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Race issues improving, but hard work remains Seeing Little Rock in full color

November 18, 2019
Daily Record
Four bright-eyed teens line one side of a library table in arguably the most iconic address in Little Rock, Central High School. The kids – two black females, one white male and one white female – share snippets about their day, compare notes on teachers, talk about activities they have in common. It’s not a particularly revolutionary scene, except that it is. There was a time, a time painfully close, that such a group could not have sat peacefully here, did not know the same people, could not share jokes about a teacher. They are part of the Memory Project, a school initiative meant to teach young people the lessons of the past in order to forge a better future. Of course, no extracurricular activity can by itself solve the seemingly eternal difficulties that dog efforts to bring equality and justice to all in the community or shake them free of its residue. None of the four kids live in the neighborhood surrounding Central, or in each other’s neighborhoods for that matter. When pressed, they admit to acting differently around teachers, police or other authority figures based on common or disparate race. Undeniably, the club is one of those things to feel optimistic about when it comes to race in Little Rock. But as one community leader after another pointed out, the true realization of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of joining hands across color, ethnic, political and religious lines is still just a beacon. “There’s a constant tension between racism and anti-racism. A constant back and forth,” said Christina Shutt, director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and Museum of African American History. “When we have anti-racist actions and the needle moves forward, racism finds a new way to move forward. This duty we have is to try to figure out how do we stop that; how we make the anti-racism go forward and leave the racism behind.” Leaders such as Shutt point out it’s easy to feel good about the friendly tones and gestures we take with each other, except when that surface behavior keeps us from the messy and uncomfortable action needed to fundamentally change underlying institutional inequalities sprouting from the same bad seed. “Proximity is part of the issue,” Shutt said. “When you don’t live next door to people, when you don’t live in honest and real community with people, it makes a difference. It becomes really easy to be ‘othering’ them – ‘Oh, that’s those people over there.’ “It’s even in the way we talk about schools and neighborhoods where that’s a ‘good’ neighborhood and that’s a ‘bad’ neighborhood. Usually when people talk about good neighborhoods, good neighborhoods are described as being absent of people of color. So there’s all sort of coded ways we can sink in this kind of racist culture, ways that are very subtle.” Preston Clegg, pastor of Second Baptist Church downtown, said some of these institutional issues aren’t even all that subtle. He bristles talking about the controversy involving Little Rock School District, at odds with the public and teachers unions over control and educational opportunity. “[That’s] the most obvious city issue to me, it’s a siren,” he said. “When you institute policies that have a disparate impact on one race, that is systemic racism in its very definition. For me, the last five years of the State Board of Education’s control of the school district, is a crystal-clear example of systemic racism at work.” Clegg has been publicly outspoken on such matters since arriving at Second Baptist in 2013 and even more so internally. He recently implemented Race in the Rock, a weekly speaker series, in the belief that change starts with understanding. It’s a simplistic concept that belies the complexity of the task. “Our church has been desegregated since 1957, if not before. But we’re still working on the integration part,” he said. “We’re asking questions of what a predominantly white church’s role is in the racial work of our day. What does that look like for us? Second Baptist’s commitment to civil activism is one way Little Rock churches are choosing to break down barriers. Others, such as First United Methodist Church, interpret their charism through service, supporting a variety of ministries that seek to improve the lives of homeless, low-income and working poor, many of whom are people of color. Pastor David Freeman said while all Christians are compelled by faith to serve their neighbor, some churches are better than others at living this out in a true Christlike manner. “In all of this, we want it to be relationship-driven and not simply this transactional, ‘Well, we’ve got all the resources and the power and we’re going to hand it out the way we can,’” he said. “Sometimes it feels like that in a food assistance ministry. So, we seek to develop relationships with people to humanize [the work], which I think spiritualizes it.” Freeman said addressing racial issues begins with each person understanding and reflecting on the societal and professional doors that are either opened or closed to them based upon their color of skin. He said First Methodist’s recent classes on the subject are designed to help congregants do just that. “These classes are a conversation about this broader undercurrent of race and the tension that is in our community,” he said. “And for this church, which is overwhelmingly predominantly white and overwhelmingly predominantly upper middle class, they’re having to get in touch with history and systems that they’ve been unaware of for a long time that have created this tension.” Tamika Edwards, director of the Social Justice Institute at Philander Smith College, stands at a unique convergence of generations and attitudes. Raised in Little Rock, she’s a mother of two and interacts professionally with college students preparing to make their mark on the world. She said the challenge for the future is to not forget the lessons of the past. “I think what probably concerns me more than anything is that people do not fully know and understand history and how we got here,” she said. “It’s not even just about having conversations with people, but do we know our history? Do we know the truth of the history? Are we ready to confront the truth of our history and are we willing to do something about it? If we’re not going to do anything about it, it doesn’t matter how much you talk with people.” Edwards said this lack of understanding is one reason people are so uncomfortable talking on the subject of race. But it goes deeper than that. “It’s about discomfort, fear, I don’t want to be blamed,” she said. “Nobody wants to be seen as a bad person. We know what racism has done to our country and nobody wants to be associated with that. It’s easier to just not deal with it, because once you deal with it, you have to change. If one says racism is still alive and well and yes, I benefit from that system, you then have to do something about it or know that when you don’t do something about it you contribute to it.”
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