How do we find the language to fight racism?

WILMINGTON, Del. — Protests erupted in Chicago after video was released showing a black teen being gunned down by a police officer and repeatedly shot after he fell to the ground.

The president of the University of Missouri resigned amid charges of racism, including accusations that his administration did not take seriously enough complaints of racial epithets shouted at the student body president, who is black.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by saying a protester interrupting one of his speeches should be roughed up.

Racial tension is boiling nationwide. And as people come together to discuss the root causes, there are disputes over language used to describe the anguish felt by African Americans — some of whom feel marginalized and oppressed by society.

The debate over language was evident last month at a Wilmington town hall meeting focused on the role race plays in the criminal justice system. Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr., who formed a committee exploring ways to reduce racial disparities in Delaware prisons, encouraged fellow panelists and audience members at Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church to avoid using racially charged language — specifically the term "white supremacy." He argued it makes some white people defensive, and has a tendency to shut down well-intentioned conversations.

Social activists and academics often use the term white supremacy to describe a society that favors whites over other races. White supremacy also has been used to describe the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Brotherhood — hate groups that target primarily African Americans, but also, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jews, immigrants, gays and lesbians.

Strine worried that frequent use of the term might be offensive to some, and undermine efforts to bring people together.

"When they hear this rhetoric, they somehow take it personally," Strine said. "Please try to talk to each other in a respectful way that builds bridges."

The response was swift and critical.

"I use that word because that is what it is," said Shefon Taylor, a Delaware civil rights activist and panelist that night. "I know that makes some of us uncomfortable ... but it is OK to sit in the discomfort."

In a later interview, Strine said he does not want to limit freedom of expression but hopes people understand that words are powerful — and that they can either build relationships or set back progress.

"It is a rich conversation to talk about common ground, but we cannot start the conversation with words that ... stop people from listening," he said.

This disagreement illustrates how language used to talk about race is rooted in history, and can be divisive and uncomfortable, academics say.

"There is a huge racial divide in the language we use," said University of Connecticut sociology professor Noel Cazenave. "It seems European-Americans and African-Americans are on different planets. It makes it impossible to have a serious national dialogue."

The result can be sanitized and evasive language, said Cazenave.

To avoid uncomfortable conversations, white people say they don't see color; they talk about "the race issue" when they mean racism and oppression; and they try to rewrite the Black Lives Matter movement as All Lives Matter, Cazenave said.

"Words matter," Cazenave said. "Any system of oppression is typically held together by words. African-Americans have been told what words we can use, and how to express our concerns in order to be listened to, but now is the time for people who are racially oppressed to insist we have a right to express our concerns about our condition in the terms we want."

Others, however, say progress is possible only if language is tailored based on the setting to be more inclusive of non-blacks who may want to be part of the conversation but are uncomfortable and new to it.

"We want people to stay at the table," said Larry Davis, founding director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center on Race and Social Problems. "So let's not get into the semantics."

#BlackLivesMatter

The national conversation on race has heated up since 2013. It started with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator in a Florida community, for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black teen.

The social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter emerged in response to the acquittal, and has continued to pop up in response to highly publicized cases of police using deadly or excessive force against blacks.

"It has become an umbrella that folks in different communities can organize behind," said Lecia Brooks, an outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It came out of Eric Garner, Michael Brown — all of those cases."

Having these daily national conversations about race can be difficult and uncomfortable, many academics and social justice activists told The News Journal, but the conversations are vital to creating a more just society.

Just this week, the trial began in Baltimore for one of six officers charged in the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody. The city erupted in riots in April when Gray died of a spinal cord injury.

At the same time, a jury in Delaware is contemplating whether a Dover police officer is guilty of second-degree assault for kicking a black suspect in the head, knocking him unconscious. And, the Access to Justice Commission's Committee on Fairness had the first public comment sessions in Delaware in an effort to find solutions to the disproportionate number of African Americans in the criminal justice system.

"America is being confronted with some of its sins," Davis said. "America hasn't had to do that ever."

Racism 2.0

This dialogue is making it more obvious that America is not a post-racial country, and that even though the president is black and the Civil Rights Act was passed more than 50 years ago, racism still plays a major role in everything from the criminal justice system to education to housing, academics say.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation and CNN survey of Americans found that 35% of blacks and a quarter of Hispanics report experiencing discrimination because of their race, either by being denied a job for which they are qualified, being denied housing they could afford, or being prevented from voting. Only 11%t of whites reported the same experiences.

The study also found that about two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics say racism is a big problem in this country, but only 43% of whites say it is.

Some scholars have started to call this Racism 2.0 — the idea that racism still exists but is far more subtle and hidden in society.

​"When we talk about racism or white supremacy, the immediate image is the KKK, or the burning of a cross, or a small-town country bigot, or maybe Donald Trump these days," said Arizona State University professor Lee Bebout. "Unfortunately, that says white supremacy is unusual and over there, as opposed to white supremacy being something systemic and part of everyday reality."

Many academics, as well as Chief Justice Strine, have pointed to growing research that says everyone has unconscious biases, even if few are willing to admit to them.

Rev. Patricia Downing, of Trinity Episcopal Parish in Wilmington, said society can begin to correct its wrongs by people becoming more aware of these unconscious biases, such as by having judges, prosecutors and public defenders in the criminal justice system undergo bias training or having people take a Harvard University online test that gauges implicit biases.

"When we are more self-aware, we can be more compassionate and empathetic," she said. "Then we can take steps to break down those systems that cause suffering."

'The Problem of Whiteness'

Unconscious biases can make it difficult at times for some people who are white to discuss privileges they have been afforded throughout their lives because of their race, Cazenave said.

"European-Americans want to think that what they got they earned, and they didn't get it from white racial privilege," Cazenave said.

Bebout agreed, saying white people often find it easier to talk about black oppression, but not its counterpart, which is white privilege. Bebout was condemned in January by a Fox News commentator and attacked on the Internet over a course he taught called "U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness."

Even under fire, he has continued to teach the class because he believes certain words in the race dialogue, such as "whiteness" or "white supremacy," should not be sanitized or banned. Instead, people who are uncomfortable with those words should listen and be open to understanding, he said.

"You cannot just say here are the linguistic ground rules, and now let's talk. You have to go at it with a willingness to talk and come with an open mind and open heart," said James M. Jones, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and a professor at the University of Delaware.

'We grow, we evolve'

Most agree that the ongoing conversation about race is positive, as long as people are allowed to speak freely.

"This national conversation forces us to confront our own relationship," said Jennifer Stollman, of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

The Winter Institute hosts race conversations for communities in Mississippi, and during those conversations, works to ensure everyone is listening, suspending judgment, and speaking their truths while respecting the truths of others.

"If you are really interested in solving problems with the legacy of racism, you don't get to control the language," she said. "People of color have a right to frame the perspective in the way they see it, they have a right to be angry and they have a right to have their voices heard, even if it causes discomfort."

Many say when there is controversy or disagreement over language, it shouldn't be interpreted as a setback. Strine agreed that these conversations are difficult but important.

"We've got to keep coming back to the table," Stollman said. "Each of those conversations reaches us closer and closer to reconciliation."

Rev. Donald Morton, associate pastor at Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church in Wilmington, which hosted the town hall meeting Strine participated in, said he agrees that uncomfortable conversations need to continue.

"We have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," Morton said. "These conversations are uncomfortable because most times we are unwilling to embrace the horrific history of America and present of America."

Yasser Payne, a professor at the University of Delaware who was on the panel last month with Strine, said finding common language begins with these conversations.

"Through that tension, we grow, we evolve, we find common language that makes sense," he said.


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