Saturday, February 21, 2015
Cleveland's Race Problem, revisited
When I started writing a recent piece for Politico on Cleveland's race problem, I was thinking a lot about the conversations we have and the conversations we don't have. As a community, we've had city council listening sessions, actions by Greater Cleveland Congregations, meetings at churches and ward clubs. In the midst of these many community meetings, the conversation has necessarily focused on the consent decree and community-police relations. My thinking was that there's another conversation we're not having and haven't had. In an early draft of the piece, I wrote
...this moment is actually the community's opportunity to have the conversations that ultimately are necessary if the community will thrive. You know how homeowners sometimes talk about deferred maintenance--the roof they don't want to replace yet, that kind of thing? This is deferred dialogue, the conversations we've been putting off. And the topic? Systemic racism.
What I was thinking is that when you really pull back to look at this moment in time, the tragic killings of Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell don't exist in a vacuum. They are examples of Cleveland's challenges around race, which are really the nation's challenges around race. The roots are the same everywhere: slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, the Great Migration, red-lining, white flight, the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, and so forth.
There were a number of people I interviewed, whose voices didn't make it directly into the piece, and in a kind of coda to the piece, I want to tell you about Anthony Jordan. Jordan is a local attorney, an African American, and used to work as a city prosecutor during the administration of Mayor Jane Campbell. His concern about systemic inequity drove him to run for the bench a few years back. He and I spoke on the phone, and I can't get one thing that he said to me out of my head.
We were talking about how hard it is to have these difficult but necessary conversations, and he said,
There's no lexicon for it. We don't have a language for the phenomenon that happens every single day. We see it every day, and we don't perceive it because we don't have words for it, but we walk away angry. It's not the kind of racism that we're used to talking about and that people are tired of talking about. It's really about the diminishing of people's personhood. There's a power in being a part of a certain group. All the power comes from a particular consciousness that is circumscribed in whiteness. It's a virulent and negative form of racism, it squelches out the personhood of others.
This is pretty heavy stuff. The idea that we lack the words and language to describe this difference is particularly powerful, but Jordan goes on to give it his best shot. What he's talking about is particularly difficult, I think, for white people to understand: What would it mean to have my personhood diminished? As I try to make sense of this, I remember moments when circumstances and individuals conspired to diminish my power, influence, relevance and agency, moments when I felt miserable, hopeless, and unsure of the future. And I can think of a moments in my life like that, but they are isolated moments, not connected to one another, and far from describing any kind of pattern. What Jordan is pointing to is that life for many African Americans is essentially that moment… all the time.
When I interviewed MetroHealth CEO Akram Boutros about this issue, he spoke of the idea of relevance. He said one of the most cruel things you can do to another human being is make them feel irrelevant. This is connected to the experience Jordan is talking about. I think we need to keep this in mind as we enter into and engage in these tough conversations. Perhaps, we could start from a stance of empathy and a spirit of nurturing the relevance of one another's experience. Maybe that's what we need.
By the way, if you're looking for some good City Club content along these lines, I'd encourage you to check out this event from last December, featuring Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. and Rev. Dr. Joan Campbell.