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Thursday, June 9, 2011 02:30 am

White America’s responsibility for race unity

This is a shortened version of Kenley Wade’s keynote address delivered June 5 at the annual Race Unity Rally at the State Capitol rotunda.

The Emancipation Proclamation ended the slavery of African people in America, and marked the beginning of their freedom, citizenship and the rights and privileges that are guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This guarantee is yet to be fully realized for descendants of former slaves and other people of color in the United States, because institutional racism remains dominant in America.

We are a nation that includes every people on earth. But we continue to harbor racial prejudice against people of color. We are a nation where racism continues as an affront to human dignity.

Our efforts to achieve racial unity are flawed because contemporary science continues to challenge the racial categories that have been developed. Even prior to these scientific advances, we knew that “race” is an artificial distinction, a socio-political artifact, established by governments and societies to subjugate, divide, control and oppress certain members of society, mostly people of color.

We know that the United States was founded on a set of contradictory values. The so-called Founding Fathers proclaimed devotion to the highest principles of equality and justice, yet they enshrined slavery in the Constitution.

The uneven legacies from slavery continue to affect black and white Americans in the form of institutional racism, which exists in all of our social institutions – employment, education, public accommodations and government at all levels. However, white citizens enjoy a legacy of privilege and opportunity, while citizens of color struggle with the legacy of negative outcomes resulting from institutional racism and unequal treatment.

It took two attempts, one in 1879 and a second in 1964, to pass civil rights legislation, enacting a level of equality for people of color in America. Social change, at its best, is a slow and deliberate process that is controlled by those who hold power in social institutions. In America, this power is held by white citizens.

The elimination of systemic racism in our social institutions rests in the hands of the white citizens who are in positions of power in these institutions. Therefore, white citizens must assume the responsibility for eliminating racial prejudice in America.

It is hypocritical that we criticize the human rights violations of other countries while ignoring areas of human rights violations that remain unattended in our cities – crime, poverty, poor medical outcomes, poor academic outcomes, unequal access to resources and unequal application of laws. These are the reality for many citizens of color in every state and city in America.

No real change will come about without close associations, dialogue and friendship. In order to grow and create meaningful change, we must establish more and frequent opportunities to discuss the value of racial unity, and get beyond event-driven activity like Dr. Martin Luther King Day, Race Unity Day and Black History Month.

It cannot suffice to offer educational opportunities and employment opportunities, all of which include the tagline of “equal opportunity,” while simultaneously shutting people of color out of these opportunities through the continuation of systemic racist practices within our social institutions.

We need to become aware of and become sensitive to responses such as “We have always taught these children this way,” which frequently represent systemic racial biases and practices in our public school systems. We need to develop a thirst for justice and equality for all people, and rid ourselves of racial stereotypes that attach the responsibility and blame for lack of achievement to the victims, without addressing the ineffectiveness of the systems in which they function.

We need to be open to education of ourselves, because ignorance and blind imitation are the root causes of prejudice.

Kenley Wade is co-chair of  the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism, vice-chair of the Coalition to Promote Human Dignity and Diversity and a management consultant who performs extensive volunteer work in the Springfield community.


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