Racism in Racine is real. And while the topic is uncomfortable for many, residents from the greater Racine area were ready to have the conversation.
About 200 people took on the task of talking about the difficult issue of race and inequality in Racine, which included challenging their own personal bias and learning about systemic racism.
In an event held Saturday at the Dr. John Bryant Community Center, organizers held a community-wide racial justice dialogue and call to action. Speakers talked about implicit bias, mass incarceration, and race and education. Attendees then held discussions with other attendees at their table.
Racism in 2018 is often more subtle. Communities aren’t blatantly segregated as they once were. Laws are on the books that mandate inclusion, but problems still exist within these systems.
Racine Alderman and social worker John Tate explained that one component of racism is implicit bias, the unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group.
“If I see a young black man walking down the street with a hooded sweatshirt on, you might not think…hmmm, I don’t like young black men wearing hoodies. But you might walk across the street because something inside you says that I need to get out of this situation because I am fearful. But I don’t even recognize that in me,” he said.
That is implicit bias in action, Tate said.
But racism plays out within a number of systems here in Racine County.
There is a strong connection between race, student performance in schools, employment, and the mass incarceration rate.
According to the United Way of Racine County:
- Black infants in Racine County are twice as likely to be low birth weight than white babies.
- Black students (25 percent) are suspended at a higher rate than Hispanic or white classmates (12.1 percent), an issue Racine Unified is addressing through a program called Circles of Support.
- The black unemployment rate in the City of Racine has been at 18 percent in the City of Racine while the white unemployment rate was 9 percent from 2012 through 2016.
But the black incarceration rate in Racine County remains one of the biggest issues. The percentage of black people incarcerated from Racine County represented 57 percent of the jail population in 2015. But black people represent about 12 percent of the population of Racine County during that same time, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Learn more: Black men speak.
Carl Fields, one of the featured speakers at the event, was among the 660 people incarcerated in 2015.
After spending 16 years in prison, Fields was released in 2016. He is now part of a social justice group called Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) and he is the program manager at the Hospitality Center. He framed the mass incarceration problem around language and rules, which alienates whole neighborhoods, he said.
“The words mass incarceration and racism do not come to a person’s mind immediately. But they should,” Fields said. “I get asked this all of the time: What does racism have to do with being arrested, being charged with a crime. After all, laws are just rules and if you don’t follow them, society will have to deal with you accordingly.”
He likens prison to slavery. And he points to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The culture around those laws allows states to require prisoners to work while they are in prison. The pay is about 15 cents per hour. Badger State Industries, which makes everything from furniture to signage, has a contract with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The company teaches manufacturing skills to inmates.
“All of this fits into that culture around mass incarceration,” he said. “And we have to be able to talk to each other about it. We wouldn’t stand for slavery. But I say to you all, that that’s just not true because it is happening. And the best way I know how to speak this truth is to speak about the 13th Amendment.
“That means that slavery just moved into a different category, plain and simple,” he said.
Fields said that comparing prison to slavery is not embellishment or hyperbole because it is factual, measurable and evident.
“Prison is not like slavery. It is slavery,” he said.
Racism and education, how youth experience the problem
Attendees at the event also learned about how youth are impacted by racism. Two students from Horlick High School spoke to what it is like to be African American and Latino. They spoke about feeling left out.
Tabria Snead, a senior at Horlick High School, wonders if some teachers might take a different approach to her because she is black.
“So I have to take the position that I have to make this teacher feel comfortable in my presence versus that teacher trying to make me feel comfortable in their presence,” she said.
Because she is in advanced level classes where most of her peers are white, she often feels uncomfortable, she says.
“I feel like I won’t be able to connect with a lot of kids in the room because they won’t be able to understand where I’m coming from every day as an African American, black student,” she said.
Luis Tapia, an undocumented student from Horlick School, said his experience of racism comes in the form of people not knowing how to help him make key decisions in his life. He wants to go to college but does not know how he’ll pay for it because people who are undocumented can’t receive financial aid or qualify for most scholarships.
“I want to go to college, but I have no clue on how that is possible,” he said.
Tapia spoke to his guidance counselor about his situation, but she didn’t offer any solutions and she told Tapia that she would look into it.
“They don’t know if we will succeed or not,” he said. “They don’t even know if we are undocumented or not. They just assume, which is even worse. But my own teachers, my guidance counselor doesn’t even know how I will succeed in life. And that is really upsetting.
“What should my friends, who are also undocumented, do?”
Ending racism requires a different mindset
Institutional racism, a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions, is created when people have a deficit mindset. It happens when people create laws and policies that are inflexible because they are designed with the goal of equality, not equity. And that is problematic within a diverse community that doesn’t have a shared experience.
Aaron Eick, a history teacher at Horlick High School, said people who use deficit thinking often define problems when they focus on: “What’s wrong with these people?”
Eick advocated for getting away from a model of punishment of children.
“It should be… how do we help, what do you need?” He said.
Michelle Hancock, professor of practice in education at Carthage College and former superintendent of the Kenosha Unified School District, agreed with Eick. The main problem she sees within urban school districts is that some people have a deficit mindset rooted in fear.
“We seem to be living in a culture of fear, fear of differences. And we see each other as threats… just by existing. And I feel that the narrative must change,” she said.
To counteract the deficit mindset, an equity mindset needs to be embraced. An equity mindset means that people don’t look at everything in terms of equality, but rather in terms of equity and what people need, Hancock said.
“So that means we are equitable in our policies and practices…. That we really support people in having a better life,” she said.
How to end racism
The key to reducing the mass incarceration rate rests within addressing barriers to education, but it also relies on whether the community accepts that systemic racism exists in Racine County, panel members said.
But to start addressing the issue, people need to talk about the problem.
Hancock outlined several things people can do to address deficit thinking: Offer a clear pathway to living wage jobs, stop denigrating teachers, and embrace equity, not equality.
Equality means people are treated the same, regardless of their conditions. But equity is about the individual’s needs, which means that policies can adapt in the context of circumstance, Hancock said.
“In all of my years in education, that’s been my biggest argument with people,” she said.
When people get stuck in deficit thinking, they focus on blaming the person rather than asking questions to understand what the person is experiencing.
Eick also said that children Luis and Tabria need the community to stand up for them because just listening to them isn’t enough.
“If you are going to be with these kids, that means you have to stand up for them,” Eick said.
Check out the One Racine-Diversity Celebration