I shook my head, not in disbelief, but in disappointment when I saw a noose dangling from a so-called “white only” tree in Jena, La. It was the final frame of a video about the injustices done to the highly publicized Jena Six. The video was my introduction to the case, which, at the time, was not well-publicized in national media.
Within weeks, marches, sound bites and catchphrases flooded mainstream media, coloring the discussion about the act of racism and reminding the public that racism still exists, even in 2007, in spite of multiculturalism. Again, all I could do was shake my head.
In April, a similar tactic of marches, protests and sound bites led CBS to fire radio talk show host Don Imus for his “nappy-headed hos” comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. But it was not enough to keep Imus off the airwaves.
It seems as though conversations about racism in this country are constructed based on reaction to individual, publicized racist acts. They are characterized by emotion-riddled debates between two talking heads and the polarization of blacks and whites engaged in the discussion. There seems to be no desire for a serious talk about the broader issue that these acts are remnants of the legacy of racism that exists in this country. They remind me that racism is a part of what it means to live in the U.S.
Therefore, the noose that hangs from a tree in Jena can hang anywhere in America, even in Philadelphia or at Temple.
“America trains its citizens not to want to discuss race and not to really get at the root of racism because when you do get at the root of racism you find that it is a part of America’s structure,” said Weldon McWilliams, a doctoral candidate and adjunct instructor in the African-American studies department.
This semester, McWilliams taught Dimensions of Race, a university core requirement course in race studies. McWilliams said he chose to teach this class because he wanted to facilitate a dialogue about race between both white and nonwhite students.
“What I found in my class is a lot of white people could not define racism outside of a racist act,” McWilliams said. “If you look at it as just an act, then you just look at a specific individual and it takes the blame off the systemic structure.”
An honest, serious dialogue about racism begins when we acknowledge its existence and look beyond specific acts by individuals and groups as a definition of racism.
The Office of Multicultural Affairs has attempted to facilitate such discussion through its Diversity Dialogue Series, a semester-long workshop designed to engage student leaders in discussion on multiculturalism and diversity.
Again, a serious discussion about race cannot be reactionary, riddled with emotion, whittled down to two polarized sides of black and white or fueled by incentives. It takes effort, commitment and, essentially, a desire to restructure America.
But, I’m not so certain we’re ready for the challenge.
Malaika T. Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.