I began teaching African American history in the mid 1970s for the School District of Janesville having no more than five African American students during that time.
What mattered was that this course was changing the lives of white students who otherwise might never learn the plight of our African American brothers and sisters.
Since then, many of those students have kept in touch with me, commenting how that course influenced both their thinking and their lives. Probably the most powerful lessons learned were at other communities with student exchanges and workshops. There, white students had an opportunity to interact with students of color.
If we taught this class today, we would not need to go far to interact with people of color. Demographics have changed considerably, all for the good.
Recently, The Gazette published an article about “The Talk.” That is what African American fathers have with their children. That talk, as mentioned in the article, is designed to keep their children safe, to have them come home alive at the end of the day. As we have recently witnessed, too many African Americans have been unjustly treated by law enforcement.
This is nothing new.
With 400 years of racial injustice in our country, how can our African American friends do anything less than have “The Talk” with their children? “Be safe, be smart, be honest, be careful. Do not give authorities reason to arrest you.” Experience has taught this lack of trust toward law enforcement. Systemic racism has been evident throughout our history. Even some law enforcement people of color are influenced by it.
Another recent article described the disparities in policing in the School District of Janesville. Regardless of how well Chief Dave Moore trains his officers, there are still those who are products of systemic racism. Data tells us that African American students are cited by local police much more than their white counterparts. Of course, circumstances vary, but the disparity in numbers is huge.
How do we change that?
One way I would suggest is for community members to weigh in and stress their concerns about disparities in policing. That can be done by participating in the African American Liaison Advisory Committee to the Janesville Police Department. This committee, formed by Moore, seeks to help build bridges between the Janesville Police Department and the African American community. The desire is to build trust, to build relationships between the police, our youth and our community. It will be difficult to undo 400 years of disparities. But I believe this is a good start.
The bottom line is African Americans have not been treated fairly. It is my deepest hope that this will change. I believe the recent protests are not merely a moment in time but a movement to build on. From them, I hope to see lasting change, lasting justice, lasting commitments to social justice.
When I started teaching that class nearly 50 years ago, I never imagined we still would be having these discussions. Yet, I still hope that we will see that change. And I hope that you will want to be part of this movement.