Board Blog

A Candid and Successful Discussion About Race

February 27, 2012

george land

By George Land

Last year, the board of trustees created an ad hoc committee to discuss race and whether or not the ACLU should develop a board program on the issue with another organization.

The subject of race is a very personal topic that can elicit strong reactions. As we opened up to each other on different topics related to race, I believe each member of our group learned far more about each other than we had likely considered we would. That was a very good result, allowing us to disarm ourselves and to trust each other more, which then permitted us to get to the very heart of certain matters, such as defining “racism” and the idea of “white privilege.” We spoke truthfully and shared deep, personal experiences and convictions. As is the case with divisive subjects, especially those pertaining to race, the ability to discuss candidly is the only time progress can be made.

Our discussions reiterated my notion that our personal experiences can be our primary limiting factor as we examine our feelings on race. I felt assured that everyone on our committee is committed to examining solutions for various issues that fall under the organization’s objectives related to racial discrimination and insensitivity.

Yet, we had a number of intense debates about concepts, definitions, and cause and effect philosophies, mostly from what I would call “a difference in perspective based on experiences.” This reaffirmed the fact that it is extremely difficult to truly understand the mentality of a racial group that is different from one’s own, and equally difficult to understand the effects of pervasive racial issues and how those racial issues manifest in people differently based on their own personal experiences.

As an African-American who has been a full participant in both the black world (residences, education, social) and white world (education, job, social), I believe I have a somewhat unique perspective on race relations, and I must confess that I find the topic and manifestations of race fascinating. From my view, not much ¬has changed in decades from the standpoint that the majority of people of color still do not typically share many of their experiences and the ills of racism in any depth with whites because there is the very real possibility that their feelings might be minimized.

And when you have experienced (or perceived to have experienced) some very personal, harsh life events, the last thing you want is a) to have someone who deems themselves as an open-minded, intelligent person minimize those events (because they cannot fully relate), and b) to have someone white who may or may not completely understand all of the facets involved to become the arbiter of your feelings – deciding if it was or was not indeed a racially motivated situation or just a perception to the alleged victim.

Scars are often deep and perception is another person’s reality, so I think the tendency is to not share.

Self-censorship with regards to race does not happen only on one side of the aisle, though. Many -- maybe most -- white Americans, tend to be extremely guarded on race or avoid the subject entirely while in the presence of people of color because of the fear of slipping up and innocently saying something that is then perceived as offensive or for fear of just plain being misinterpreted with the end result of being labeled as racist. Admittedly, it can be argued that often many African-Americans are hypersensitive and overact to innocuous statements. Understandably, it is much safer to not discuss these matters and make no substantive progress. These are the two conversational challenges we must seek to overcome in order to make real advancement.

(An aside on racial hypersensitivity: while a constant overreaction and calling everything “racist” is obviously misleading and detrimental to the cause, it is important to realize that conditioning may be the biggest factor as a reason. Imagine someone smacking you on your head every day for five years, then one day they stop. I’m pretty sure for a long time thereafter when you see that person coming, you are going to assume, maybe erroneously, that the person has bad intentions for you and instinctively leading you to react accordingly.)

There were significant discussions on two topics - defining racism and white privilege. One discussion revolved around the fact that there are some organizations that believe “only whites can be racists,” presumably because generally they control the institutions (economic, social, educational, etc.) and have the power to affect other groups. While acknowledging the disproportionate number of whites in power across most industries and institutions, I believe that the proposition that only whites can be racists, like one of my committee colleagues stated, is a “distraction” and shifts the focus of any race discussion to a frivolous one. The truth is that anyone, regardless of race, can be racially insensitive and discriminatory, and the more appropriate discussion on how we bridge our cultural gap would be more effective. Still, I think we have to acknowledge that whites tend to be in superior positions of power where discriminatory practices can affect/oppress other racial groups significantly more than the other way around.

The idea of white privilege is a very interesting subject that stirred intense discussions within our group. The idea is that whites enjoy certain benefits based purely on the fact that they are white. Again, while I do not believe the primary use of that theme is the best approach in attacking our racial issues, it is a very real thing and should be acknowledged and part of all large discussions on race – if only as a point of reference to possibly clarify or give perspective on some of the problems of African-Americans that may go largely unrecognized.

There are countless ways that white privilege reveals itself – the ability to feel confident that if you get stopped by the police and knowing that if you have done nothing wrong, you will not get harassed based on your color; the ability to feel confident to know that if you are walking down the sidewalk a night and you approach someone of a different race, they will not view you as a possible menace based on your color; the ability to attend a prestigious university and not have some of your fellow classmates wonder if you truly have the credentials to be there or if you are just filling a diversity quota; the ability to be confident that when you turn on the television, you will see plenty of images of people of your race that will far outbalance any negative stereotypes that you may also see; the ability to be confident as a little girl to know that when you pick up a beauty magazine, you will certainly find images of “beauty” that share your physical characteristics, etc.

Because there are so many subtle “privileges” that exist, many go unnoticed or seem insignificant (the ability to find flesh-colored band-aids!). But do not diminish the collective role they play in widening the cultural gap – especially when they are not acknowledged. I oppose the notion that because there are some black people today who are better off than some white people, or that a poor white immigrant may not think she is benefiting from “white privilege”, that the topic is not relevant. To pick out exceptions to the general state of reality allows one to miss the big issue. The term “white privilege”, may in fact be offensive to many whites, I would imagine, because it could imply they did not have to work hard to attain success. Whatever it is called, it exists. If you compare a poor white immigrant to a poor black immigrant on the same socio-economic level, my guess is that, all things being equal and based solely on race, the black immigrant will have a harder time. I think that is the reason you see many immigrants trying to pass as white, but rarely have I heard of the reverse. There must be some inherent value in that.

It is my conjecture that, generally, if a white person and a black person achieve the same level of success, we can assume the black person worked equally as hard as the white person and it is likely that the black person had to work even harder – just based on socioeconomic status. And there are other factors that are not noted in the stats, but are stark realities. For example, generally, people tend to socialize and live among those we feel most comfortable with and those people tend to look like themselves (maybe that is human nature?). Additionally, generally speaking, the executive corporate world tends to be disproportionately white. So, when the CEO or other top executives want to recommend someone for hire – someone who will ultimately be hired because of the level of recommendation – then that person, more often than not, is also white. It is all legal in the game of life. But the problem is that blacks have far fewer of those types of head starts. Many people acknowledge the fact that blacks are disproportionately disadvantaged; the harder thing for many to admit, it seems, is that as a whole, whites have been unfairly advantaged. Skin color does not guarantee success or failure, but it still plays a significant role – consciously or unconsciously – in our society.

I reflect on all of this with the hopes it will further advance discussions on race within the board. During our committee meetings, it was quite apparent that as the topics became more personal and the discussions more intense, it ultimately caused me (and probably my colleagues also) to pause later to reflect on some of thoughts that were shared and lead us all to try to look at the world through a prism that we might never have considered.

That means our work was a success.

Category: Uncategorized

Wanted: Volunteers for ACLU-NJ Tables This Summer

June 13, 2011


By Jay Gartman

Robert Vitale of Bloomfield has a military-style haircut and a muscular frame. And if he were wearing camouflage clothing while walking among Asbury Park fairgoers two Sundays ago, you’d be inclined to salute him. Instead, he was wearing REALLY tight black leather short-shorts and a sash proclaiming himself “Mr. NJ Leather.” And while Robert normally is a community ambassador–visiting a local community college to talk about LGBT issues and several other events to raise money and food for HIV and Aids projects–this day the “Mr. NJ Leather” show was touring the Annual Jersey Pride LGBTI fair and he was pure entertainment. Robert walked past the ACLU-NJ table where Ed Gibson of Morganville and I were volunteering on June 5. He stopped for photos and cracked some jokes.

Ed and I would probably rank “Mr. NJ Leather” and a few stillettoed-and-sequined drag queens (who looked better than most of my high school girlfriends) among The Top Five Reasons I Table for the ACLU.

But ranked first on that list—and certainly more typical of the fairgoers that day– would be couples like Naomi and Laura from Toms River. In their late 50’s, with silver hair and attire from Chico’s, they didn’t stand out in the crowd. Their union, said Naomi and Laura, has thrived for 28 years and is just as caring and passionate one might find in heterosexual relationships. They have grandchildren, challenging careers and a home on a quiet street that is ringed with day lillies, roses, and zinnias. Naomi and Laura stopped by our table to tell Ed and me how important the ACLU’s battle for same-sex marriages was to them. “We’re so close,” they said. “All we’re asking for is the same normal life that everyone else enjoys.”

The ACLU-NJ table can be found in street fairs at many New Jersey towns throughout the spring and summer. We try to make the table alluring to fairgoers with a roulette wheel game that challenges their knowledge of The Constitution. Winners get some ACLU-initialized bling. From Cape May to Berkeley Heights, Denville to Manahawkin, there literally are more than 100 fairs and the ACLU-NJ will participate in as many as it has volunteers to do so.

If you want to volunteer to “table’ for the ACLU this summer, it’s not too late, nor is it difficult. Just fill out a volunteer inquiry form.

And if you’re curious about the other reasons on my list of The Top Five Reasons I Table for the ACLU, here are the remaining three in no particular order: (1) access to sausage onions and peppers subs, honey coated roasted almonds and butterfly potato fries, (2) working on my summer tan, and (3) conversations with interesting volunteers like Ed.

Category: Uncategorized

A Lesson About Vouchers

June 06, 2011


By Jay Gartman

Over the past two years I lost three dear friends — to politics. All decided to cap off their careers by running for their local school boards. And they won, never to be heard from again by families or friends. School board positions are thankless and tough jobs even during normal times. It’s especially hard now, due to budget caps, increased service requirements, angry politicians and citizens, and revenue threats from charter schools and vouchers.

As an ACLU-NJ Board member, I’m especially concerned about vouchers. They’re funded by taxes and given to parents to help them finance their child’s private school education. Vouchers siphon money from public school budgets, threatening the latter’s ability to provide a quality education. And they’re frequently used for religious schools, a clear abridgement of the separation of church and state clauses in the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions.

One friend, Dr. Lawrence Feldman, vice-chairman of the 345,000-student Miami-Dade County school system, says his job, is especially tough now. His school district has lost $2 billion in revenue over the past 28 months. The reasons are plentiful, but a major cause is charter schools, which is draw operating funds from the public school budgets. “Most people don’t realize the magnitude of the issue, so lets put it this way,” says Dr. Feldman. “Dade County has 30 percent less students than the New York City system, but Dade has more charter schools than NYC. And to make this issue more Constitutionally complex, many charter schools operate within religious buildings, and religious institutions are opening up their own charter schools.”

Another friend, Bob Silver, was elected to the Lincoln County school board in North Carolina and he’s relieved — for the moment — that vouchers don’t exist in his county. But adjacent Mecklenburg County does offer vouchers and they’re supposedly distributed objectively to kids looking for “heightened educations (ie math, science or the arts), which may not be offered by their local school.

Finally there’s a friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, but is a board member of a nationally acclaimed Somerset County school system in New Jersey. She laments, “This not a good time for public schools because funding is not stable.” She’s very concerned about charter schools and a proposed bill in the NJ Legislature that would allow religious schools and private schools to convert to charter schools. “Where would the money come from to fund those new charter schools?” she asks. “Well, by law the students’ sending public school districts have to pay 90 percent of the per-pupil cost to the charter school.”

New Jersey voucher support is growing in Trenton and the future is scary. There are two companion bills making their way through the legislature, designed to divert more taxpayer funds into vouchers. Sponsored by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden), the “Opportunity Scholarship Act” provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to entities contributing to low income children. Contact your legislators and let them know you are opposed to the bill. According to the Office of Legislative Services, this “Stealth Voucher Bill” will divert $35.7 million in taxes its first year, growing to $366.4 million by year five. And since many of the private schools benefiting from the vouchers will be religious, you don’t need a college degree to imagine how these numbers will hurt our education systems and the sanctity of our Constitution.

Category: Uncategorized

Reflecting on the Freedom Riders 50 Years Later

June 01, 2011


By Jay Gartman

As an 8-year-old curious boy growing up in Miami, Fla, in the late 1950’s I remember Mom taking me, my brother and sister on a field trip to City Hall. The circa WWII building is nothing to boast about, but it sits atop palm-tree-speckled Dinner Key, alongside the picturesque blue waters of Biscayne Bay. That view is still a sight to behold.

I’m quite sure that the memories I have from that day trip aren’t what Mom intended, because what captured my attention were the water fountains on one side of the one-story white-washed building. Divided by bathrooms, one fountain was labeled “Coloreds Only” and the other “Whites Only.” And I wondered what the difference was between the water coming out of each. I didn’t understand why Mom yanked me off the milk carton I was using to sample the “Colored Only” fountain that day.

Three years later I understood. It was 1961, and my parents were discussing an article in The Miami News. Fisk University students, were risking assault and worse by baseball bat and lead pipe toting mobs, and/or police arrest while riding on public Greyhound and Trailways buses throughout the Deep South. Committed to non-violence, they were protesting the existence of segregated facilities, such as bus terminal waiting rooms, lunch counters and restrooms that existed despite two US Supreme Court decisions that struck down those laws. These 18 black and white students were soon joined by 300 other “Freedom Riders,” who bused in from all over the country, and as a result of their bravery, the walls imposed by Jim Crow laws came tumbling down. This movement, despite the fears of its participants, opposition by politicians and even lack of support by civil rights leaders was recounted vividly May 16, 2011—on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rider movement—in a two-hour episode within the public broadcasting “American Experience” series. You can watch it at the PBS web site.

While viewing this program I wondered: First, could I muster the same courage displayed by Freedom Riders to risk my life if I were ever challenged to right an inhumane wrong? Could I write my last will and testament before going on such a journey (Many Freedom Riders were beaten bloody by the mobs, most suffered years of emotional trauma and depression, one committed suicide and one drank himself to death)? I don’t think anyone knows how they would react under those emotionally charged conditions, but I’d like to think I would have whatever it takes to make that commitment. Also, why is it we never learn from the past? The Freedom Riders were trying to gain liberties supposedly already earned through the deaths of 700,000 Union and Confederate soldiers nearly 100 years before. Each minority group traditionally engages society to gain the same freedoms already won by another minority. Gays and lesbians are struggling to gain rights already won by African-Americans, and Jews before that and Italians before that and Irish before that? Why don’t these basic human rights transfer?

A few books enlightened me more about the Freedom Rider movement, and I would recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more: “Children of the Movement” by John Blake, “The Children” by David Halberstam and “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. The most definitive history of the movement is “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” by Raymond Arsenault.

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