Rooting out systemic racism
After a decade of quiet struggle, the Dominican Sisters have started a movement
The Dominican Sisters of Springfield have a long history. Their congregation was founded in Jacksonville in 1873 and moved to Springfield in 1893. However, some of the women who founded the congregation came from the much older Convent of St. Catherine in Kentucky. That group formed well before the Civil War. Slavery was legal in Kentucky at that time.
“As a congregation, it has taken us a long time to learn our own history,” says Sister Mary Jean Traeger, pastoral facilitator at St. Katharine Drexel Parish. “They lived in the South and they had slaves. The congregation had slaves. The sisters had slaves.”
Traeger says the founding sisters no longer had slaves by the time they came to Illinois after the Civil War, “but that doesn’t mean they left all of their experiences behind them.” As she shares that long-forgotten truth, her voice is penitent but direct. The shame of the past doesn’t hold power over the Dominican Sisters any longer. Instead, the congregation has used its history as a starting point to root out systemic racism within their congregation.
“We’ve always prided ourselves as being in many places where we’ve served people of color,” Traeger said. “Now, we look at that and still want to serve people of color and serve with people of color, but not in the kind of patronizing way that we did in those days because of our ignorance.”
The process of ending systemic racism is complex and sometimes uncomfortable, but it is necessary for equality and racial unification. Enlisting the help of several African-American residents of Springfield, the Dominicans are in their 10th year of an effort to do that, and their work has inspired and guided other groups in Springfield.
In American culture, racism is typically thought of as any prejudice based on race. That popular definition is most often applied to obvious discrimination or hurtful words aimed at people of color. But racism is not a thing of the past which exists only in isolated pockets. There is a much more pervasive form of racism which is often overlooked and dismissed as “just the way things are.”
“The way we as a society have come to treat racism in a post-1960s, post-civil rights movement mentality is that because we’ve changed the laws, there is no more racism,” said Robette Dias, executive co-director of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, based in Matteson, Illinois.
Crossroads teaches that a more complete definition of racism combines prejudice based on race with the abuse of power in an institution. From the first tragic interactions of Christopher Columbus with the native peoples of the Caribbean to the modern prison system disproportionately filled with African-American people, the history of the United States is filled with systemic racism, which describes an institution set up to favor white people over people of color.
Wielding power allows people to create systems, processes and situations that reward some and deny or punish others. White people in the U.S. have historically held power over people of color, and our national institutions – housing, banking, justice, employment, regulation, education and even the national census – reflect a white worldview because those systems were designed by white people.
In that context, the notion of “reverse racism” and questions like “Why isn’t there a white history month?” are revealed as completely missing the point. A common retort to “Why isn’t there a white history month?” is “Every month is white history month.” The ugly truth is that people of color in the U.S. have historically only held power within institutions created by white people and only when allowed to by white people, so the notion of people of color being in a position to abuse power based on racial prejudice is fantasy. All people have some sort of prejudice, but not all people have the power to oppress others, so systemic racism really only flows one way.
Systemic racism also involves socialization: people of color must learn how to get by in a society not built for them, while white people benefit – often unknowingly – from white privilege. Examples of white privilege include being more readily trusted by authority figures, not having a person’s actions ascribed to the person’s entire race and not facing discrimination when trying to obtain housing, employment or loans.
This view of racism also explains why merely changing obviously discriminatory laws won’t fix the problem. It is deeper and more insidious than many people recognize, because it is built into society.
“We could get rid of all the overt bigots who really do harbor racial hatred,” Dias said, “and we would still have a problem.”
Growing up black in a white world
Leroy Jordan of Springfield grew up in Murphysboro, about 130 miles south of Springfield, near Carbondale. He still remembers the day in 1954, following the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, when his older siblings were allowed to attend the previously all-white local schools.
Jordan says growing up in a society that implicitly tells black children they’re worth less than white children causes black children to blame themselves or even internalize the problem by seeing themselves as inferior.
“If you’re black and living in the United States, it’s almost ingrained in terms of learning to live with racism,” he said. “It used to bug me because I’d see white kids walk around a store, pick up what they want, crawl on the floor, and run up and down the aisle. Boy, you do that as a black kid, and you’ve got big trouble. You go uptown, and you’d better be better than your best behavior. It was part of the whole socialization process.”
Jordan got his teaching degree from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and began teaching in Hopkins Park, Illinois, a poverty-stricken and predominantly African-American town outside Kankakee.
“People used to call it the armpit of the United States,” he said. “There was only one factory in town, and it was a casket factory.”
He moved to Springfield to teach at Iles School in 1965, making him the first male African-American teacher in Springfield Public Schools. At that time, he says, Springfield schools were still segregated, despite the Supreme Court’s decision. They would remain so until 1975, when a lawsuit forced the district to begin desegregation.
“Brown v. Board of Education was 1954 and desegregation was 1975,” Jordan said. “You can kind of get a sense of where Springfield was at the time. It took us awhile. It took everybody awhile.”
He says that even though schools are now officially desegregated, it is not the same as integration. Instead of implementing the decision in good faith, Jordan says many districts obeyed only the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
“That’s the way we do it in America,” Jordan said. “Forty years ago, and we’re still dealing with the same issues in education.”
In the congregation
Jordan is co-coordinator of the Springfield Dominican Anti-Racism Team, called SDART for short. Although the team turned 10 years old in June 2014, for some of the sisters, the anti-racism effort began about 20 years ago in 1994, when the City of Springfield and the Springfield Housing Authority were building scattered-site housing for residents of the former John Hay Homes.
For many years prior to 1994, the John Hay Homes public housing had been run down and mostly occupied by African-Americans. The city received $2.5 million in federal grant money in 1985 to build houses around the city for low-income families, but the project received intense criticism from those who didn’t want public housing in their neighborhoods.
The Dominican Sisters invited congregations of other denominations in Springfield to join them in standing in favor of housing justice, and it was around that time that Sr. Mary Jean Traeger says she began to see the pervasiveness of systemic racism and the need to address it.
“We started to study about racism, and we kept saying ‘We need to go deeper. We need to go deeper,’ ” Traeger said.
Sister Marcelline Koch, co-coordinator of SDART, says they learned about Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training from another congregation of Dominican Sisters in 2001. The Springfield congregation eventually underwent Crossroads’ initial training with several of the African-American allies they met during the scattered-site housing controversy.
Robette Dias at Crossroads says including people of color was essential because the Dominican Sisters needed a nonwhite viewpoint to make the process authentic. The congregation had only one person of color at the time, Dias recalls.
“We knew it wasn’t going to work otherwise, in terms of accountability and keeping people honest,” Dias said. “You need the input of people who have a connection to the real issues, to hear voices of people who live with the impact of racism every day.”
Koch says accountability is one of the keys to dismantling racism.
“We try to cultivate that and model that on the team,” she said. “Everything we do tries to include a white person and a person of color together, so that the power is shared power.”
Among the Dominican Sisters’ goals for addressing systemic racism in their organization are continual study, creating mechanisms for accountability to people of color, making their language, worship time and ministries more inclusive, and standing against injustice with nonviolence and prayer. When it came time to do some construction work on their facility, they even asked their building contractor to ensure that people of color were part of the work crew.
Koch says she has always been interested in social justice through her work as an educator, and the reconciling influence of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s prompted her to examine the world around her and follow the convictions of her faith. But it was in February 1994 that she attended a conference and heard about systemic racism for the first time.
“When I learned the history of all of this, it just made my heart sad because how people have been treated and still are treated is totally against what God made us to be and what God calls us to be,” she said. “I think Jesus came to really show us how God wants his love to be operative in our world, and racism is the antithesis of that love. If I embrace racism and racist practices, I can in no way square that with who I am called to be.”
Since SDART began, its passion for racial justice has spread to a handful of other groups in Springfield, around the state, and even in another country. The Dominican Sisters have established similar teams at the three high schools they operate in Illinois – one of which is Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield – as well as a hospital they operate in Jackson, Mississippi, and a community of fellow Dominican Sisters in Peru. Closer to home, several other efforts are developing as offshoots of the Dominican Sisters’ work.
Dias says Crossroads wants to replicate elsewhere the ripple effect SDART has created in Springfield.
“It all started with the sisters just trying to be faithful,” she said, “but it was the beginning of a really powerful movement.”
In the community
Kenley Wade, a native of Springfield, is no stranger to racism. Besides being African-American himself, he had a long career in state government, part of which dealt with minority recruitment and equality. While working at the former Illinois Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities in 1994, Wade oversaw an effort to hire dozens of minority staff at state-run facilities. Before he started, there were almost no people of color in charge of those facilities. His team changed that by building a training program and coordinating with branches of the NAACP in Springfield and Chicago to find qualified applicants of color.
Wade says without a conscious effort to short-circuit racism in institutions, the problem will never go away.
“People of good will who run our institutions in America actually practice institutional and systemic racism, because that’s the way the culture is designed,” Wade said. “It doesn’t take a studious examination of American history to realize this has been with us since the very beginning of the country.”
Wade is retired now, but he spends part of his time as co-chair of the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism. Called SCODR for short, the coalition formed about three years ago through discussions on racism with the Dominican Sisters, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and other groups. SCODR’s focus is starting other groups in the kind of process undertaken by the Dominican Sisters. They invite leaders from organizations around Springfield to attend Crossroads training and assist those organizations with developing the relationships and accountability necessary for transformation. SCODR is responsible for engaging the City of Springfield, Springfield Public Schools and a handful of other groups in ongoing anti-racism work.
“Two days after Mayor Houston was elected – we gave him a little time to exhale – three of us were in his office,” Wade said with a laugh.
SCODR is moving from what Wade calls an “ad hocracy” to a more formal schedule of trainings and outreach. Wade says SCODR is also fundraising through the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln to eventually provide grants to other groups for training.
“We’re very excited about the growth we’ve had, some of which has been managed and some of which has been serendipitous,” Wade said. “It’s all been very positive, and I think that’s somewhat unique to this city. Are we there yet? No. Are we at a better place than we were four years ago? In some small way, the answer is yes.”
In the city
Sandy Robinson, director of the Office of Community Relations for the City of Springfield, remembers when he first became aware of racism. Robinson grew up near Washington, D.C., in the Maryland suburb of Silver Spring. He recalls being about seven years old when he was bused to nearby Bethesda during school desegregation, and he remembers the unwelcoming reception he and his fellow black students received.
“It was a culture shock,” he said. “It was a virtually all-white environment we were being bused into, and my earliest memories of it are just turmoil. That’s when I first realized there was something going on there, and that makes me different somehow.
“Once that light goes on, it’s not a light that goes out,” he added. “At that point, you have to see it and confront it on a daily basis. There is any number of ways, shapes or forms that these issues confront you. You’re constantly reminded of the color of your skin.”
In 2009, three employees of Springfield City Water, Light and Power hung a noose in a workspace shared by an African-American employee at a CWLP water treatment facility. Robinson says he was “less surprised” by the incident than some of the city leadership at the time.
“I thought that some of that might be more indicative of the long-term issues we’ve had at the city than some people wanted to acknowledge,” he said.
In Robinson’s role at the Office of Community Relations, he oversees much of the city’s efforts to purge systemic racism from its processes and culture. Those efforts were born from the Dominican Sisters’ own work. Robinson says Springfield Mayor Michael Houston attended the initial Crossroads Antiracism training with the Dominican Sisters before he was elected, and after Houston took office, he sent about 50 of his administrative staff through the same training, including the chiefs of the police and fire departments. That led to the long-term work of addressing systemic racism in city institutions.
Robinson says the process began with a working group that later became the current volunteer-based diversity council which examines the city’s policies, procedures and programs, looking for ways to make them more open and diverse. He says the council has been divided into subcommittees on contracting, recruitment, education, communication and others. Meanwhile, a “focus group” at CWLP is examining the utility’s culture and practices for possible changes. One concrete example of the diversity council’s work is a city ordinance requiring increased diversity among contractors who do work for the city. Meanwhile, several officers with the Springfield Police Department have been involved in productive community discussions about race relations through groups like the Faith Coalition for the Common Good.
“The idea is to look internally, knowing that those efforts would have a ripple effect on leadership in other institutions in the community,” Robinson said. “You change the DNA of your agency over time by putting together the pieces of the puzzle.”
He actually agrees with criticism that the city isn’t moving as quickly as it should to make changes.
“I’d say that’s valid,” Robinson said. “We can’t move fast enough. That doesn’t bother me as a criticism. We would like all of this stuff done yesterday.”
In the schools
Education has long been a stubborn area from which to wipe the stain of systemic racism. Standardized testing is one such example, believed by many to disadvantage students of color even after accounting for the influence of socioeconomic status. In Springfield Public Schools, black students consistently score around 30 points lower than white students on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test for students in grades three through eight. The district also struggles to recruit and retain teachers of color, despite being under a longstanding court order to do so.
Jennifer Gill, who started as superintendent of Springfield Public Schools in January 2014, says the district has only “stuck our toes in the water” of examining systemic racism, but 26 people from the district have already undergone the initial Crossroads training with the Dominican Sisters. Among them are members of Gill’s cabinet, members of the teachers’ union and school board president Mike Zimmers. Gill says the district is currently forming its anti-racism team, and the first focus will be understanding how systemic racism manifests in education.
“We’re very much at the beginning stages of our conversation,” Gill said. “We’re very excited about it, and we know it’s a very important conversation to keep alive.”
The guidance and support of the Dominican Sisters and SCODR, Gill says, have helped.
“We’ve been very happy to know we aren’t the only people in town looking at this,” she said. “When you have a system of support in the community, everything you do is going to be stronger and more appropriate.”
Robert Blackwell of Springfield became aware of racism at an early age. His family lived in the South during much of his childhood, and his father would come home from work each night and talk about his day.
“What I recall is a daily dose of some injustice that he or one of his colleagues was experiencing at the hands of someone white,” Blackwell said. “This is the stuff I would go to bed with.”
Blackwell says his father taught him “how to behave in front of white people.”
“As far as people in general, it was always ‘Be respectful. Be courteous,’ ” he said. “But around white people, there was an extra layer.”
Blackwell was among the first African-American members of SDART when the Dominicans began it in 2004. He had been director of the Springfield Housing Authority in the early ’90s and saw the stance the Dominican Sisters and others took in support of scattered-site housing. In the years since SDART began, Blackwell has applied the same approach to his work as liaison for the Office of Racial Equity Practice at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. DCFS is in the process of identifying changes to its procedures and culture statewide, which could have far-reaching ramifications for families in crisis around the state.
Blackwell says when a child is taken from his or her family by DCFS, reunification is the top priority. However, he says caseworkers unconsciously make race-based judgments about families which can cause the workers to give up on reuniting families.
“We don’t run around promoting that DCFS is racist, but rather that there are issues of inequities in our system that we are trying to address for the benefit of the families we’re serving,” Blackwell said.
DCFS’ anti-racism team has created a racially informed intervention process for caseworkers, he says, and training on the new model will begin soon. Because DCFS often works with contractors and judges, the agency is creating a training program for those groups as well. Eventually, Blackwell wants to see the training expanded to police officers, hospital workers, lawmakers and others who come in contact with the child welfare system.
“If we’re going in with biases that we’re not checking, that’s a recipe for what we’ve got already,” Blackwell said. “We want to see fewer families dismantled unnecessarily because we’re holding to some standard that is unreasonable. The problem is trying to establish public policy that protects and serves but also has some regard for cultural differences.”
Building trust for long-term change
The work undertaken by the Dominican Sisters and other groups could have a profound effect on Springfield and the state at large. Although the work is only beginning, the trust being created between African-American leaders and this city’s institutions is a welcome change that paves the way for meaningful reforms toward equality.
Robette Dias at Crossroads applauds the progress made so far.
“Sometimes when I read the news or watch YouTube or Congress, I can feel hopeless or defeated,” she said. “But then I go to Springfield and see all the work happening in Illinois, I really feel like I’ve helped the world change a little bit today. Maybe I’ve helped save some lives and helped save someone’s dignity. It’s really gratifying.”