Bridging the Chasm
The level of incivility that we’ve seen exhibited the last several months illustrates how deep-rooted are the problems and challenges our communities are facing. In my environment, both at a national “Disproportionate Minority Contact and Compliance Coordinator” (DMC) training meeting and locally here in Omaha, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that, as a nation, we lack a common, unifying theme that can help us bridge the chasm that is growing wider and more menacing by the day. The election is over and the results show that close to half of the registered electorate operate in a separate reality that believes this country is being invaded by hordes of criminal types, potential left-leaning Democratic voters and angry mobs.
To understand how widespread this delusional (and racist) mentality is we need to look no further than our criminal justice system where the over-confinement of people of color—particularly African Americans—is commonplace. In some areas, the jails are packed full of dark-skinned youth and adults. There are a multitude of factors in addition to racism accounting for this unacceptable state of affairs: poverty, poor quality education, joblessness and the lack of economic opportunity, inadequate health care and diet and nutritional deficiencies. But justice in America can never be color blind when our corrections system is disproportionately populated with people of color and non-whites are constantly portrayed as ‘others’ who pose a social and economic threat to whites’ personal security and way of life.
This widening chasm between whites and everybody else (the ‘everybody else’ of Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and African Americans who will be the numerical majority in U.S. by 2045) will lead to greater and greater conflict unless we find ways bridge this divide. To avert this future, we need more community members involved in discussions on creating meaningful change. Solutions to these problems though will not be found if composed (or imposed) by ‘the chosen few.’
Numerous nearly all-white organizations repeatedly attempt to ‘fix’ problems in our communities by using ‘top-down’ models. It is impossible, though, to serve our diverse populations effectively without going into their neighborhoods and homes and directly involving them in the planning effort. And when the plans are completed, are those organizations keeping the community actively engaged in the implementation process?
For example, some child welfare agencies provide services to culturally diverse communities east of 42nd Street in Omaha. This type of ‘line’ exists in many other cities and communities. Yet many of these all-white boards of directors and nearly all of the staff members live in wealthy or middle-income communities west of 42nd. The minutes of these agencies’ and organizations’ reflect that they are Eurocentric operations that rarely have people of color on their boards or a person of color on their staff—particularly
in a leadership position.
In spite of the untold dollars spent on ‘solving’ problems in our communities, these problems continue to grow. If we are serious about changing things for the better, we must start by finding effective ways to diversify the staff and board membership of these entities, and regularly conduct cultural and racial equity audits. But this is not an argument for any non-white face will do. Many boards of directors of nonprofit and charitable organizations, governmental bodies, and the governing committees of political
parties have no competent people of color serving on them. This tokenistic practice of appointing individuals who lack the qualifications to succeed does not advance our cause. Rather, it reflects and reinforces racism and social injustice.
Without authentic engagement by everyone (white and non-white alike) to bridge the chasm that’s now separating us, our efforts will ring hollow. We can continue to encourage low-income families and oppressed folks to vote and become engaged in political and public
policy discussions. Yet, how many real community forums are held in specific neighborhoods or community centers that serve people of color or low-income residents? All too often, after the elections are over, we resort back to the usual ways of conducting community business. Truly improving the lives of our residents who have been left behind means changing the ways that we engage them. And that means going to their parts of town and listening to their issues and bringing them into the boardrooms.
The educational system cannot be reformed without community participants’ and students’ input. We can’t improve communities or institutions without public transparency and accountability. And just as white people must step outside of their comfort zones and go meet people of color where they are, both North and South Omahans have to do a better job ofstepping up and getting involved. There are many residents who talk about the ‘redlining’ and gentrification that keeps our communities divided. Like it’s the weather, we complain about the segregation—both cultural and political—that divides us. Yet on a day-to-day basis, we aren’t willing to get and stay involved. Well, we can’t control the weather. But we can control the levels of apartheid in our respective communities by public policy and by creating opportunities for those who have historically been locked out of the system.
In short, we cannot expect the few to do the work for the many. We must pull our own weight. Our communities—particularly at this moment in history—needs truth-seekers to step forward and change the paradigm. American ‘democracy’ produces victims of internalized
racism and catfighting. Not everyone has the ability to effectively challenge this institutional racism and lead the way to reforming this dysfunctional behavior. But if you’re reading this, you’re one of those who does. We don’t have to name or call anyone out, but let me ask: When was the last time you joined the few serious community members who are known for speaking truth to power within those institutions or organizations and raised your own voice? The chasm that is daily growing wider isn’t going to be bridged without our vigilant participation… And we look away at our own peril.
Need I say more?
A’Jamal Byndon is the Chair of the PRI board of directors and an adjunct professor at UNO.
This article is reprinted from the November/December, 2018 edition of The Nebraska Report, a publication of Nebraskans for Peace.