always been enemies of democracy.  The Magna Carta may have overthrown the English king, but it simply meant every white man was the “king of his own castle.”  Democracy, as a principle, was reserved for white men.

this-is-a-white-mans-government-we-regard-the-reconstruction-acts-so-called (1)Black people celebrated the hope of greater democracy with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  These revisions were both acknowledgements of the original Constitution’s flaws and an attempt to create democracy, but those amendments largely failed.  By the 1870s, Jim Crow laws had created all kinds of obstacles for Black people to vote.  In World War I and World War II, Blacks were asked to fight to protect democracy, even though they were not participants and beneficiaries of that democracy.  Some of those soldiers were lynched when they arrived home.  The United States was a democracy on paper, but not in reality.

A_large_group_of_African_American_children_gather_around_a_sign_encouraging_people_to_register_to_vote._(5279449524)During the Civil Rights movement, Blacks challenged the institutions of “democracy.”  With protests and court cases, they battered down the doors to a democracy that had been reserved for and defended by white men.  Laws were passed to make it possible for Black people to actually vote.  In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed to protect and defend what the 15th Amendment had guaranteed 100 years before.

However, changing laws did not change the racist system.  Case after case was brought to the Supreme Court as states and municipalities were sued for doing their best to deny democracy to non-whites.  In many Southern states, it would take 30 more years for their legislatures to see their first Black representatives.

If you are Black, democracy has always been in peril.

If you are Black, you don’t look at the attempts by a conservative Supreme Court to dismantle the Voting Rights Act as something new.  You don’t wring your hands at gerrymandering designed to distribute Black votes in majority white districts.  You are not surprised by voter ID laws and voting roll purges that inordinately impact people of color.  You know why most states don’t allow felons to vote.

You laugh at white people chanting “Stop the steal.”

White people have been stealing votes for that last 180 years.  They have no interest in stopping that practice.  They are worried about those tactics precisely because they know their effectiveness.

Whether you are a white conservative or a white progressive, this is what makes your sudden interest in election integrity so laughable.  Too many of you only began worrying about election integrity when someone told you white votes were being stolen.

Let’s be clear.

Most white men still think they should be kings of their own castles.

Most white men have never been invested or interested in democracy.  Indeed, many white men continue to resist every single expansion of voting, decision making and power.  Many of their wives have opposed the rights of people of color.  Better to be queen of a castle than an equal to men and women of color.

It is not so much that democracy is in peril.

Democracy has yet to be truly tried in America.

What democracy we have is almost entirely the result of Black men and women refusing to allow us to pretend to be a democracy.

I don’t know what will happen on Tuesday.  It is entirely possible we will see white supremacist forces retake power in legislatures and in Washington DC as they have in the past.  If so, this will come as no surprise to Black activists.  This will also not be the death of democracy.  It will be one more bloody battle in the long war between those who believe in democracy and those who don’t

Nobody Objected To Slavery?

Nobody Objected To Slavery?

“Nobody objected to slavery before we decided as Americans that we were endowered by our creator with inalienable rights and that we were created equal.  Then that birthed abolition movements.”

                                                 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis,  September 20, 2022

Seriously?

There are so many things wrong with this recent statement by the white supremacist Governor of Florida that it is hard to know where to start.

So let me start with the first word, “nobody.”

Apparently, DeSantis believes the 500,000 Blacks and Indigenous people who were enslaved in 1776 did not object to their enslavement, that they found their enslavement a perfectly acceptable state of existence?  If so, he is sadly mistaken.  The countless large and small slave revolts between 1619 and 1776 demonstrate a deep objection to slavery by those who were enslaved.  DeSantis might want to spend a few minutes on Wikipedia reading about the Stono Rebellion in 1731.  These enslaved people did not need noble words written by a white slave owner to realize the brutality and injustice of slavery.  Thomas Jefferson was not their hero.

Of course, when DeSantis said “nobody objected to slavery,” he wasn’t thinking about those 500,000 Black and Indigenous people.  He meant no white Europeans objected.  Nobody who mattered objected. He was being completely dismissive of the worth of those 500,000 humans – 20% of the American population in 1776.  For him, the opinions and feelings of Black and Indigenous people then and now do not really count.  Whether it was a slave in 1776 objecting to their enslavement or a BLM protestor objecting to their discrimination today, they are nobodies to Mr. DeSantis.  The only objections that matter are white ones.

However, DeSantis’ assertion that no white person objected to slavery until the Declaration of Independence is also wildly inaccurate. The Quaker Benjamin Lay would be an obvious example of pre-1776 Colonial leaders with vigorous objections to slavery.  Lay was known for his colorful and dramatic demonstrations of his hatred of slavery.  He once hollowed out a Bible, filled it with blood and skewered it with a sword during a worship service to illustrate the hypocrisy of Christians enslaving other human beings. Lay lived in a cave and was admittedly eccentric.

So perhaps what DeSantis meant was that no reasonable white person objected to slavery until 1776.  That, too, would be a ridiculous claim.  Benjamin Rush, one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, was widely known and respected for his treatises against slavery.  He was one of a number of white leaders who vocally opposed slavery prior to 1776.  It was not the noble words of a slave owning Jefferson that helped Rush and others to see the light.  Indeed, these critics of slavery would repeatedly  point out the terrible ironies in the Declaration and later in the US Constitution.  They understood that Jefferson and others reserved “We hold that all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” to white men.

So, if DeSantis is trying to impress with his historic knowledge, his first few words fail horribly.  They aren’t just inaccurate.  They are outright lies.  Hundreds of thousands of people – Black, Indigenous and white – objected to slavery long before the Declaration of Independence. In the case of non-whites, rebellions and runaways make his claim ridiculous.  In the case of whites, a simple Google search exposes his error. So why try to make such a claim?

Historically, one of the chief aims of white supremacist rhetoric has been to diminish the culpability of white people in the maintenance of American Industrial slavery. When DeSantis claims – falsely – that nobody objected to slavery, he is promoting the idea that slavery – in its day – was seen as a perfectly acceptable and ethical institution, that judging those people by our modern standards is unfair.  According to this way of thinking, how could any reasonable person – pre-Declaration of Independence – have known they were doing anything objectionable? Even the Bible supported slavery.

This sinister claim by white supremacists excuses not only past discrimination, but present injustice.  When DeSantis argues – falsely – that nobody objected, he also diminishes the societal culpability for past, present and future racial injustice.  How can white people be held accountable for something everyone thought acceptable?  It is easy to see how in 50 years some white supremacist politician could make a similar argument about the racial discrimination of our justice system today, suggesting “nobody objected to the inordinate and unjust incarceration of Black youth in the 2000s.”  They could even claim, as some already do, that Black residents of urban neighborhoods demanded these incarcerations.

One of the other aims of white supremacist rhetoric is to imply that Black and Indigenous people had little role in their own emancipation.  In DeSantis’ statement, white people are presented as the heroes of the fight against slavery.  Thanks to their noble words in the Declaration, white Americans woke to the evils of slavery and began to work for its demise.  Without the words of Jefferson, Black and Indigenous people would never have realized they had certain inalienable rights.

Again, this rewriting of the American story is crucial to sustaining white supremacy.  According to this mythology, whatever rights Black and Indigenous people have today are the gifts of white people.  Non-whites were either too stupid to understand their plight and too lazy to change it.  White people freed the slaves!  This is the one-line history of slavery that DeSantis likes and would have taught in Florida school, even though any honest historic retelling would need to acknowledge that white Floridians only freed Black and Indigenous people at the muzzle of a gun. 

For DeSantis, truth telling requires no mention of the Nat Turner Rebellion, of the Haitian Revolution, of Harriet Tubman, of Florida’s secession from the United States to protect slavery, of the thousands of Blacks who fought and died during the Civil War, of Frederick Douglas, of the KKK, of Jim Crow laws, of Rosewood massacre in Florida, and of the Civil Rights Movement.  In his twisted narrative, just teach our children that, thanks to the noble words of a white man named Jefferson, Blacks and Indigenous people were freed.

In this goal, DeSantis isn’t subtle. A clip from his speech with his claims about slavery was posted by the Governor on his Facebook page with the following statement, “In Florida, we require the truth about American history be taught in our classrooms.  We will not allow schools to twist history to align with an ideological agenda.”

This, too, is a lie.

 It is also a dog whistle to every white supremacist voter in Florida and in the presidential elections in which DeSantis hopes to run someday.

DeSantis is clearly stating his administration’s unwillingness to allow Florida schools to teach history that doesn’t align with a white supremacist agenda.

He has absolutely no concerns about the twisting of history.  It is white supremacist twisting of history he hopes to sustain and defend.

Heaven help us if this man becomes President of the United States.

Seven Times More Likely

Seven Times More Likely

On August 25th, Sullivan Walter – a Black man – was released from prison in Louisiana after spending 36 years and two months incarcerated for a rape he did not commit.  In 1986, at the age of 17, Mr. Walter was convicted of a rape in a one-day trial even though the investigating officers and prosecutor knew that the semen collected from the crime was not his.  His case is the longest known wrongful incarceration in Louisiana history and the fifth longest in US history.

Imagine for a moment being accused of something you did not do.  Imagine having the police, investigators, lawyers, judges, and jury all predisposed to think you did it.  Imagine not having the resources to fight for your life and liberty.  Imagine being sent to prison or even executed for a crime you did not commit.

There may be nothing more horrifying to imagine.  The loss of freedom is frightening enough, but imagine also losing the respect of friends and family, people convinced the justice system gets it right.

Except it often doesn’t.

Our justice system brings all the national and historic prejudices, biases and injustices of our society into every legal interaction.  A recent study by the National Registry of Exonerations, when examining defendants who were exonerated after serving time in prison, found Black people are seven times more likely than white people to be falsely convicted of serious crimes and spent longer periods in prison before being exonerated.

The study found that though Black people represent only about 14% of the population, they account for 53% of the 3200 exonerations on the registry as of August of 2022.  Drilling down into the statistics, innocent Black Americans were 7½ times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people and these miscarriages of justice were 50% more likely to result from misconduct by police officers and prosecutors.  Essentially, police officers were far more likely to fabricate evidence or hide exculpating facts when the defendant was Black.  Prosecutors – who are predominately white – were far more likely to ignore or hide exonerating evidence in their desire for a conviction.

Even more disturbing, a vast majority of the exonerations came from a few big cities with large Black populations where governments had units specifically looking for misconduct or improper convictions.  In most of the jurisdictions in our country there are no attempts to verify and review the convictions of Black people.  It only stands to reason that in these mostly white municipalities, the chances of being improperly convicted are probably much higher.

This is how our justice system works for Black folk…

  • They can expect to be profiled, targeted, and harassed by the police.
  • In encounters with police, they can expect to be seen as a threat and more likely to have violence, tasers or guns used against them.
  • They can expect to be arrested at a higher rate for the same suspicions, infractions, and crimes.
  • They are more likely to have the police officers manufacture evidence against them or provide false testimony.
  • They are less likely to have adequate legal representation.
  • They are more likely to have their bail denied or set at higher rates.
  • They are more likely to accept a sentence reduction by admitting to a crime they did not commit in order to be released from jail or prison.
  • They are more likely to be convicted by a judge or jury of criminal behavior.
  • They will be sentenced to more time than their white peers for equivalent crimes.
  • Once incarcerated, they are less likely to be released for good behavior.

And now we know that statistically, they are 7 times more likely to be exonerated for a crime they did not commit which suggests Black folk are more likely to have been convicted of a crime they did not commit.

Let me be clear.  Every time a Black person is exonerated for a crime they did not commit, this is not a good news story.  It is evidence of how poorly our system is working for Black people.   These are stories of justice denied, delayed and ignored.  While I am glad Mr. Walter is finally free, his freedom does not diminish the injustice of what was done to him by a racist system.  Indeed, the injustices toward him continue.  He was released from prison to an impoverished existence with few marketable skills, no accumulated assets, and limited opportunities.

When I relate stories like this to my white peers, they often shake their heads in sadness and comment, “I wish there was something we could do to avoid these situations.”  They imply such occurrences of injustice are unavoidable.

This is one of the lies of white supremacy.

Our present justice system is designed to give us exactly what we get – disproportional injustice for those who are not white.  This is intentional in the design and implementation of the system. Our system, even when it acknowledges its flaws, does little to eliminate them.  It is a system with laws and statutes of limitation that protect police officers and prosecutors from any consequences for their intentional acts of wrongful arrest and conviction.  Indeed, it is a system which protects its “bad apples” and ostracizes those who expose racist behavior.

Let me suggest three steps that would seriously reduce or even eliminate cases of innocent Americans – black or otherwise – of being convicted of crimes they did not commit because of the unscrupulous behavior of police officers and prosecutors.

  1. All municipalities should be made financially responsible for miscarriages of justice. Laws should dictate the payment of $1 million dollars per year to persons who were victims of the fabrication of evidence or hiding of exonerating facts.  This would have two immediate impacts.  First, it would mean someone like Sullivan Walker would be due $36 million dollars as compensation for the injustice done to him by representatives of the State.  Second, jurisdictions would have a much stronger incentive to vet and monitor their employees for racial animosity and ethical integrity.
  1. Lawyers and law firms should be allowed to collect 50% of any compensation provided by the State for wrongful convictions. This would incentivize the system to vigorously examine every case and aggressively investigate possible injustices.  Instead of relying on a few non-profits and poorly staffed governmental units to expose these injustices, we would apply the benefits of a capitalistic society to solving the problem.  Exposing injustice would become lucrative.
  1. Finally, we could legislate that in cases where clear wrongdoing on the part of police officers and prosecutors was exposed, that the perpetrators of these crimes WOULD FULFILL THE SENTENCES OF THOSE THEY VICTIMIZED. This could serve as a powerful deterrent, especially in cases of capitol crime, to intentionally convicting someone for a crime they did not commit.  In addition, the State could be empowered to confiscate the assets of the offenders in order to contribute to the monetary compensation being provided to the victim.

If our country is really interested in justice, why not create strong incentives for police officers and prosecutors to do their very best to avoid the conviction of innocent people?  In a system with racial inequities, why not make sure that those who are victimized by this system can at least know we take that victimization seriously?

Cases like that of Sullivan Walker are avoidable.

If we want them to be.

Anti-Racism Index

Anti-Racism Index

Friends,

I have been writing blogs two or three times a week for five years now.  I began with the realization that I knew very little about racism.  Over those past five years, I discovered my ignorance exceeded my expectations.  There was so much I did not know or understand.

Today, I am adding a subject index to my blog website.  I’ve taken some of my biggest epiphanies and arranged them in the following categories…

  1. A PRIMER FOR WHITE PEOPLE ABOUT RACISM.
  2. THINGS MOST WHITE PEOPLE DON’T KNOW
  3. EXPERIENCE OF RACISM AS A TRANS-RACIAL FAMILY
  4. UNDERSTANDING SYSTEMIC RACISM
  5. HISTORY LESSONS ON RACISM
  6. REPARATIONS
  7. BECOMING ANTI-RACIST

Each segment includes about a dozen blogs around that subject area with links to the blog posts and a short description of the content.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to browse the index.

More importantly, I hope you’ll consider this as a resource as you and others navigate life in our racially-challenged society.

The Terrible Weight of Not Knowing

The Terrible Weight of Not Knowing

Several years ago, I asked my friend Stephen, who is Black, how he felt about hearing a white person use the N-word.  He replied, “When a white person uses the N-word, they are telling me exactly who they are.  It’s the white person who tells me I didn’t get the job that worries me.  I never know if that was because I was less qualified or because I am Black.”  While I thought Stephen’s response profound, I didn’t fully understand this dimension of racism until this past month.

I didn’t understand the terrible weight of not knowing.

This past month, I changed our homeowner’s insurance from one carrier to another.  It is something I’ve done a dozen times over the years without incident.  This time, three weeks after switching companies, the new company sent us a cancellation notice – something I’d never experienced or heard of others experiencing.  The cancellation notice gave no rationale for this decision and a phone number to call for more information.

When I called that phone number, a representative of the insurance company informed me that during the drive by inspection of our home, the underwriter had determined our roof was old and in disrepair and recommended cancellation.  This seemed rather odd since our roof is less than 15 years old.  When I asked if we could dispute the cancellation, the representative agreed to review our case.

When the representative called me back, she admitted to considerable confusion on her part.  She said, “I review a lot of these cases and your house does not fit our criteria for cancellation.  I don’t understand why the underwriter made this decision.  Your roof looks fine in the photos.”  After a couple of days of back and forth with the underwriter, the company restored our coverage.

I’ve thought a lot about what happened.  Why, after years of companies driving by our house to confirm our description of our house, did this drive by inspection result in a cancellation?  What was different?  Same house.  Same neighborhood.  Same answers on the insurance questions.  The only difference I can think of is that we now have a “Black Lives Matter” sign on our front door.

Is it possible that the underwriter saw the “Black Lives Matter” sign and assumed we were a Black family?  Is it possible that the company had a policy – unwritten – to look for any reason to deny coverage to Black families?  Was racism the reason our policy was cancelled?

We’ll never know, but I wonder.

This is the point where many white people will shake their heads and think, “He always makes everything about race.  There are a dozen other explanations for his insurance being cancelled.”  That is certainly possible.  This is also the response my friend, Stephen, has learned to expect from white people when he wonders if he didn’t get the job because he is Black.  White people love to consider anything, but racism.  We ignore the possibility that we live a world where people and companies might deny insurance coverage to someone simply because of the color of their skin.  We do this even when we know such things happen.

In April of 2000, Nationwide Insurance settled a racial discrimination lawsuit that proved the following:

  • Nationwide racially profiled neighborhoods.
  • Nationwide actively discouraged agents from selling insurance in black neighborhoods.
  • Nationwide used unsound underwriting to exclude Black families.
  • Nationwide denied coverage and cancelled insurance for Black homeowners.

A jury in Virginia found Nationwide guilty of all these racial discriminations and rewarded $100 million in damages.  After an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, Nationwide eventually agreed to pay $18 million in damages.  In the settlement, Nationwide did not admit guilt or commit to changing its coverage or underwriting policies.

What this company was doing was not unique.  There is continuing evidence of significant and discriminatory differences in appraisals, mortgage rates, loan conditions, inspections, insurance and sale prices for homes owned by Black homeowners.  Just this year in Indianapolis, Carletta, a Black friend of mine, had her home appraised for $110,000 when the actual value was about $260,000.  She is suing the appraiser.

The family of Erica and Aaron Parker who had their house appraised at $465,000.  The couple decided to replace all their family pictures with pictures of a white family and had their appraisal come in at $557,000.  Freddie Mac, the federal organization monitoring home loans, analyzed their voluminous data of national appraisals and found huge disparities between appraisals of Black and white owned homes in the same neighborhoods.

This is where some of my white friends will argue that appraisals from two different appraisers are bound to differ.  How do we really know if race was the primary factor? 

We’ll never know for sure.

This is one of the dimensions of racism I never understood until this past month.

I never understood the terrible weight of not knowing.

As a white person, until this past month, I’ve always known. 

Nothing negative ever happened to me because of the color of my skin.  Indeed, many positive things – most of which I am unaware – happen to me.  When something negative does happen, I can be fairly certain the explanation given to me is true, or at least it has nothing to do with my race.

This is one of the subtle advantages of being white in America.

We get to know.

To Be White and Conservative Is To Be Racist

To Be White and Conservative Is To Be Racist

I still have a few white, conservative friends.

They are people who deeply dislike Donald Trump and much of the direction of the Republican Party, but also have serious reservations about the Democrats and many progressive causes.  They remind me that it is possible to be white and conservative and not be fascist and racist.  I think they are right about fascism.  Liz Cheney is a good example.  I disagree with most of her political positions, but I respect her commitment to the democratic process.

I am not so sure about the racism claim.

Is it possible to be white, conservative, and not be racist?

I am always curious about what white conservatives are trying to conserve.  Some seem to long for a past age in America when “life was good.”  Others suggest they seek to conserve American values they see as threatened or even lost.  Still others hope to conserve – or perhaps reclaim – a politics with less rancor and vitriol.  While their pronouncements sound noble, they all build upon the idea that America’s best days were in its past.  These people may despise Trump, but they seem quite comfortable with “Making America Great Again.”

I often ask them when they think America was great.  When asked this question in 2017, Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the Alabama Senate race, replied, “America was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery.”  In other words, America was great when six million Black men, woman and children were treated as property.

Most of my conservative friends were as appalled by Moore’s claim as I was, but their response to that question isn’t really all that different.  They often mention some time in their childhood or early adulthood.  A Pew survey of Republicans found that when asked “when was America great,” many chose the 1950s and early 1960s as the last years when America was great.  In other words, America was great before the Civil Rights Movement challenged Jim Crow and restored civil rights to people of color.

This is the problem with any nostalgic desire to return to an American past – it is inherently racist.  To do so is to ennoble and glorify a time when people of color had far fewer right than white people.  It is to conserve a status quo that was white supremacist in tone and practice.  Frankly, unless you are a white male, there is no better time to live in the United States than right now. This is true if you are woman, a person of color, physically or mentally challenged, homosexual, bi-sexual, transgender, gender neutral or any other minority or marginalized group.

When I point this out to my white conservative friends, they never ague.  They know this is true.  They usually shift to arguing for conserving certain American values – a belief in God, a defined moral order, slow and careful change, valuing past precedent, and social order.  For example, they often lament the loss of the nuclear family as the bedrock of American greatness.  Divorce is too easy.  Children are raised without fathers.  They yearn for a day when the family is once more honored and advantaged.

They seem completely unaware of how racist policies caused much of what they lament.  Historically, public policy intentionally and consistently undermined the families of people of color by creating economic and legal obstacles to their success.  Policies were designed to promote white families at the expense of black families.  In the 1950’s, public policy brought millions of dollars to white veterans through the GI Bill and largely ignored black veterans.  Social Security was originally designed to exclude many occupations that employed people of color.  Welfare laws required poor families to be led by single mothers, disrupting many minority families.  After the 1960s, many of these policies – designed to impact families of color – began to also impact white families negatively.

Here is a painful truth for white conservatives – the nuclear family with a mother at home was a result of policies which gave white families financial advantages at the expense of families of color.  Women of color rarely had the option of staying home with their children.  They were often working for those white nuclear families.  Nostalgia for this kind of family inherently devalues a multitude of other types of family configurations that developed as alternatives to a kind of family primarily reserved for white people.

Too often, whether white conservatives acknowledge it or not – what they seek to conserve is a culture of whiteness.  It is a belief in the God of a white Jesus.  It is a defined moral order which values and defends a status quo where whites are vastly richer than people of color.  It values past precedent without acknowledging the racist motives and prejudices of past figures, pronouncements, laws, and legal opinions.  White conservatives love to talk of the founding fathers without any embarrassment that all of them were white men – most of them slave owners.

When I bring all of this into the conversation, often white conservatives admit these truths, but argue that they miss the days when such conversations didn’t have to be so rancorous, when we could talk about racism and justice without animosity.

To which I say that day never existed.

What existed was a culture where the opinions of white people were the only opinions given opportunity, value, and voice.  There was little rancor around issues of race and justice because white people generally agreed that people of color – as minorities – did not deserve a voice in American democracy.  And, since white people were the majority of the electorate, they were in a position to defend their privileges.

The animosity white conservatives are experiencing now is the built-up frustrations of voices long ignored or silenced.  They are often aimed at those who would conserve this racist past.  Are they loud?  Yes.  Are they insistent?  Yes.  Are they invalid?  No.  When white conservatives yearn for a day when political discourse was more tranquil and less partisan, they yearn for a day with all political parties and social institutions generally supported white supremacy.

This is my problem with my white conservative friends.

They yearn for a past that no one else misses.

It is a racist past.

Their desire to conserve that is racist.

The Myth of Black Violence

The Myth of Black Violence

In any conversation with a white person about race – be they conservative, moderate or even progressive – I have learned to expect the subject of black on black crime to come up within the first fifteen minutes.  The white person bringing up Black on Black crime will usually say something like this…

Maybe our country still has some work to do about racism, but I wish someone could explain why there is so much Black on Black crime.  Why is it that Blacks are 2 to 3 times more likely to commit a crime and usually against another Black person?  Maybe black people should stop committing crimes and celebrating those who do in their rap music.

While the white person implies some confusion, they obviously don’t need anyone to explain Black on Black crime to them.  Though the statistics for white on white crime are nearly identical to that of Black and Black crime, they have concluded Black on Black crime is evidence of a Black propensity – genetically and/or culturally – to violence. 

This is not a new argument.  It is a well-worn white supremacist trope developed during enslavement to justify rigid control and brutal punishment of enslaved Black men and women.  According to this prejudice, Blacks were little more than animals and could be expected to be more violent.  This argument was often supported with pseudo-science about brain size, body type and other arguments for Black inferiority.  Ironically, these arguments were being made during a period of American enslavement replete with examples of white brutality toward Black people.  During enslavement, Black on white violence were rare and quickly and ruthlessly suppressed.

Usually, when I explain these things to another white person, they respond with something like this…

Well, I agree that slavery was horrible, but that was nearly 200 years ago.  How does any of that explain Black and Black violence today?  If they really want to improve their lives, robbing and killing each other isn’t going to help their cause.

This is, of course, another white supremacist trope.  Many white people imply – whether they realize it or not – that when enslavement ended that Black people were immediately treated with justice and equity and had the opportunities to create lives of promise and prosperity.  This could not be further from the truth. 

Indeed, with the end of legal enslavement, many Blacks experienced even more violence than during enslavement.  During enslavement, they legally belonged to another white person and there were consequences for damaging another white person’s property.  From 1863 until 1963, every white person they encountered could do violence toward them with little fear of consequence.  White on Black crimes were seldom prosecuted, but even the suspicion of violence on the part of a Black person was swiftly and brutally addressed by lynching, mutilations, and murder.

When I explain the long history of white mob violence toward Black individuals and communities, the stories of Rosewood, of Tulsa and of East St. Louis, the lack of convictions for the rape of Black women for nearly 80 years, and the countless examples of unjustified violence toward Black people, white people often ask…

So are you arguing that white people are the reason for Black on Black crime?

 Exactly.

Through generations of experience, Black people have learned violence toward white people is not an option.  Black people know that white and white crime will usually be investigated, adjudicated and punished equitably.  They know that even the suspicion of Black on white crime will be brutally addressed, often without any due process.  They know Black on Black crime will largely be ignored, except as evidence that Blacks are violent and inferior.

Black people are not stupid.

While they are not more violent than white people, they know – if they are driven to violence because of poverty, resentment, humiliation, or hopelessness – they will only make things much worse if they commit that violence on a white person. In a white supremacist society, Black on Black crime is the safest crime for a black person to commit.  They have watched police kill Black people for the mere threat of violence.  In America, a Black man can be shot multiple times in the back when refusing to obey a police officer while Dylann Roof can walk into a Black church, kill nine people, be peacefully detained by police and taken to Burger King for a burger.

When I carefully lay out this explanation for Black on Black violence, white people often remain adamant that Black on Black violence – and NOT systemic racism – is a problem requiring action. They often end our conversation with something like this…

Well, I just think Black people need to clean up their own house first.

White people refuse to see the obvious.

Black people don’t own a house.

They all live in a house owned, controlled, and monitored by white people where even a hint of violence toward their white housemates is cause for a quick and harsh response.

The greatest threat of violence for Black people in America is not Black on Black crime.  The greatest threat of violence for Black people in America is as it has always been – white people.  Even more discouraging, they know that much of this violence will not even be considered a crime.  It will be the government and society sanctioned violence of police, prosecutors, and judges.

If we are really interested in reducing Black on Black crime, there is a simple solution.  We must create a fair and equitable society where Black people can feel safe in police encounters, jails, and courts as well as in the streets. We must reduce the many ways our society continues to do violence to people of color.