Walker: 'We need a new agenda to revitalize urban neighborhoods'

Editor's note: The 2016 Kalamazoo Summit on Racism offered by SHARE: Society for History and Racial Equality on Nov. 17 had too many good ideas to cover in one story. We hope in weeks to come to follow up on many of the topics that could not be covered here. 

Nine days before Kalamazoo’s Summit on Racism the Donald J. Trump—seen by those who did not vote for him as a promoter of racism and an enabler of hate speech, who refused to disavow white supremacists who backed him—was elected president of the United States.

The reality hung in the air of the gathering, but it was more a call to action than retreat. Those gathered to explore what it will take for Kalamazoo to be a home to equity for all its people ultimately were asked to form a coalition to craft a new agenda to revitalize urban neighborhoods and more.

In her opening remarks, Donna Odom, SHARE executive director, told the group the summit would be a place where they would get a deeper understanding of where the community stands and what can make Kalamazoo more inclusive. The day would offer a chance to learn, share and be inspired. 

Odom explained to those in attendance that there would be signs of support they could adopt, such as wearing safety pins or orange buttons distributed by the YWCA, but those should be part of a larger commitment to working for racial equity. “Speak up and do something if you see intolerance.”

Odom also provided inspiration from the words of Chani Nicholas. 

In part, the author says: "We must be grounded. Rooted. Stable and unwavering. Our root systems connected. Interdependent. Linked up. Locking it down. Together, we must be a forest. A place that supplies oxygen. Covering. Shade. An eco-system. A shelter for the sacred. Individually, we must each be a small but vital part of something much bigger than ourselves. …This is the time to find ways to work with the fears in our own hearts and in the hearts of those around us. This is a time to build and rebuild the most secure connections that we have. To lay roots where we can. To dig into our humanity and our capacity to grow ourselves into the kind of people, the kind of society and the kind of country that we want to leave to the seedlings of the world."

The day continued with panels and break-out discussions. Young leaders from three nonprofits with their own cultural constituencies explored how they could work together. A second panel explored how data helps identify target areas for action, track progress, assess the impact of policies bolstering racist interactions, and raising awareness of the economic consequences of racism. 

Statistics show 44 percent of all black residents of Kalamazoo are poor. And 57 percent of black children in Kalamazoo live in poverty. Only 33 of the 224 cities in the United States have worse childhood poverty rates. Further, there has been a decline in the median household income in Kalamazoo from $56,748 to $45,745.

“Awareness of this disparity can lead to a community-wide change,” says Dr. Tim Ready of the Walker Institute. “The community can focus on how we can progress together. We have big challenges.”

In sessions throughout the day, participants explored the level of biases they possess and measured just how racist they are, found out about anti-racism teams used by various local institutions and businesses, ways to build alliances between White People and People of Color, and young people talked about their aspirations. 

During some sessions teachers in the audience talked about the increased bullying and verbal attacks against children of color they have seen since the election. For those Whites seeking basic information on how to understand Blacks, Felix Brooks says it starts with conversation. “Lunch, dinner, drinks. You have to be active, engage in dialog. You have to put them in your circle and be intentional about your actions.” Brooks is director of diversity and inclusion at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

Historical perspective, advice for the future

Saying he was not surprised by the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, keynote speaker Dr. Lewis Walker provided historical perspective for the current racial climate in the nation and advice for the future. He also said he had been talking to a friend from South Africa the night before the summit. “I mentioned to him I had been asked to give a few remarks at the Summit on Racism. There was a pause. He said, ‘A summit on racism? Man, you are going to a summit on sadness, so call it a summit on racism and sadness.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, no. We will not be sad because we are warriors. Our resolve will be to face the challenges as they come.”

Walker points out that Americans have never had a harmonious relationship within their constitutional democracy. The tension comes as a result of the language of the Declaration of Independence stating all men are created equal--that has never been the case in the United States from the time slaves were brought to the country’s shores in 1619. 

“The concept became pervasive that this is a white man’s country. Some came to believe that black men were not human, so ‘all men are created equal’ should not apply to them. Nonetheless, this is white man’s country. This notion became embedded in all of our institutions, deeply embedded. And whether you were a white child or a black child you were indoctrinated with that notion. People were not socialized, they were indoctrinated. Today our institutions still hold to the notion that this is the white man’s country. This notion played an important role in the election Tuesday last week.”

(As he continued to use the language “white man’s country," Walker said he intentionally did not refer to women because at the historical time he was discussing they were not considered equal to their male counterparts.)

Walker next asked his audience to imagine traveling back in time to Selma, Ala. “Come with me to Selma, Alabama. Give me the ability to make everyone in this room black. Close your eyes for a brief second. I am painting you black. You are now black. You are with me in Selma, Alabama where I observed as a small boy a black man hanging from a tree outside a cemetery. You’re black. We are talking about Jim Crow laws. Very rigid. I’m talking about the indoctrination of children on into adulthood who could not defy, who had to comply with the laws of their community.

“You’re now in Selma with me. At birth, you cannot be born in a white hospital. It’s against the law. You couldn’t drink from a fountain if it didn’t say ‘colored’. You’re thirsty. The ‘colored’ sign is there but the fountain doesn’t work. You’re in Selma. It’s 98 degrees. You cannot drink from that fountain. You have money in your pocket but you can’t eat at a white cafe or restaurant. You go to the store, a clothing store, you’re black. You cannot put on a pair of shoes unless you purchase those shoes.

“You can’t go to a white school. Can’t ride in the front seat of a bus. You can’t work certain jobs. You cannot sit downstairs in the theater. You can’t live in a white neighborhood, as a matter of fact, you must be out of the white neighborhood before dark unless you have a reason. Inter-racial dating was taboo and interracial marriage was against the law. You can’t vote, though you had a right to vote. You will be denied the vote if you can’t answer the question how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap.”

Walker went on to say, John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me, made the observation that the white man “was most democratic at night as he came into into the black community to have his way with our black women.” 

It all adds up to “dominance, the rigid laws, and practices put into place to govern your minds as black people,” Walker says.

He went to note that there have been challenges to the concept or legacy of the white man’s country. “History tells us that the white man’s country was not universally accepted by all people. There were challenges to this notion made by slaves themselves. "Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth—they said we are not, we don’t want to be, we will risk our lives to escape this oppression.

“At the same time, the number of anti-slavery societies increased in the South and many clergymen, journalists, and politicians denounced slavery as an immoral and unprofitable institution. Around 1790, many plantation owners freed their slaves. They sent them north to go to college or to get an education. There was also pushback. The notion of ‘the white man's country’ led to civil war. That tells us something about maintaining the white man’s country—thousands and thousands of people died in that struggle.” 

Rigid Jim Crow laws lead to Civil Rights movement

The Jim Crow laws such as those Walker had just asked his audience to imagine in Selma, gave rise to the protracted Civil Rights movement led Dr. Martin Luther King and many others. This movement “robustly challenged” the legacy of the white mans’ county, he says. “It was King who had a profound belief in the fairness and decency of the American people. But it was this movement that also led to the emergence of the women’s movement, the American Indian movement, and the Latino American movement—all challenging the concept of white supremacy.

“Quickly, there was tremendous black progress, progress that invaded every aspect of American life.” Walker spoke of the importance of the black power movement which equated being black and pride. “The black power movement was very important to us as African Americans. This progress came about as a result of important U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The voting rights, the civil rights acts all played a major role. But at the same time there were systemic economic changes coupled with major demographic shifts especially the growth in the Hispanic, Latino and Muslim populations. These shifts have added fuel to the notion that the white man’s country is being lost. Hence the slogan, not new today, ‘we must take back our country.’”

While there has been enormous black progress there also has been the concentration of poverty in many cities, Walker says. Violence is rampant. But there are other kinds of damaging violence.

“I want to bring to your attention a statement made by the late Robert Kennedy,” Walker said. “He cautioned us: ‘There is another kind of violence, slower, but just as deadly and destructive. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.’  

Kennedy also said, “When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies—to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered."

For Walker, these statements are as true today as they were when Kennedy said them in 1968. He offered some examples of such institutional violence. “The federal war on drugs is directly responsible for the disproportionate number of African-American men in our prisons, 2.1 million people total. These policies were deliberately done. Set in motion by those in the political power. Another example is policies that favored white flight to the suburbs.  Detroit once had over 1.5 million people. Today there are about 700,000.”

Finally, Walker encouraged the formation of a coalition that will fashion a new local agenda, made possible by the $70 million gift from two people in Kalamazoo.

“What I’m getting at here is we need to make sure this new agenda will forcefully address the revitalization of poor, urban neighborhoods in our community, that will promote job training programs to enhance employment opportunities, and improve public education to prepare our young people for higher paying and stable jobs.” The coalition can use and mobilize the resources of which the community is rich, Walker says.  

“I’m optimistic. I hope at least that I didn’t make you anxious, nervous, or upset about Donald Trump. I’m optimistic because I made it through before," Walker says. "I marched with Dr. King in Mississippi, against fear. We worked for social justice for the liberation of people, our people, and others. Dr. King told us if you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. and if you can’t walk crawl. But keep moving forward. And I'm convinced we will continue to move forward, Donald Trump notwithstanding. I know that as a multi-racial and multicultural society that we will not back down.” 

Kathy Jennings in the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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