When an unarmed George Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25 without an acknowledgment of his humanity, the police officers who held him down and put a knee to his neck apparently saw his skin color as a weapon. The same day, when a white woman, Amy Cooper, threatened to call the New York City police against an African American, even though she disobeyed rules in Central Park, she used her skin color as a weapon to protect herself.
This dichotomy leaves me in anguish, as cities across the nation burn in protest, rage and grief against Floyd’s death and centuries of racial inequity, all against the backdrop of a pandemic. Communities of color, with limited access to health care, have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
It has taken a multitude of events this year—from racist actions against people of color to the COVID-19 pandemic exposing inequities—for me to question my own skin. Is my brown skin viewed by some whites as a weapon? When I try to speak the language of unity, do some people consider me different and not an equal?
Is there any way to bridge this divide?
A history of inequality
Last year, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans have dim views about the nation’s progress toward equality. Blacks in particular—more than eight in 10—said the legacy of slavery affected their position in society. Seventy-eight percent said the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites.
Worse still: Half of black respondents in the Pew survey said it is unlikely that the nation will eventually achieve racial equality.
It is well-documented that Rochester remains segregated. In August 2017, a report from ACT Rochester and Rochester Community Foundation titled “Hard Facts: Race and Ethnicity in the Nine-County Greater Rochester Area,” identified stark racial gaps. For nearly every indicator they measured, the authors of the report found the region performed more poorly than the state and the nation.
“Nationally, leaders and others ponder the question of why African American incomes are only 62 percent those of white residents,” the report states. “Our challenge is even greater: In our nine-county region, the corresponding number is dramatically lower at 48 percent. These ‘Hard Facts’ should make it impossible for anyone to ignore the profound entrenchment of structural racism throughout our region.”
In 2018, 24/7 Wall St. identified Rochester as one of the worst cities for black Americans. At the time of the report, black median income here was $28,781, or nearly half of white income.
A couple of months ago, Education Week investigated how widening inequities and overwhelmed budgets would hurt schools amid the pandemic. Rochester was among them, with 86 percent of students African American or Latino. Ninety percent of them qualify for free lunches and reduced-price meals.
I stepped into this environment two decades ago, without knowing much of Rochester’s history on race and inequality. A native of India, I was fresh out of graduate school in the U.S. and eager for work experience here. I walked into an office where, at first glance, I couldn’t find anyone who looked like me. I recall telling my parents about that fact. They, like most immigrant parents, urged me to keep my eyes on the prize: a job. (Later, I would meet my only African-American colleague at the time. More would trickle in over the years.)
During my first year in Rochester, I fled to New York City every other weekend or flew to San Francisco, to visit friends and get my fix of diversity in food and ethnicity.
A year after I made my move, the twin towers fell in New York City. My mother called from India and asked me not to ride the Regional Transit Service bus (my main mode of transport) in fear that I would be seen as a terrorist. She asked me, since we are a Christian family, to find my necklace with a cross and place it around my neck in plain sight. I laughed her off.
What my mother did for me is similar to what other black and brown mothers do for their children. They remind us to color within the lines, follow the rules and not bring attention to ourselves. Blend in, they say. Don’t let it be known that a person of color failed in some way. Our mothers fear the risks associated with bias and stereotyping.
I wasn’t afraid to ride the bus right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but I found that people around me were afraid for me. While I still rode the bus downtown each morning, my coworkers offered rides back to my apartment on East Avenue on their way home. I began to question myself. Perhaps I should be fearful. What did they know that I didn’t?
A polarizing issue
I recognize that I am extremely fortunate to know people who haven’t treated me differently. I don’t think of my race or gender when I interact with friends, colleagues and community leaders. I know who I am. However, as I’ve written before for the Beacon, the last few years have made me conscious of the way I appear to the world. I have learned that as a person of color at times I suffer what are known as microaggressions, but I personally compartmentalize it as ignorance or naivete. Many have suffered so much more.
I have witnessed an increased use of the phrase “white privilege.” Social media posts urge white men and women to use it to help persons of color. People are apologizing that the color of their skin has afforded them societal advantages. Interestingly, a study in 2019 showed that while white privilege lessons can increase awareness of racism, “it may both highlight structural privilege based on race, and simultaneously decrease sympathy for other challenges some white people endure.”
While it is true that the average white person is likely to be better off than a person of color, the term white privilege cements the separation, creates a need for an apology and a need for acceptance once the privilege is acknowledged. A person of color also seeks acceptance. Equal acceptance.
Racism is complex and polarizing. If I talk about racism as a person of color, I’m angry or I’m whining, and I will be labeled as such. If I don’t say anything, I run the risk of being alienated from black and brown communities for not standing up and saying enough. If I am white, I supposedly don’t care and if I do care and acknowledge “white fragility,” I might be rejected by my friends.
We cannot afford to further the divide.
Differentiation on the basis of color, caste, creed or sex is not unknown to me. I have lived experiences, albeit in another nation. Wherever you come from, racism is dehumanizing. It seeps into language and communication and policies and laws.
Floyd’s death, for many in the United States and across the world, is an illustration of systemic racism. In particular, how race creates a disadvantage for people of color in the criminal justice system. Over the life course, about one in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police, say researchers Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee and Michael Esposito.
This statistic was a big reason for many of my friends to join the protest on Saturday. The cry for change is understandable and very real. I worry that the looting and rioting that followed the protest drowns out that cry. Organizers of the Black Lives Matter rally this week said the assertion that looters came from other cities—voiced initially by Mayor Lovely Warren and Police Chief La’Ron Singletary—is a tactic employed to not acknowledge pain and suffering within cities.
“It takes away from people’s agency to make decisions, it takes away from people’s ability to rise up and fight back,” said Stanley Martin, an organizer of the rally. She added that even if people were agitated, it comes from years of suffering.
I think back to last year’s Pew Research survey where half of blacks said they believe the U.S. would likely never achieve racial equality. I’m certain that belief hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s probably deepened.
Going by the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate, where biased attitudes like stereotyping and microaggressions form the lowest level of the pyramid, such beliefs grow in complexity from bottom to top, with genocide at the apex. As behaviors escalate, it becomes harder to dismantle bias at each level. And when bias is unchecked, it becomes a normal way of being.
Earlier this week, Brookings Institution’s Camille Busette urged governors and mayors to tackle endemic racism by acknowledging its existence, creating equity goals, funding equity measures, and finding innovative ways to close the racial wealth gap and measure the impact of equity. Organizers of the BLM rally in Rochester offered somewhat similar suggestions to Rochester authorities.
Unpacking systemic racism and righting wrongs is a gargantuan task. Yet racism affects all of us; its dehumanizing nature drains us of dignity. To battle against it is to be human.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.