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Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Public Health

All is not well in America

January 22, 2020 |6:14 min read

Michelle Alexander says everything, and nothing, has changed

In a Jan. 19 opinion piece in The New York Times, noted writer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, an excellent book, paints a picture of a flawed America that still has not come to grips with the role of race in our society.

She began with these words, and I encourage you to read the article if you haven’t already done so: “Ten years have passed since my book, ‘The New Jim Crow,’ was published. I wrote it to challenge our nation to reckon with the recurring cycles of racial reform, retrenchment and rebirth of caste-like systems that have defined our racial history since slavery. It has been an astonishing decade. Everything, and nothing, has changed.”

One of the greatest injustices Alexander cited is mass incarceration. Incarceration of Black men and immigrants stands as one of the most visible, unjust and disgraceful symptoms of the racial landscape in America today. While Alexander was writing her book, she was acutely aware — although many Americans were either unaware or in denial — that

our nation’s prison and jail population had quintupled in 30 years, leaving us with the highest incarceration rate in the world. A third of black men had felony records — due in large part to a racially biased, brutal drug war — and were relegated to a permanent second-class status. Tens of millions of people in the United States had been stripped of basic civil and human rights, including the right to vote, the right to serve on juries and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, education and basic public benefits.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was  imprisoned 29 times. This photo was taken in 1958, when he was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for “loitering.”  Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Those are hard words to read, especially in the context of the racism that has been unleashed and legitimized in the United States today. On the day we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, white supremacists joined armed gun rights proponents for a “Lobby Day” rally in Richmond, Va., a city I visited last summer, which seemed to have confronted its past and was moving to a better future. (I don’t want to condemn an entire city because of the actions of some, many of whom don’t even live there.) As we have learned, many of the marchers wore red hats and shirts that proclaimed their support for the president. He and they have embraced one another in a symbiotic relationship. (Note that red shirts were worn by white supremacists during the 1898 Wilmington riot, as described later in this post.)

Alexander said that, at the time of President Obama’s election, the country did not understand the racial issues that long had dogged us and were not likely to disappear anytime soon. She wrote, “We had not faced our racial history and could not tell the truth about our racial present, yet growing numbers of Americans wanted to elect a black president and leap into a ‘colorblind’ future.”

Michelle Alexander spoke in 2011 about her recently published book, The New Jim Crow. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Not facing our racial history or racial present seems endemic to institutions across the country, including UNC-Chapel Hill. That’s not surprising either. To face our racial history means that we, white people of privilege, myself included, must accept responsibility for the transgressions and injustices of the past and present. We may not have been present, and we may do what is right, but still, we are not absolved of collective responsibility.

For my part, I, a white woman privileged by my race, must accept some responsibility for the lack of impressive, visible movement in our school — admittedly, little different from our peers — in the proportion of underrepresented minority students and faculty. I and we, especially we who are leaders, must accept responsibility for the fact that some of our students over the years, including today, do not feel fully welcome here, although we believe we have done much to improve climate. Some of our minority faculty members have expressed similar concerns. Resource shortfalls create gaps between what under-represented students and others believe they need to thrive and what we can provide in the school. When I write these statements, I do so knowing that the majority, I hope, most, of our students have good experiences here, that this is a fabulous school where we are motivated by social justice, but still, we must continue to improve so that our school enables every student, every staff person and every faculty member to thrive.

We must do better than we have in the past. I have created an endowed scholarship in Health Behavior, named to honor my parents, Irving and Joan Rimer, with preference for an underrepresented graduate student. I challenge other donors to join me in creating vehicles to attract and retain minority students and faculty members. Thanks to our assistant dean for inclusive excellence, Kauline Cipriani, PhD, and many people in the school who are committed to inclusive excellence, we now have an Inclusive Excellence Action Plan. I am committed to pursue the plan relentlessly. I look forward to our new vice dean, Taya Jackson Scott, PhD, joining us. She will add to our considerable strength in inclusive excellence.

Alexander’s message about the chasm between who we are and the vision of America that we hold in our hearts and minds of a country where all may thrive reminds me of the poem by Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again. Below are the last few stanzas.

Photograph of Langston Hughes in 1936, by Carl Van Vechten. From Wikimedia Commons.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Wilmington’s Lie

For more about North Carolina’s historical context, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, David Zucchino, takes us back to Wilmington, N.C., in 1898, when it was the site of a violent insurrection and massacre. In his book, “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy,” he wrote,

This brutal insurrection is a rare instance of a violent overthrow of an elected government in the U.S. It halted gains made by blacks and restored racism as official government policy, cementing white rule for another half century. It was not a ‘race riot,’ as the events of November 1898 came to be known, but rather a racially motivated rebellion launched by white supremacists.

During the assault on Wilmington, white supremacists committed to taking back the South and “restoring the old order” wore red shirts, just as they did in Richmond today. A coincidence? I doubt it.

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.