Race in America

Race in America

By Eugene Curtin
Editor’s note: While the United States is home to people of various racial backgrounds, this article focuses on race relations between black Americans and the majority white culture.

The numbers are stark. They are challenging. And they are stubborn. Fifty years after President Lyndon Baines Johnson launched his Great Society program aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice in the United States, the numbers haunt his legacy.

  • The Current Population Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the median white household earns $60,256 a year, almost $25,000 more than the median black household, at $35,398
  • Seventy-three percent of white families own a home, with a median value of $85,500. Those figures fall to 45 percent and $50,000 for black families.
  • In the past 10 years, 34 percent of white Americans completed a four-year college degree, compared to 20 percent of black Americans.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice reports that almost 3 percent of black males were in prison at the end of 2014, compared to 0.5 percent of the much larger white male population. Black men had the highest imprisonment rate in every age group.

It’s a bleak picture, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

A Gallup poll published in August 2015 showed that Americans increasingly rate the state of race relations more negatively than in the past. White Americans in particular are pessimistic. In 2013, 72 percent of them said relations between blacks and whites were either very good or somewhat good, a number that tumbled to 47 percent in 2014. Black Americans, too, are more pessimistic, with their very good/somewhat good rating falling from 66 percent in 2013 to 51 percent in 2014.

A Pew Research Center study conducted in August 2015 found that 50 percent of Americans now consider racism a “big problem” in the United States, compared to just 26 percent who held that view when Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, took office in January 2009.

The finding is consistent with explosions of racial anger that have fueled recent news events in the United States, eruptions that have spurred calls for social and racial justice.

As a Jesuit, Catholic university sitting adjacent to historically black North Omaha, Creighton has long maintained an active presence among racial minorities, recruiting students from racially diverse backgrounds and working with minority communities to provide health, legal and other services.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Creighton professors have pondered the problem.

Sade Kosoko-Lasaki, M.D., an internationally renowned researcher in minority health; Eileen Burke-Sullivan, STD, MChrSp’84, Creighton’s vice provost for University Mission and Ministry; and philosophy professor Kevin Graham, Ph.D., author of Beyond Redistribution: White Supremacy and Racial Justice, are convinced that words and good intentions cannot bridge a racial divide more than three centuries in the making. That historic task, they believe, can be accomplished only by the sometimes uncomfortable work of engagement.

For Kosoko-Lasaki, a Nigerian-American, and Burke-Sullivan, whose name could hardly be more Irish, those epiphanies came in church.

For her research into health disparities locally and the increased incidence of glaucoma-related blindness in African-Americans and Hispanics nationally, Kosoko-Lasaki, professor of surgery (ophthalmology) and associate vice provost of Health Sciences, was scheduling presentations at neighborhood churches. Eventually, a pastor suggested that if his congregants were good enough to be subjects of her research, perhaps they might also be worthy of her ongoing church attendance.

She saw the point, and though a resident of West Omaha, has become something of a regular at that church.

Burke-Sullivan’s church story involves the challenge she faced as a profoundly Catholic white woman — indeed, a Doctor of Sacred Theology — in laying aside briefly the structured format of the Catholic Mass and accompanying two African-American friends to a more free-wheeling Congregationalist church.

“I have to say it was a very uncomfortable experience,” she said. “This is not something I would set up for myself every week, although perhaps if I were courageous I would.”

The visit clarified the importance of placing oneself in another’s shoes in order to gain understanding of an alternative cultural experience.

Churches, Burke-Sullivan said, reflecting Martin Luther King’s observation that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, are opportunities for people of different races and traditions to step beyond their boundaries.

They are opportunities to hear one another, she said, opportunities that, taken more often, would build understanding and help the quest for greater social and racial justice.

“They are a good place for people to start engaging because you have a genuine experience of people trying to be there for each other,” she said. “That creates a safer place to extend yourself as you’ve never done before.”

If awkwardness imposes itself on attempts to understand a different worship tradition, then so does opportunity, said Burke-Sullivan, who holds the Barbara Reardon Heaney Chair in Pastoral Liturgical Theology at Creighton.

“You’re really talking about making an effort not only to listen — which is a big piece of work in itself — but to hear,” she said, “because you start to put yourself in another person’s shoes, and you start to experience their world.”

This emphasis on “hearing one another” as Burke-Sullivan puts it, lies at the heart of Graham’s insistence that “distributive justice” — the more equal distribution of wealth — is a necessary though insufficient guarantee of comprehensive social justice.

Even if society’s goods and services were more equally distributed, he suggests, true justice— true harmony, perhaps — would await resolution of the cultural assumptions that Americans of various races make about one another — what he calls the “controlling images” that make us wary of one another.

If hope exists, he said, then it exists in the willingness of Americans to bury “controlling images,” which he defines as “stereotypes with teeth.”

Jettisoning those stereotypes, married to a willingness to allow America’s historic racial injustices to inform but not control the future, would make it easier for Americans of all races to accept one another, which Graham sees as the key to achieving real racial justice.

“The hope, I think, from my own experience, comes from trying to engage individuals across boundaries of difference, one on one, trying to understand their stories,” he said. “In my experience, the most powerful hope about the possibility of working beyond differences lies in getting to know someone and their interests and their story, and their trying to get to know me and my interests and my story, and all of us trying to get past a lot of this cultural baggage.”

Blacks and whites alike, he said, would do well to acknowledge the impossibility of righting the wrongs of slavery, of changing the harsh fact that centuries of white rule imposed crippling disadvantages on black America and conferred often-unrecognized privileges on white America, and that past wrongs, while not being forgotten, should not be allowed to hamper progress.

“We need to own up to the fact that we’re not going to overcome 450 years of bad history. It’s just not within our power to do,” said Graham, whose academic expertise includes the philosophy of race. “So you don’t try to do that. You try to focus on the one thing that’s right in front of you, that you can make better, in order to reduce the problems for members of nonwhite races and to overcome a little bit of white privilege.

“You try to take baby steps, because those are the only steps you can take when you are learning to walk. You’ve got to learn that before you can learn to run.”

The road to social and racial justice — if such is defined as equitable access to society’s goods and services, equal participation in the electoral system and a harmonious appreciation of differing cultural experiences — has been long, and remains long.

Along the way, practical difficulties have been overcome and new ones have presented themselves. Among these, according to Raneta Lawson Mack, Creighton professor of law, has been something called the digital divide.

Mack’s concern about minority access to the information superhighway began early in the digital revolution, and her 2001 book, The Digital Divide: Standing at the Intersection of Race and Technology, was an early attempt to voice fears that the advent of the internet might accentuate the economic gulf between the white, majority culture and black America.

Today, she said, those fears have eased. The gulf has been bridged, and access to the internet and all its offerings is near universal. But a new problem has arisen in the wake of that achievement, and she calls it the knowledge divide.

“The issue has now shifted to what people do once they have access,” she said. “To the extent there are any limitations now it’s based upon people not knowing what they can do with all of this information that’s available to them — those who have that kind of knowledge versus those who don’t.”

It is one thing to use the internet to acquire useful knowledge, or to research job opportunities, she said, but if it becomes just a source of entertainment then a significant opportunity will be lost.

“You can put a computer or a cellphone in front of a minority child and say, ‘Here it is’  — give access — but if that child doesn’t have the same education and knowledge base that a nonminority child has, then the digital divide still exists,” she said.

Kosoko-Lasaki, who leads Creighton’s Health Sciences Multicultural and Community Affairs Office, is troubled by how “knowledge divide” affects the health and wellness of minority populations and places obstacles in the path of racial justice.

In 2014, Creighton was awarded a nearly $1.5 million Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant to study new models in reducing health disparities in the African-American population in Douglas County. Kosoko-Lasaki, who serves as the grant’s principal investigator, said there is a lack of consciousness of how bad eating habits and a lack of exercise lead to higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Socioeconomic and racial concerns exacerbate the problem.

“You can tell someone to exercise and to eat better food,” she said. “But what if they live in an unsafe neighborhood, or lack access to a gym or healthy foods or cannot afford them? And if that person happens to be a minority, is he or she willing to talk about these issues with a white physician?”

Kosoko-Lasaki notes that an insufficient supply of black health care professionals means that large numbers of African-Americans are treated by white health care workers. To address this issue, her office offers a variety of “pipeline” programs that introduce minority youth to careers in the health professions and assist minority college students and graduates in pursuing an education in the health sciences.

Her office also provides cultural awareness education for all health professions students, white and black, equipping them to effectively care for diverse patient populations.

“There are white physicians who care so much about these disparities and want to contribute to their elimination,” she said. “If we give such individuals a chance, and equip them by teaching them the skills needed to build trusting relationships and relating to minorities, we can get a lot done and reduce the health disparities in our nation.”

If, as a black woman, Kosoko-Lasaki is eager to educate the majority culture about the sensitivities of black and other minority cultures, then Terri Sanders, also a black woman, is just as determined that minority youth understand that pleading universal mistreatment will get them nothing.

A 1978 Creighton journalism graduate, Sanders currently serves as site manager of the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, an economic development project by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation. The key to minority advancement, she said, is what it has always been — a mix of assertiveness, determination and initiative.

“Don’t be passive about your education,” she said. “It’s about being an active participant, not standing apart. Nobody owes you anything. You have to drive your own bus. You have to knock on the door, and if the door is locked you need to go around and find a window that’s open and go through there.

“I think young people today don’t do that enough.”

Burke-Sullivan does not dispute Sanders’ hard-nosed advice.

“I would say that any minority cultural message that states, ‘Don’t study, don’t do well in school because then you’re conforming to white, majority culture,’ is harmful, because education is so important,” she said.

But, then again, she said, white culture must understand the resentments and suspicions often voiced by black Americans, suspicions that they are unfairly targeted by law enforcement and subjected to unfavorable and unjustified judgments by society at large.

She calls these convictions “categories of experience,” and she said they are vastly different for black and white America.

“Black Americans’ perceptions of and interactions with the police, for example, are not the same as the experiences of most white people,” she said.

These differing attitudes toward police are backed up in a review of annual surveys conducted by Gallup from 2011 to 2014. It found that 59 percent of white respondents had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, compared with 37 percent of blacks.

It may take time, Burke-Sullivan said, and a greater degree of self-awareness on the part of white America, but the concerns of America’s minority cultures must be addressed. The health of all cultures, she said, depends on it.

“I’m not really an educated person in the modern world if I don’t understand the varieties of cultures that are around me and make up this wonderful world,” she said. “If I’m locked into a singular culture as the only way to be, I’m not educated. Nor am I going to flourish.”

And flourishing, after all, is what the quest for social and racial justice is all about. It is the flourishing of Americans of all races that concerns advocates such as Graham, who said the road forward must be signposted with dialogue and an understanding that true justice entails far more than a more equitable distribution of wealth.

“There’s lots of room for dialogue about what would count as moving forward and also the means by which we move forward,” he said. “But what I want us to understand is that there’s more to moving forward than just redistributing income and wealth. If we limit the discussion on moving forward to that, we are missing a bigger picture.”

It’s a bigger picture that Burke-Sullivan believes we will miss at our peril.

“We are at a time in our culture where we can make a choice. Are we satisfied with where we are at, in terms of race relations?” she said, “Or are we going to make a serious effort to try and discover what it is about other people’s lives that is real and that I can contribute to?”’