Chikesia Clemons at the Waffle House in Saraland, Ala. Myneca Ojo, Sandra Thompson, Sandra Harrison and a friend at Grandview Golf Club in York, Pa. Tshyrad Oates and a friend at LA Fitness in Secaucus, N.J. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Brandon Ward at a Los Angeles-area Starbucks.
Ezell A. Blair, Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil and David L. Richmond at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Rosa Parks on the bus in Montgomery, Ala. Homer Plessy on the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans.
Ever since the United States granted citizenship to black people, African Americans have been pushing the nation to acknowledge that promise. Yet discrimination still systematically limits African Americans’ right to live, move, gather and participate fully in our democracy and our economy. When outrageous public incidents happen, we can recall some of the names and details, but most often, these events slip wordlessly into the passage of time.
Despite the long legacy of discrimination in public accommodations—a central battleground of the civil rights movement—looking at each of these incidents individually allows us to believe the fiction that these are aberrations. However, the indignities thrust on Rashon Nelson or Tshyrad Oates or Myneca Ojo or Chikesia Clemons send a broader message about who belongs, who matters, who deserves respect—and who does not.
In our nation’s operating system, aggressively controlling black people in public spaces is a feature, not a bug.
These incidents are symptoms of our culture, shaped as much by informal but regular practice as by formal policies. White supremacist rallies are once again held in the open. People are spewing hate speech in the name of the president, and racial animus accounted for more of the vote that made Donald Trump president than economic anxiety did.
Formally, the federal government offers its backing to voter suppression through the failed Mike Pence-Kris Kobach commission and, now, the Department of Homeland Security. Trump’s Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has stopped protecting the targets of predatory lenders, who are disproportionately low-income and people of color. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development is removing anti-discrimination language from its mission.
One of the basic premises of learning is that the student wants to learn. In particular, anti-bias training assumes that participants possess the explicit value that bias is bad. But in the context of widespread and explicit racism that has the president’s tacit endorsement, that is an assumption rather than a given. A toxic environment contaminates. But just as rivers can be reclaimed and brownfields can be remediated, communities can form countercultures against bias.
Starbucks is investing in work toward that end, planning to kick off a sustained and comprehensive racial-bias education initiative at the company, which should include changes to company policy. Demos President Heather McGhee, along with Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, is serving as a pro bono adviser in this effort.
What if, as companies confront racial bias by their staffs, they commit to a deep investment of resources to support policies that build an inclusive democracy and economy to address the systemic exclusion of African Americans and other people of color?
What if companies worked as equal partners with community organizations to ensure that those policies help build a vision of inclusion that reflects the hopes of those communities?
What if they played a leading role in showing other companies not only how to perform racial-bias trainings with employees but also how to partner with their neighbors to be part of winning policy solutions?
As a Gen Xer, I grew up after the biggest victories of the civil rights movement and before the rollbacks that would characterize millennials’ formative years. In 1990, in the lounge of my freshman dorm, one of my floormates asked me, “Do you think you would have gotten into school if you weren’t black?” He continued, “I know I wouldn’t have gotten in if I didn’t play baseball.” His premise troubled me: that neither of us belonged and that we didn’t belong, in more or less the same way. I responded, “If racism didn’t exist, I absolutely would have.”
Two years later, I was part of a discussion at a big orientation for new residence assistants. Without realizing he was in the room, I told his story. He stepped forward and said, “I was that baseball player.” He said that his question had been grounded in the idea that we were in the same boat.
I had to work to assimilate this new information—that he had been trying to build a bridge—into my understanding of our earlier exchange, and I believe that he worked to understand my perspective, too.
We were able to have that conversation because we had the opportunity to go to school together and feel our way through hard conversations where we lived. We were able to do that because both informal beliefs and governmental policy had changed. Our hearts followed.
As a nation, we must stop adding names to the list of people harmed and humiliated for daring to be black in public. This will require shifts in personal practices and public policy.
Connie M. Razza is the director of policy and research at Demos.