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Sankofa Talk — Back to Jim Crow

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Recently I had the challenge and pleasure of facilitating the panel discussion, “Elders Speak.” The activity was the idea of longtime community members Betty and James Felder, out of their concern about the recent controversy over critical race theory, or CRT, and concern about the underlying intentions of those who have created the controversy.

One of the originators of CRT, Professor Mari Matsuda of the University of Hawaii, describes CRT as “a method that takes the lived experience of racism seriously, using history and social reality to explain how racism operates in American law and culture, toward the end of eliminating the harmful effects of racism and bringing about a just and healthy world for all.”

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw is the woman credited for the term “critical race theory.” When asked for a definition, she in turn asked, “Why is this coming up now? It has only prompted interest now that the conservative right wing has claimed it as a subversive set of ideas,” she said, adding that news outlets, including The New York Times, were covering CRT because it has been “made the problem by a well-resourced, highly mobilized coalition of forces.”

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She was, in fact, referring to the fact that the study of CRT originated in the 1970s and right-wing enthusiasts have cleverly seized upon CRT as a means of feeding fresh meat to its base of supporters — most of whom could not give a definition of the field of study and overlook the fact that it is only taught at the graduate college level and law schools.

The panel members at “Elders Speak” included Mr. Felder, Mrs. Geneva Brisbane, Mrs. Frances Smith, Mr. Paul Graham and Mr. Phil Lawson.

Mr. Felder, Mrs. Brisbane and Mrs. Smith grew up in the South. Each described their encounters with Jim Crow laws, ranging from being forced to ride in the back of a trolley bus, refusal of a hotel room and being forced to use the maid quarters instead, being refused service at restaurants and having to drink from segregated water fountains.

Although these are very personal examples of discrimination, they also exemplify the structural nature of racism — white supremacy — and how it operates to demean and control Black people.

The public statements of Ohio legislators who have introduced anti-CRT bills clearly reflect they do not understand, nor do they care to understand, what CRT really is. The chief proponents of anti-CRT rhetoric have even publicly acknowledged that their plan is to use their ploy to bring more white supporters to the polls.

They have also said that they don’t really know or even care what CRT is, but that it fits into their power strategy. They even go as far as to say that discussing racism is racist itself and teaching white kids about racism will cause them to feel guilty and hate themselves. They totally overlook the fact the CRT is not taught in K–12 schools. Gullible white people storm school board meetings demanding that teachers don’t teach a subject that they have never even taught.

The chief aim of the anti-white-supremacy movements has been to bring about justice, justice for everyone. Civil rights activists have been demanding justice since the days of legalized slavery.

Every time there has been movement toward justice, it has always been met with white supremacist backlash. The Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction brought backlash in the form of the Black Codes, a system of laws specifically designed to keep white supremacy in place by keeping in place the social and economic structures of slavery. Blacks were deprived of the vote, the right to own and lease land, the right to rent or lease land and the right to own firearms.

After the conviction of the officer who murdered George Floyd, many people thought we were moving toward justice. Then came the shooting of Jacob Blake, a young Black man shot in the back seven times by a cop; the shooting was deemed justified by law. Not only that, but the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three people, killing two, who were protesting the Jacob Blake shooting. The judge sent strong messages that he was directing movement toward acquittal by not allowing those Rittenhoues killed to be called “victims,” but instead, “rioters” and “looters.”

He also allowed Rittenhouse to choose the jury members. Some have argued that racism/white supremacy did not come into play because the victims were white. White supremacists celebrated the verdict because they saw Rittenhouse’s actions to be in the service of white supremacy.

A good local example is that despite the fact that the Greene County Jail tax levy has been soundly defeated at the polls two years in a row, Greene County officials are yet planning ways to build a new jail, thumbing their nose at voters and refusing to meet with community members to discuss methods to reduce the jail population and provide needed services. They can do this because they believe they have the power to do it unchallenged. That’s how white supremacy is.

It’s all about power. The gerrymandering bill recently signed by our governor is another good example. It gives Republicans 80% control of the legislative seats. White men are continuing their long legacy of seizing absolute power.

Maybe we should cease the use of the word “racism” and, as civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “tell it like it is.” She was also heard to say: “When I hear the Pledge of Allegiance I laugh out loud!” She referred to the phrases “with liberty and justice for all” and “the land of the free and the home of the brave” — which she redubbed “the land of the tree and the home of the slave.” Make no doubt, we are being dragged right smack-dab into Jim Crow, not Jim Crow 2.0.

I’m talking about the real thing.

“If you don’t understand white supremacy, what it is and how it works, everything else that you understand will only confuse you.” —Neely Fuller Jr.

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