In Full View of History: Institutional Racism Then and Now
Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Presentation
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Monday, January 15th 2018
In 1963 President Kennedy was asked by a journalist if he felt that his Administration was pushing integration too fast or not fast enough, citing a recent Gallup poll that showed fifty percent of the country felt he was moving too quickly on issues of race. President Kennedy responded, “This is not a matter on which you can take the temperature every few weeks, depending on what the newspaper headlines might be. You judged 1863 after a good many years – its full effect. The same poll showed forty percent or so thought it was more or less right. I thought that was rather impressive, because it is a change and change always disturbs, and therefore I was surprised there wasn’t greater opposition.”
Great is the person who can understand how the present fits into the larger picture of history. The battles we fight today may be obscured and distorted by the detractors, but we fight for the future, knowing full well that one day, history will affirm the moral certainty of our cause.
Pastor Ilg. Reverend Heifner, Reverend Pitts, Reverend Brockmeyer, Reverend Niyonzima and the rest of the clergy here at St. Paul’s. To the organizers of this most necessary event. To my fellow presenters and to the honorees this evening. And to all of those who have made time to honor the legacy of Dr. King, my thanks to you for having me.
I am always delighted to receive speaking invitations from churches. As an outspoken community activist, my views tend to challenge the status quo. I have found it is controversial to ask whether our institutions are meeting the test of our Declaration, which proclaims that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. It is my experience that most churches stay out of the firing line of progress. But then I remembered that I’m not at just any old church.
Longtime community advocate, educator, and founder of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, Dr. Ruth White encourages us all to know our history; to know whose shoulders on which we stand. Just two years before President Kennedy gave his response to that journalist, this church made civil rights history of its own. Parishioners held a vote to decide whether it would allow a sale of land to Dr. Percy Harris so that he could build a home for his growing family.
As Dr. Harris listened to his brothers and sisters in Christ hold a civilized debate over the merits of this land sale to his Negro family, the fiery testimony of Shirley Finger, an otherwise soft-spoken woman stands out:
“This is the issue: Are we a Christian church or not? And if we are not, then this is a good time decide it and get it decided definitely and not go on being hypocritical about it. If the majority of this church does not believe that people are equal in the sight of God, then let’s say so to the world. This is not just St. Paul’s Church here tonight. This is the world, the whole world is here tonight. And this is one of the great problems of the world. And to say that the church should not be involved in facing the great problems of the world is to say that the church should not do its job. Where else should this problem be solved if not in the church?”
Dr. Harris watched the debate for hours, as member after member lined up for or against the sale of the land. He could’ve packed his bags and left, opting for a more welcoming city. He could’ve left after the rock smashed through the window of his practice. But he stayed, and now I stand on his shoulders. Between him and Dr. White, I’m on steady ground.
Sister Finger’s monologue of truth came two years before Dr. King’s open Letter from a Birmingham Jail, made famous because he laid the cause of racial justice before the conscience of clergy – all those women and men who claimed to love God and their fellow man without condition.
The Church is ground zero for progressive change. This change I speak of, is not about politics. It is about standing up to injustice wherever it may exist and challenging every system that perpetuates it. It is indeed, an honor to be here today. I feel right at home.
It is my hope to speak with you about institutional racism, injustice and discrimination – not just to point out where these things might exist, but also to offer a methodology on how these social ills can be addressed.
By most accounts, we live in a remarkable community. Unemployment is down for most people – save for minorities. If you live east of 19th street on the southeast side of town, you likely live in a safe neighborhood. If the company you work for is a dues-paying member of the Economic Alliance, you probably have good benefits which gives you access to quality healthcare, education and transportation. If you check all of the boxes, I suspect you’re doing pretty well. This is the American Dream. If for some reason, you fall on the other side of those conditions, I suspect life for you isn’t as rosy.
My career has been dedicated to those women and men on the other side; the forgotten. Those without a voice. The people who are crushed by the weight of the same institutions that are designed to protect, uplift, and safeguard everyone in society. The only challenge that is greater than changing institutions that have grown stronger over generations, is changing the culture here in America that permits our institutions to do harm.
There seems to be a general resistance to progress – especially in the area of justice reform – because people believe they should be against the messenger – whether the messenger is a political Party or a person – or simply because change is uneasy. Either way, we cannot let the substance of the issue get lost in all of the noise.
It seems as if people are unable or unwilling to see injustice. There is a knee-jerk reaction in this country that happens anytime someone offers a critique against certain institutions. We are programmed at a young age to have only respect – never criticism – for our military, our police officers, and our firefighters and so on.
If we expect our youth to value a meritocracy, teaching them that even though some people might work hard and play by the rules, they don’t always end up on top. If we expect them to revere representative democracy as the most egalitarian form of government the world has ever seen, while understanding its limits and drawbacks or if we expect them to understand that although he was a great leader, Dr. King was not a perfect man, then surely, we can expect them to hold two truths in their minds at one time: the women and men of law enforcement are to be admired; but those women and men are a part of a larger institution that is indeed flawed. This is what I call seeing nuance. It is our responsibility as citizens to try with all of our might to help that institution become better.
The same logic can be applied to politics. It is filled with honorable women and men, but it is largely a system that is most responsive to the wealthy and multi-national corporations. It is our job to try to fix that.
This resistance is troubling, although it is not new. As we trace its history, we find that the work of justice reform is essentially the work of dismantling institutional racism.
- When the poor and minorities are given harsher sentences, slapped with fees they can never pay, and sold into a prison system that exploits their labor for private profit.
- When realtors and bankers conspire with one another to keep entire sections of the community white, confining minorities to rundown areas without sufficient services or resources; when these practices are codified by law.
- When political boundaries are drawn to concentrate minorities – who are often disenfranchised through new iterations of the poll tax – in a single district, to water down their political influence.
- When you’re cast as anti-cop for speaking out against the extrajudicial murder of unarmed Black women and men and the legal process fails to convict the offending officer, despite clear evidence of wrongdoing.
- When one bad police officer – whose actions adversely affect people of color – can be protected by the awesome power of the institution of law enforcement, then we perpetuate the devastation of not only a race of people, but we destroy the promise of our democracy in the process.
- When local county attorneys can investigate and prosecute police officers that they know; when victims are not afforded the ability to testify and speak their own truth; when body microphones worn by police officers conveniently malfunction; when citizens are made to feel as if they are somehow less patriotic because they question or critique the practices of one of our most essential systems. This is how institutional racism works.
The sum of all of these acts is how injustice persists through time. This is how we transmit cultural information about the worth of certain races. This is how we communicate our priorities and our values as a people. Sartre reminds us that we are the sum of our choices – or all of the things we permit.
We may no longer be red-lining neighborhoods, but many of these issues are still alive and well. As it turns out, institutions are resilient, but so are we.
In addition to justice reform, I am particularly concerned with the overall economic condition of many people in our community and how social vulnerability is solidified over generations, compounded by institutions that are more responsive to the whims and needs of the affluent.
- In one of our neighborhoods, the median household income for African Americans is $8,194. – 97% of everyone in that neighborhood is considered socially vulnerable.
- In another neighborhood, 43% of the households are headed by single mothers.
- And although there was a time in this country, where obtaining a high school diploma was enough to ensure a decent living, in the neighborhood I grew up in, the median income for a high school graduate is just over $20,000. – Ironically, this number represents a fraction of the debt most Americans incur trying to complete a four-year degree.
And here we are. In the midst of a conversation about social justice, we find ourselves talking about economics. Well, income inequality and the economics of social vulnerability is in fact a social justice issue, and our institutions have a role to play in bringing relief to those who need it the most.
Somewhere out there, a young person of color is growing up largely on his own. With few positive role models in his neighborhood, the pictures of success he sees are broken women and men trying to find dignity in life by resorting to whatever means available to make the ends meet.
Now there are those who want to preach the “bootstrap gospel,” totally ignoring the power of institutional harm and generational poverty; turning a blind eye to privilege and insisting on the myth that everyone is afforded equal opportunity to get ahead in life. Never mind that he goes to bed at night with an empty stomach. Never mind that he sees his friends selling dope, earning three times as much as he does as at his minimum wage job. Never mind that he misses out on extracurricular activities or after school help with math, because he needs to be home to babysit his siblings. Never mind that the number one cause of death for black males in this country between the ages of 15 and 34 is homicide. We cannot always bootstrap our way out of poverty and hopelessness.
Instead of seeing the worst in the other – those people of different circumstance – I challenge you to always look for the best in one another. See the God in your fellow man. When we do this, we offer a new hope and energy for humanity.
Instead of seeing himself in the backseat of the squad car that patrols his neighborhood, he might see a noble career option – a way in which he can serve his community and help other youths find their way out of poverty. When he excels in the classroom, he will be encouraged by his peers instead of ridiculed by his own for trying to act white. And when he is seen by the larger community, he won’t be described as a thug or a danger to society. He will be seen for his potential; we will assign to him a future of promise where he will live a life of meaning and will contribute generously to his community.
When our institutions actively work together to improve our neighborhoods, bridge the gaps of education and opportunity, and even the arcs of growth and prosperity, we will move a little closer to realizing his Dream.
Our work is unending. It is not popular, because it is hard and forces our brains into the uncomfortable realm of reconciling and improving race relations – America’s ultimate taboo. This work is hard because those people who remain untouched by systemic harm or hardship, are not compelled to help out. These are the people of privilege, who work good jobs, who relax at the country club, who have friends who say things like, “I don’t see color,” who subscribe to the Bootstrap Theology.
It takes such little risk and effort to expend privilege advocating for a new casino in this town – or opposing one for that matter – and so much more risk and effort to advocate for the downtrodden and vulnerable. It takes little risk to push the “Like,” button on a Facebook post that you agree with, and more to speak up in a boardroom when a company is deciding on whether it will invest in implicit bias training for its employees.
We must match our proclamations with courage; line up the things we say we’re about with meaningful action.
And with that, I offer you a methodology for addressing social ills, including institutional racism. And for the sake of ease, I’ll distill this methodology down to three easy steps; the Happy Meal version, so sweet that it could fit in a Tweet.
First, we must be willing to call out injustice and bias within our institutions when we see it. This means not instantly discounting the complaint or grievance of a person because of who they are, or whom they accuse. In order to call out injustice, we must first know that it is there.
Second, we must own it. When we are made aware of a flaw in the system, we must be fierce in our effort to change it. Don’t tell me how much you value fairness and equality under the law, show me by how aggressively you work to own the imperfections of our system. Instead of county attorneys and police chiefs taking an adversarial approach to the work of justice reform, I’d like to see them lead it.
And lastly, the hard part is sustaining change efforts which must be founded upon restorative justice. It is not enough to place a Band-Aid over a bullet wound. We must work toward healing, and we do that best when we work to right the wrongs of the past. We all know that the moral arc of the universe is long. We all know that it bends toward justice. But what we must accept is that the work of bending that arc takes time and sustained effort.
In closing, I want to let you know why it is I do this work and why it is imperative that you join me. Toward the end of the Second Great War, my grandmother was born in rural Alabama. She moved north to Chicago to raise her seven kids on her own. She then came to Iowa to give them an even better life. Her daughter – my mother – raised two kids on her own. We grew up in government subsidized housing, and used food stamps and other welfare benefits to make the ends meet. My mother was murdered when I was just four years old. I went to live with my grandmother after that. She went to college in her fifties to become a nurse. She worked long shifts late into the night until her weary bones couldn’t take it anymore. She taught me more about hard work and compassion than I could ever learn from anyone else. A few years ago she went to be with her God. On her deathbed, I whispered in her ear two promises. I would always be around to take care of my younger sister, and that her legacy of love and good works would live through me.
And here we are today. My grandmother grew up in a time where a living relative of hers was born into slavery. Now her grandson has the privilege of working side by side with you all here today to ensure a better, more equitable society for all people.
In this short blip of time that we share on this earth, may we come to understand that we are all small links that bind together the past with our present, and our present with our future. It is the work we do now that our children and grandchildren will measure against, sizing up our commitment to progress with their own as they muster the courage to wither the storms they will face.
St. Paul’s Church voted to sell Dr. Harris the plot of land by a vote of 460 to 291. The margin was 169 members who bended the moral arc of the universe with a little courage and commitment to progress. Housing values did not decrease and the neighborhood was not reduced to rancor and upheaval. There were some who called men like Dr. King and Dr. Harris rabble-rousers. They were accused of hastening the pace of progress, upsetting the natural order of things; making trouble where there ought not be any.
Can we see ourselves through a similar arc of history? Do we understand the critiques against us for what they really are? When they say we’re making much ado about nothing, or that we’re challenging a system that works fine enough. These are the cries of a desperate minority still clinging to a present that is already dying. This is the work of those who practice the Dark Arts of politics, leveraging fear and appealing to our worst instincts to divide us. This is the last gasp of ignorance trying desperately to silence our truth.
Nevertheless, we will persist, and we will keep space in our hearts and minds for the unimaginable.
We will stand up for young Americans who were brought to this country at a young age, by parents fleeing violence and dangerous conditions. The appropriately named Dreamers love this country, and we dare not turn our backs on them now, when they need us the most.
We will care for our planet understanding that leaving clean air and clean water and a sustainable environment is our responsibility to future generations.
And we will ensure that women can live and work in environments where sexual assault is not tolerated.
Are we being accountable to future generations through our actions in the here and now? Are we deserving of Dr. King’s dream? Can we answer his call to citizenship and service?
While I think we are deserving, and I think that our assembling here today shows our commitment to those who will come after us, I will leave you with a passage that resonates with me – and at one time – resonated with this country in a way that warmed our hearts and gave us new hope for the future:
“It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.
It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.
Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world.”
All of my thanks to you. May God bless you all and may she speed progress here on this earth.
 United Way of East Central Iowa. Cedar Rapids Neighborhood Comparisons. 2015, Cedar Rapids Neighborhood Comparisons.
 Obama, Barack. “Yes We Can.” 8 Jan. 2008, Nashua, New Hampshire.