Real Change in a Rigged System
Many in the Omaha African American community are concerned with the resurgent levels of white supremacy, hate crimes, and raw racism on the local as well as national level. In the past few months, the conduct of Omaha Fire Department Union President Steve LeClair in publicly making a series of racial comments has drawn the attention of State Senator Ernie Chambers and others and put a lot of African Americans on edge. If a public-funded organ such as our firefighters can have a president of its union behaving in such a racist fashion, what else is going on within the ranks of that organization? Throughout my life, there have been racist incidents involving both the police and fire departments. Those are noted in the public record and in a 2012 letter sent to United States Attorney Deborah R. Gilg from Omaha community members such as Willie Hamilton, UNO Criminal Justice Professor Sam Walker and Nebraskans for Peace Omaha Coordinator Mark Welsch.
Meanwhile, how are we addressing these ongoing situations? Who is watching the watchdog? It has been over 14 years since Omaha had its first and only public safety auditor, Tristan Bonn, providing any semblance of law enforcement accountability for a racial and general complaints process within those respective departments. She was hired in 2000 and fired in 2006 for so-called “insubordinate” and “unprofessional” behavior for releasing a 28-page report criticizing the Omaha Police Department for traffic stops, without the approval of the mayor. Meanwhile, each year, state law requires the State of Nebraska to release records of law enforcement stops of various racial groups and people of color who are stopped for trivial reasons and at disproportionate rates compared to white drivers. These reports are not worth the paper their printed on if we’re not using them to show law enforcement that people of color—and particularly African Americans—are not to being treated fairly.
Despite repeated lip service, the Omaha public safety auditor position was never filled, and we have racial oppression history repeating itself. Tristan Bonn tried for years to regain her job but could not, because the so-called anti-discrimination agencies were toothless in ensuring that she was afforded due process. She subsequently ended up working for her brother for a number of years in Omaha, and then she moved to Denver and finally passed away. However, there have been at least five major incidents since the elimination of that position where that auditor position could have helped bring closure for the African American community and others and improved police-community relations.
As it stands, we have resorted back to an ‘internal affairs’ accountability process, which is akin to ‘no affairs’ because the public is not allowed to see that those bad apples are held accountable. For example, there is a weekly public meeting in Omaha called “360”. It is frequently cited as an example of the community working together. However, this weekly group only meets on Wednesdays for one hour from 2:00-3:00 p.m. The meeting portion on law enforcement consists largely of briefings on crimes and high-profile incidents like shootings or murders—a disproportionate number of which occur in North Omaha. The group is comprised of some of the nicest and kindest participants who can get to this middle-of-the-workday, non-evaluated meeting because it is a part of their job, or because they are retired with flexible schedules. Meanwhile, in this allotted hour, there is little in the way of conversation about exploring new, progressive initiatives and assigning responsibility to actually provide real police and community engagement.
To repeat, there too few professionals who have systematically addressed the disproportionate number of African Americans in the criminal justice system in Douglas County and the state. I am repeatedly asked about studies and data, but there is too little research about racial issues and incidents to try to identify best practices and compare with other jurisdictions. How can we change this paradigm? One would be to hire a person who has a passion for racial justice to work in these respective departments—and that person must have constant contact with African Americans who are most affected by the criminal justice system. Here are three topics crying out for attention:
- Years ago, PromiseShip (formerly known as the Nebraska Families Collaborative) was challenged regarding the high level of children of color being snatched from their homes without preventative intervention. After a few focus meetings and annual surveys in the community to talk about those racial issues, the organization moved on to business as usual. Meanwhile, the children and families of color continue to make up an exceedingly high number in that cottage industry.
- Some suggest we should have mandatory ‘diversity courses’ to improve our cultural IQ. Yet, in reviewing the courses out there, there appears to be no accreditation body testing the effectiveness of the course content and evaluating whether a racist person is experiencing a shift in their attitude and behavior. When I was providing the cultural humility and anti-racism training for four years at PromiseShip, I was astonished at the lack of knowledge white students had on the “Indian Child Welfare Act” and other racial, educational concepts. For example, in the UNO Criminal Justice Department, there is an academic course on gangs. Is it merely a ‘dog-whistle’ course where faculty and students are allowed to attack and deconstruct youth of color? In light of the dramatic reporting of hate crimes, why aren’t there courses on the growth of the white supremacy movement within the community. For years, the UNO Grace Abbott School of Social Work used to have an introductory-level course on racism. Did anyone compile data on the outcome of that course? Do we know if it had any positive effect?
With the resurgence in openly professed racism that has paralleled the presidency of Donald Trump, you’ve got to know we’re backsliding as a country. There is less motivation now to question the inherent white privilege mentality that runs amok through our culture and institutional hierarchy than there’s been in decades.
About six months ago, I had the privilege to participate in ‘cultural humility training’ with local law enforcement. I was shocked by a few of the comments made regarding people of color and, in particular, about African Americans by top law administrative folks. I did agree not to give or link specific names to the comments. Fast forward though and we have Omaha Fire Union President Steve LeClair, who was given a clean bill of health by a white law school-educated arbitrator in spite of the highly publicized comments he made about an African American woman. Yet, when I use terms such as ‘racism’, ‘white fragility’, ‘white privilege’, and other terms of cultural education, I am frequently admonished for my what is labeled divisive and demeaning language.
- The UNO School of Criminology and Criminal Justice allowed one person to become an adjunct professor who was arrested for prostitution in June 2016 and dismissed from Boys Town. Still, UNO can’t seem to hire African American males who are Afrocentric to advocate for reforms in the local criminal justice system on behalf of the African American community. As a community, we should all want restorative justice and forgiveness for those who are charged. However, for many who are African Americans, we are forever painted by a racist system that does not afford us the same rights. We need, accordingly, discerning people of color who can hold the University of Nebraska and Creighton University Law Schools, the judicial system, and the Omaha Fire and Police Departments to standards of fairness. It is not an accident that African Americans constitute a minute percentage of the state population numbers, but a wildly disproportionate ratio of the corrections population and the child welfare intervention cases.
Real change requires astute community members being at the tables and not the ‘yes folks’ who see it as their job to support incompetence, classism (elitism), and racism. Let’s change this rigged system. Let’s create some authentic some accountability. And let’s hold law enforcement officials to the high standards that they hold many of the African Americans to in our community and state by siphoning us into the criminal justice hole.
A’Jamal Byndon is the Chair of the PRI board of directors and an adjunct professor at UNO.
This article is a lightly edited version of an article from the January/February 2020 edition of The Nebraska Report, a publication of Nebraskans for Peace.