The Best of Times and The Worst of Times: Conversations on Racism and Anti-Racism by those who should know better in the Omaha World-Herald.
On the last day of the most racially charged year in generations, the Omaha World-Herald ran an article examining health disparities between racial groups. Whites, not unexpectedly, came out on top as the state’s healthiest population. Interestingly, however, the article opened with a racial and ethnic breakdown of Nebraska high school graduation rates and discussion of the “gaps” between groups in educational status, noting that, “Such gaps can lead to big differences in how healthy or unhealthy people are throughout their lives.”
The reporter proceeded to quote the State of Nebraska’s Chief Medical Officer saying that, “Typically, if someone has less education, they may work in a lower-paying job, perhaps a job that does not offer health insurance… If they get ill or injured, they’re less likely to be able to afford the care they need.” Governor Ricketts’ appointee continued, “With more education, people have more opportunities for better health—more income/resources means more access to health care, they’re more likely to live in healthier neighborhoods and have social and psychological benefits that come with having a higher income.”
As I read this I had a sneaking feeling I knew where this was going, when an African-born professor of preventive medicine at Creighton University who was interviewed for the article made it all perfectly plain. “The less educated someone is,” she said, “the higher their chance of dying disproportionately than the general population from diseases.” Factors like poverty, socioeconomic status, jobs, income, the environment and crime favor “the White individual,” the professor said. “Is this the fault of the White person? No. It’s just the structure.”
And there it was… The storyline I knew in my gut was coming; the story I’ve been hearing versions of all my life: It’s not ‘racism’ and ‘White privilege’ that’s to blame for Blacks being poor, ill-educated and unhealthy, “It’s just the structure”… And by now we can all fill in the words to finish the story—African Americans need to exercise more ‘personal responsibility’, show more initiative, and work harder to ‘improve’ themselves.
Coming from a virtually all-Black society, the African-born professor can be forgiven, I suppose, for not fully understanding the pervasive and pernicious racism that Blacks in America face 24/7 from cradle-to-grave. But, honestly, let’s get real. In a White majority country that from its founding has written all of the rules (and is still writing them), how do you separate the “structure” from the Whites? As the French West Indies psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon said, you are rich because you are white, and you are white because you are rich. In racist apartheid or colonial systems, all of the White settlers lived better than the Indigenous Natives in Africa and other colonized continents. Those same privileged structures still exist in White America.
More credible indicators than “high school graduation rates”—such as wealth, income, homeownership and so forth—reveal the racial gaps in a country that reaped over 300-years-worth of slave and Jim Crow labor from a systematically subjugated African American populace. But what the graduation data itself fails to illustrate is that within these still often segregated education systems mere ‘completion’ does not indicate quality. When you have racist educators, who offer internal dual educational courses for specified groups, the outcomes are predictable. All you have to do is look at the racial make-up of virtually any honors course to see the pattern of apartheid education.
Some years ago, one of my White colleagues told me that she was able to get free tuition in graduate school because her White advisor informed her that if she became a student assistant, the college would pay for her tuition and books. She came from a family that had a six-figure income. When I asked if her White professor/advisor gave that secret coded information to Students of Color, she said she did not know. And her case, sadly, is not the exception. The aforementioned “structure” enables Whites—by their privileged status—to work the system and avail themselves of its goodies and perks in a way Students of Color simply cannot… All of which only serves to perpetuate the educational (and, by extension, the income and health) gaps we’re seeing now.
Under current trends, it’s projected it will take about 240 years for African Americans to narrow the wealth gap with Whites. Impeded by these institutional, ‘structural’ barriers, there is no way African Americans can compete academically. No matter how hard we try, racially insensitive educators will not properly teach Students of Color in their White-bias institutions. Just as in dealing with racist judges and law enforcement officials, African Americans will not get a fair break or be given the opportunity to grow within systems that profit off their misery (and/or demise). The State of Nebraska’s recent decision to build a new prison (despite decreasing crime rates) reveals what a ‘cash cow’ the incarceration industry is in this state and how much government means to continue profiting off the backs of African Americans and other Non-Whites.
In fairness to the reporter, I should note that the article does acknowledge the larger problem of “systemic racism”. Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, specifically referenced the impact of “weathering”—a term she said is used to describe “the daily stress and impact of structural racism on individuals of color” who regularly have to deal with everything from “microaggressions” to “overt racism”.
Unfortunately, the ‘educational remedies’ proposed in the remainder of the article have a very spotty track record and fall woefully short of what’s needed to bring about concrete change… (Change that will spare Black people from having to see Confederate flags paraded through the National Capitol during Trump-incited White supremacist insurrections.)
Lisa Roy, who is the director for program development for Buffett Early Childhood Institute at UNO, was quoted in the article as saying that “Early childhood education can help close the gap in education outcomes.” That’s all well and good. But we’ve had Head Start programs for over 60 years and The Buffett Early Childhood Institute has been around for over 15 years. Is there any evidence to demonstrate that the ‘educational gap’ has narrowed?
The World-Herald article concluded with a statement from the Nebraska Department of Education that “state officials are working to address those gaps in a variety of ways, including providing extra support for low-performing schools.” The reporter however failed to ask a critical follow-up question: Since the department is state-funded and has been in existence for almost 70 years, what specific tasks have they undertaken… what achievements can they point to?
What I can tell you is that many African Americans in Nebraska are not impressed. They resent that Nebraska Department of Education officials have rarely traveled to North or South Omaha to talk with residents in the community, and that there is virtually no ‘grasstops’ or parental representation from their feeding grounds. They’re also fed up that half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the the March on Washington they’re still having to put up with this crap.
Closing the educational gap between Whites and People of Color will never occur without direct face-to-face engagement with the community and far-greater diversity in educational hiring. Unless schools and districts are populated with multi-cultural staff—from teachers all the way up to administrators—’multi-cultural education’ is a rhetorical deceit… And we will never close the educational or any other gap before this country devolves into chaos once and for all.