June 25, 2015
Practicing denial in American society in terms of the effects of systemic oppression of African Americans has been easy. We have been socially conditioned to accept the status quo of the current state of society in the spirit of not creating tension. Our social conditioning has come from various sources including but not limited to – the media, politicians, law makers, our own community, and family members. Like unruly children, American institutions of government, law, and education had been enabled to operate using underhanded practices that until 1964, produced ever present inequities for African Americans (Harris). The effects of the institutional oppression in black communities are crippling and our acceptance of generational racism has enabled it. We, as an American society, must come to a collective agreement that there is indeed a very tangible problem with the cards that African American were dealt, and instead of continuing to enable the inequities with inadequate bandages, we must empower and provide real education for society as a whole.
Being in denial of inexcusable behavior is just as damaging as knowingly allowing it to continue. This dysfunctional blindness we succumb to because we are too fearful of retribution can no longer continue; it is just as crippling as neglect. As a society, we are groomed to be polite, not ask too many questions, do not disrupt, and don’t challenge authority, Our social conditioning has created generations of tolerant individuals that attempt to justify and/or cover up dysfunctional behaviors, customs, and even laws that have created impoverished communities and a defeatist mentality towards those communities. In the 1930’s, after the collapse of the stock market followed by the depression era, Congress established the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to assist homeowners facing foreclosure. This federal agency implemented an appraisal process that encouraged lenders to rate neighborhoods for mortgage risk based on undesirable residents defined as racial or ethnic minorities and low-income inhabitants (Woods). This “scientific appraisal”, titled Red-Lining, could deem an entire community as a hazardous bank investment, contributing to disinvestment and racial discrimination (Harris). This is one of the most obscene records of laws created that corroborated oppression.
Between the years of 1934 and 1962, the US government backed 120 billion dollars of home loans through the FHA, made available only to non-minorities and only if they did not live close to minorities (Woods). While the United States was expanding the American dream of home ownership to millions of middle-class whites, African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities, including low-income individuals, were barred from full access to home ownership and were trapped in slums with an inadequate and finite amount of inhabitable space. As a result of red-lining, entire communities gradually lost resources and access to basic needs as was documented in Nashville in 1950 when “29 percent of all dwelling units were dilapidated or had no running water, for the non-white population that proportion was much higher at 70 percent” (Woods). These types of conditions have proven to lead to a disenfranchised mentality and an eventual sense of being indirectly subjugated. At a time when minorities were just beginning to exercise their rights to live free from segregation and discrimination, this process further forced them into poor urban centers, establishing ghettos, segregation, and further deterred investments in their communities. Red-lining fostered an impoverished community environment whose current culture teaches a justification of “whatever it takes to survive” actions which more often than not lead to illegal punishable offenses. The Redlining practices of the early 1960’s are glaring examples of laws were passed and supported that blatantly discriminated against blacks and other already impoverished races.
One very recent example of denial and social conditioning via the media was the questionable news coverage on Fox News of the shooting at the 200 year old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. When E.W. Jackson, a black pastor, was asked his opinion, and unwittingly suggested the event to be a crime against Christianity despite the obvious facts of the shooting that characterized it as a racially driven hate crime. Witnesses recounted the comments made by the shooter to a black parishioner by the shooter before he opened fire, “Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country” (Corasaniti). E.W. Jackson, commenting that this shooting was anything but a racially fueled event, is a perfect example of the denial that is prevalent in our society and the use of the black pastor to make these comments is an unpalatable attempt at social conditioning, “If a black man believes this was a crime against religion, you should too.” Change will not come if we cannot be honest about our current mindsets and the current state of the media and other institutions that are long overdue for accountability and oversight.
We continue to enable and indirectly contribute to the constant struggle of impoverished communities via the institution of the social welfare system. Black Americans are steered towards these resources as a short term answer when they come upon economic hardships. The problem is that these systems do not provide access to quality education so that the user of the system can eventually earn their way up and out. This eventually leads to a cycle of dependence where the user is stigmatized and rarely finds independence. The stigma of “being on welfare” has come to be associated with also being black despite the statistics showing that the majority of participants using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are actually white (United States Department of Agriculture).
One of the most challenging changes America will have to address in its’ quest for true equality will be in its’ institutions of law and government. Prison and law officials have the greatest opportunity for improvement as they make the biggest impact in the black community with 22%-25% of the male population being incarcerated. The statistics prove that black males are arrested eight times more often than white males (Martensen). These findings have been correlated to laws that single out black Americans, such as the Stop & Frisk police technique (Bergner). Law enforcement officials need more support and education to understand and prevent the cycles of racially driven thoughts and actions in incarceration.
Once in prison, the system is harsh and unforgiving, as was seen by the diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder of Browden’s suicide (Schwirtz). This young man was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was 16 years old, held for three years without trial, with most of his time spent in solitary confinement. Browden had no previous criminal history but was treated like a hardened criminal. The brutal beatings he was subject to, at the hands of correctional officers as well as other inmates, were recorded by security cameras. When his case was finally dismissed after three years, he succumbed to depression and committed suicide bringing national attention to the brutal and inhumane incarceration system and the lack of oversight in the judicial systems of America. A qualified mentor or educator trained to recognize Browden’s symptoms that resulted from our dysfunctional social conditioning could have prevented this tragedy.
Recidivism is another fallout the the black community has to contend with. The Virginia Department of Corrections, or VADOC, implemented a complete cultural restructuring of its’ entire staff in response to findings that the traditional prison housing systems did little to reform inmates (Richeson). VADOC started by introducing the new culture as a paradigm. They shifted the culture of the staff by implementing a living document with a strategy and a mission that acknowledged the ideas and beliefs of all 11,700 employees. This strategic plan was operational and philosophical and created a sense of oneness that evolved into a “Healing” environment for the staff that trickled down to the inmates. Creative programs were implemented for the inmates, including a dog program session, dialog sessions that enabled communication, classroom sessions, and group reentry training sessions. These sessions combine to make up the VADC Segregation Step down program. The results are impressive as serious prison incidences dropped 33 percent. The recidivism rate dropped from 27.3 percent to 22.8 percent in a three year period, making the VA Department of Corrections the second lowest in the nation for recidivism. These are proven results that beg the question to be asked, why is this not being implemented nationwide? This is a perfect example of how a complete restructuring of a system is not only possible but successful.
Another interesting alternative proposed in a prison environment was the teaching of meditation to inmates. Their desire to learn and adapt to this peaceful coping technique was showcased as an ability to reform (Dhamma Brothers). Studies have proven how effective meditation can be at actually changing your thought process and improving your overall physical response to stress (Walters). This same program can be used to benefit both correctional and police officers, as well as education professionals to supplement their efforts to teach a challenged demographic in the process of an education overhaul.
A complete restructuring to the American education system could prove to be the most daunting task to face. Our education system is supposed to be the neutral space where we can seek and find the truth, but the history of what has occurred in black America has been diluted and often times left out. This complacent denial of historical and modern day oppression has contributed to the enabling of generational racism. There are critical historical events that we need to place more emphasis on, more importantly the response to these events, to teach that what happened is not humane and will not be tolerated. The educational programs need to include these historical events to empower. Students and society will be empowered by intellectual and social support via qualified and motivated educators and mentors. Establishing an education program that empowers will build a society that is not afraid to call out injustice as soon as it is recognized and instill hope and resiliency so they may pull themselves from the historical cycles of racism.
One such event in our history that has not been given a place in most history books was the Tulsa, Oklahoma burning of the “Black Wall Street” (Sulzeberger). In 1921, a mob of armed white men came face to face with a group of black men in front of the court house. A young black man had been accused of raping white woman and the case had been dismissed. The white men were angry and the black men were hoping to prevent a lynching. The black men fled after a shot was fired. They were chased through their community of Greenwood, the most prosperous American black neighborhood in history, called the Black Wall Street. The Tulsa police chief armed the civilian white men who went on to destroy 40 blocks in Greenwood. This was a significant event that was intentionally swept under the rug (Sulzeberger). Even in the online library of ASU, there are just a few, very recent, mentions of it. It was called a race riot but the burning of an entire community that displaced 8,000 families and killed approximately 300 blacks would be considered a massacre by today’s standards.
Education reform needs to happen so that society can learn of these moments and get a true understanding of the series of events that has led us to the results of decades of institutional oppression. Teaching accurate historical events as well as teaching universal compassion for where we are, as individuals and as a society needs to be addressed in our education systems. The challenge will be training and finding qualified individuals and convincing them that their work is needed in the places that seem to have the least hope.
There is a disturbing parallel that can be clearly made from 1963. Here we are over half a century later and we are still facing the same atrocities; black lives lost at a church at the hands of a white male. In reference to the lives lost in a racially driven church fire, Martin Luther King Jr. says, “They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.” What have we not learned and why haven’t we made greater strides? This further solidifies my theory that historically accurate and racially aware education from K-12, over all needs to be an ingrained part of the social fabric. Once we have established this reform then can we expect to see change and eventually the clearing of the disillusionment about the institutional oppression of America. To be perfectly fair to America, racism and oppression is alive all over the world. The recent “Social Cleansing” in the Dominican Republic of Haitians via their “Welcome Centers” is reminiscent of the processing centers in Germany leading up to the holocaust. As arguably the most scrutinized country in the world; we have an opportunity in this moment to take action and lead by example. Let’s not be afraid to talk about these moments in the classroom, at the kitchen table and in church. Let’s restructure our educational system and teach the real history of institutionalized oppression of African Americans with a strong emphasis on compassion through mindfulness and meditation tools that provide lifelong support for self-reliance and let the world know, we are ready to be the change.
Bergner, Daniel. “Is Stop-and-Frisk Worth It?” Atlantic, 313 3(2014): p54-65. Print.
Corasaniti, Nick, Richard Perez and Lizette Alvarez. “Church Massacre Suspect Held as Charleston Grieves” The New York Times, 18 June 2015. News sec: Region. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting.html>
Dhamma Brothers. Dir. Jenny Phillips. Perf. 36 Inmates of Alabama Correctional Facility. Bullfrog Films, 2008. Netflix.
Harris, Richard and Doris Forrester. “The Suburban Origins of Redlining: A Canadian Case
Martensen, Kayla. “The price that US minority communities pay: mass incarceration and the ideologies that fuel them.” Contemporary Justice Review 15 2 (2012): p211-222. Print.
Richeson, Scott. “Can Corrections Heal?” Corrections Today 1 Nov 2014: p26-29. Print.
Schwirtz, Michael and Michael Winerp. Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide. The New York Times, 8 June 2008. News sec: Region. Web. < http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/nyregion/kalief-browder-held-at-rikers-island-for-3-years-without-trial-commits-suicide.html>
Sulzeberger, A.G. As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past. The New York Times, 19 June 2011. New sec: U.S. Web. < http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/20/us/20tulsa.html>
Unites States Department of Agriculture, Nutrition Assistance Program Report Series. Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2013.U.S. The Office of Policy Support, 2013 Food and Nutrition Service, Supplemental Nutrition Program Report No. SNAP-14-CHAR. p.76. <http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/ops/Characteristics2013.pdf>
Walters, Lea, Adam Barsky, Amanda Ridd, and Kelly Allen. Contemplative Education: A Systematic, Evidence-Based Review of the effect of Meditation Interventions in Schools. Education Psychology Review 27 1(2015) p.103-134. Print.
Woods, Louis Lee. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board, Redlining, and the National Proliferation of Racial Lending Discrimination, 1321*1950. Journal of Urban History 38 6(2012) p.1036-1059. Print.