The grace of the African Methodist Episcopal Church community, a stirring eulogy by President Barack Obama, and the reaction of states across the South to remove Confederate flags have been reminders that we are capable of deeply human acts during deeply troubling times. Ted Van Dyk’s recent Crosscut article (“South Carolina: An example of smart leadership”), sought to bring a personal and historical perspective to bear on our narrative of these events, but instead invoked some persistent problems afflicting our community.
Painting an optimistic look at race relations through his look back into a bit of his own history, the article manages to remind us both that “embedded racism does not yield easily and not just to laws and government programs” but also that "the locals [of Charleston] recognized, as others should have, that the killer was a deranged loner who did not represent larger racism in our society." Later on, we are told that “political leaders, of all outlooks, must stop using race as a wedge issue to alarm and energize constituencies within their parties.” If indeed race were just a wedge issue, then the fact that six predominantly black churches have burned to the ground since the events in Charleston might truly be a coincidence.
If our goal is equality, we cannot let this type of narrative persist. We cannot applaud the work of policies and programs designed to create more equitable conditions for all of our citizens, yet keep the belief that we are somehow past racial discrimination.
We have to tell the truth within our white liberal community. Institutional and structural racism exists, and it presents very real and dynamic barriers for communities of color in our city. Those who would have us congratulate ourselves on the progress we’ve made, as Mr. Van Dyk did, perpetuate the implicit belief among many that we might just be free to move on from this and focus on other matters. We cannot. We live in the only county in the country named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, as if to us: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Because we live in a culturally diverse region doesn’t mean that we are somehow protected from the evils of the world to the south and east. Our liberal point of view does not guarantee that we are above racism. We cannot profess to embody the values of equality while communities of color are displaced from viable housing options, while the achievement/opportunity gap in our city continues to grow and school discipline is administered on a disproportionate basis toward children of color, and while disproportionate numbers of black men are incarcerated and subsequently released without the ability to vote. In light of the last two weeks in which gay rights and health care were upheld, we must be careful to not let these moments move us into a place of complacency on issues that persist.
In his eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Obama quoted him as saying, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each others’ history.”
I think that the same can be said for us here in Seattle. We live near each other, celebrate the fact that we have such cultural diversity, yet we don’t live together. I don’t think the article's words were meant to cause harm. I do believe, though, that many of us must work to understand how we are contributing to the perpetuation of race-based barriers to equality in our city and broader community, and we must do what we can, as white males in particular, to break them down.