What happened in Minneapolis to George Floyd, in Louisville to Breonna Taylor, and near Brunswick, Georgia to Ahmaud Arbery has shocked the conscience of many in our nation. The alarm has been raised even more than incidents in recent years by the murders of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland or Botham Jean. The long list of people killed because the color of their skin represented a threat is too long to recount here. There is still a State of Emergency on race relations in America. It is so not just because of systemic injustice, but maybe more so because of societal indifference. An awakening has been happening these past weeks not seen since 1960’s America.
Please, I invite you to visit the Say Their Names project to understand that these names are more than a list of hashtags. Each death was a human being extinguished unnecessarily and unjustly as part of a broken system and culture. We continue to be too OK with these deaths, not making the hard choices change requires. Instead, we excuse our collective selves by focusing on the individual incident or the individual officer instead of focusing on how this is still who we are as American society. It isn’t just bad actors, or even limited to the racist and suppressive system of criminal justice for America.
Before I go further, I’m going to warn you that this is not a short document. I invite you to read it all at once or to come back over time. I think it’s important and I hope you think it’s worth the investment of time. If you want a shorter reflection, and haven’t already seen it, I was honored recently with LNP publishing a poem I wrote about this time.
I am grateful to be in a position of leadership at United Way of Lancaster County where together we can provide avenues for community members like you to make actionable change towards healing the broken parts of our society. Thank you for your financial support, volunteer times, prayers and well wishes, and advocacy. There are so many ways in which we are not well as a society. There are also many ways we can be part of the healing.
At United Way, we talk at length, in non-racial terms, about financial well-being or education or healthcare. However, we have not historically used an equity and diversity framework to mark where we are as a community. This has been a strong initiative at United Way Worldwide and we are grateful that we have expert support in building this lens to see our organization through, and also to see the community. In Lancaster County, over 50% of the population fits a category we call ALICE (meaning Assets are Limited, their Income is Constrained, but they are Employed). But many people have gone from ALICE to ALIC in this pandemic and that loss of employment can really wreck a person’s mental health even if they qualify for unemployment to replace the paycheck. And while there are many white working individuals who are still poor, we know there is a disproportionate impact showing continued racial disparities where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are disproportionately represented in the lack of access to both services and opportunities to be stable and find growth.
United Way of Lancaster County believes that Black Lives Matter. It is not possible to succeed in the work we aim to do without being able to look at the reality of our community locally and the state and nation within which we exist. To Live United, we must be able to identify and focus on solving specific problems for specific groups, calling out injustices and inequities found by those groups, and to galvanize the conversations to ways of achieving greater parity in our society.
We recognize that the anger you see on the streets is not a series of independent acts but part of a continuing conversation with history. When those protests “turn violent” they are in no small part a response to the violence some communities have experienced and accepted from the system. This is not a defense of “looting and destruction” but context.
It is amazing that some people are still looking for alternative facts or to divert attention from the issue of racial justice to unrelated conversations. There are nearly no other conversations we have about problems in America where the reaction from so many is to deny the problem or talk about something unrelated. This itself is an example of socialization saying black lives do not matter as much as other issues. Right now, that conversation has been about police brutality and excessive force where rogue police officers believe they have the right to perform executions without due process over someone trying to pass a $20 counterfeit bill. And other officers stand by and participate or passively allow the murder to happen.
That said, one of the distractions that has been made is to avoid the millions of Americans peacefully going to the streets to demand change. There are leaders who would rather us stay the same because it plays better to their politics. There are also media forces who share that same objective. So where they would like to say not to judge all police based upon “a few bad apples” they insist that we should take the few who have been violent, and destructive and paint all protestors in this light. It is false, it is wrong, and it intentionally keeps progress at bay.
That said, I think that we need to be willing to think more critically. So, I would like to mention a bit about “looting”. There was a looting incident that set everything in motion recently. That was when Officer Derek Chauvin looted the life breath from George Floyd’s body. The overwhelmingly peaceful response in the streets included some violence, destruction, and looting which was not intended as an eye for an eye. Let us put this response in the historical context of the abusive relationship that began in 1619 with kidnapped Africans taken from their places of origin and put into slavery.
The process of transcontinental kidnapping, captivity and chattel slavery looted men and women of their languages, their cultures, their religious practices, their names, and their families. After slavery formally ended in 1863, the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the United States constitution gave the right to vote in 1870. Well, to black men and but not to women of any race. That too was looted from them again and again with practices such as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses (yes, the origin of that phrase is heinous).
In 1896 a Supreme Court case called Plessy V. Ferguson basically looted from Black Americans all of their civil rights. You may remember this from High School civics class as “separate by equal.” This period saw rise to white heritage groups such as the KKK and thus began the looting of black life itself through lynching. While the legal support of lynching eventually ended, it is this legacy that continues in the actions of men like former Officer Chauvin’s public execution, in cold blood, of George Floyd.
But Lynching wasn’t the only looting. When black men fought in World War I, it was recognized that we all bleed red, but the black soldiers returned to segregation and unequal opportunities. This was a looting of their self-reliance and the future for themselves and their children. When they fought in World War II they returned and while white men were given the GI bill which built the largest middle class in history, that too was looted from black soldiers who were not granted that economic support.
After segregation ended, black and brown families were legally forbidden from services by living in certain areas looting from them the American Dream. These actions inhibited mobility, condemning them to urban concentrations that would only decline in quality overtime. It was a process called Red Lining and it was done by the government. American government literally drew red lines on maps telling banks and other institutions where they could not provide services and loans and other supports. The schools serving those communities were looted of funding leading to generations of poverty with near impossible odds of advancement.
When blacks were finally granted right to vote with the voting rights act of 1965 was the first time black women were even granted the right to vote under law, even though white women had been granted this right with the 19th amendment in 1920.
Again, ALL in the United States has never really meant everyone. That 1965 law was immediately met with attempts to loot black Americans again of their rights and self-reliance. Legislation targeted their communities to keep them in umbrage. The looting of their bodies and presence in the community with sentencing guidelines disproportionately affecting black men, and eventually women, through felony disenfranchisement. Even today, policies and practices loot the future of black children with designed mass incarceration built through the school to prison pipeline and for-profit prisons. Which leads us also to today’s challenge of police brutality, racialized policies, and militarized response to black bodies in the street demanding equal treatment.
So, what about Police Brutality? Isn’t that the only reason we are here, those few bad apples? No. It’s the system in which they exist. For instance, you’ve all heard the dangers of the job and that every policeman leaves home not knowing if he will return that night. Did you know that policing is not in the top 10 most dangerous jobs? In fact, it’s almost never even in the top 20 most dangerous professions by death. And the majority of deaths policemen have are either in traffic crashes when not wearing their seatbelt or due to suicide. What is a factor of danger for policing is that they are number one in domestic violence. Nobody is denying the job is stressful, but that means we should fund better access to better mental health supports and less tanks and teargas canisters. We also should forbid any police officer with a past history of domestic violence and any domestic violence once on the force should be terms for immediate dismissal.
But here’s the thing. Police officers are fearful for their lives. They are particularly so when they are dealing with people in communities they don’t live in, of races they aren’t personally familiar with, armed with rules that allow them protection for little restraint. These presumptions exist because the problems with police and they system they exist in is a mirror to America. We the people elect the mayors and municipality leaders who create the culture of policing by whom they choose to lead those departments. And policing is only one symptom of our problem. We need to fight against the rot, but we also need to acknowledge that our problems are with ourselves as a society. Neither a few bad officers are the problem, nor is it just policing.
To say Black Lives Matter means looking beyond policing and demanding more from the funding formulas we see for education, to understand that wage theft by major corporations who do not provide healthcare contributes to the declining health of lower income (disproportionately black and brown) folks which sees higher rates of morbidity with Covid-19 and almost every other health concern, including even black women having a higher birth morbidity rate. Even Serena Williams couldn’t get adequate care when she had her baby and almost died due to the racist assumptions her doctors had about her pain tolerance and her ignorance to her own medical conditions written on the chart they ignored.
Yes, due to our probation system and the felony disenfranchisement, people are not ever allowed to be free after incarceration to earn a living to support their families. Unless we change, over-policing of low wage communities as a paranoid systemic protection of wealth and property will not go away. I have already taken so much time talking about history that I cannot take much more. I invite you to follow this link to see how the origins of formal, publicly funded police departments in the American South was for slave catching to return “property,” or human bodies, to their inhuman “owners.”
Here at United Way of Lancaster County, we highlight our mission to “mobilize the caring power of our community to achieve impactful systemic social change within our community.” We work to advance the common good by creating opportunities for a better life for all. Our focus is on health, education, and financial wellness. To say we want to create a better life for all, and not to say Black Lives Matter, is tantamount to saying that ALL does not include each of its parts.
The majority of people receiving services from our partners is white due to geography and county demographics. That’s not in question. But we do need to be able to highlight how we are making sure our minority populations, who have suffered greatest systemic exclusion, are being attended to in their unique ways as well. Because that hasn’t always happened, and the heritage of those laws remains in effect with how we see and perceive each other under the law and in our hiring practices and even our medical communities. The work we do to make systemic change needs to focus in on the ways that different communities are harmed by the systemic failures in different areas and in unique ways. That’s how you know what to correct.
So, what should, and can we do as individuals to remove from ourselves the sins of indifference and ignorance? The first step, as they say, is to admit that you have a problem. We live in an environment where racism is so pervasive that many white Americans can go their whole lives not seeing or believing it still exists because it is that all around us. So, please check out this resource and take Harvard’s Skin-Tone IAT implicit Bias tool.
The second step is to educate ourselves. Seek out resources to help you begin an anti-racism journey that acknowledges that racism will not go away if we just stop talking about it or if we just ignore it. Instead, we actively work against it. Here’s a website with a list to help you get started on filling in the deficiencies of your formal education: https://insightla.org/anti-racism-resources/
The third step is to act. Find a cause to join, a campaign to donate to, or a conversation partner to regularly talk about issues of oppression and injustice. We believe you will find yourself becoming more hopeful over time, not discouraged as we often fear in hard conversations. While it can often feel our impact is as small as a grain of sand, we have to remember that without each grain there is no beach.
So, what will I try to have the United Way do differently? That is a fair and important question. I believe that if the work of United Way is effective it is inherently anti-racism work because the systemic work improving the conditions for health, education, and financial wellness requires us looking not just from an equality lens but an equity lens. Since my arrival, we have already begun developing and leading trainings to nonprofit and for-profit companies around issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We have a long way to go as an organization and as a community but this is a personal commitment to you. And it isn’t just anti-racism work but conversations about gender equality and people living with disabilities and any other way our community is unique but unequal. I’m grateful this fits with the directives of United Way Worldwide and I am grateful to have many resources available to us.
You will also see that our website, www.oneunitedlancaster.com, which was created for Covid information and response, will continue to do so. It will also begin to become a website focused on community information and conversations in general. Right now, that has meant a focus on what is happening in the streets and around town in response to the dual pandemics of health and also the racial pandemic. Increasingly, it will be focusing on mental and behavioral health, and it will morph with the times. We do not believe that you can have a United Way unless you are serious about facing and combating head-on the ills that lead to inequity. It starts with us.
Thank you for joining in the work United Way seeks building an equitable community where we are not afraid to shy away from the hard conversations necessary to achieve a better Lancaster, a better Pennsylvania, a better United States, and a better Earth.
Kevin M. Ressler, President & CEO, United Way of Lancaster County