Like many Americans, I have struggled recently with my feelings and my own history about racial injustice — feelings which I usually do not openly express.
I grew up in Boulder without a lot of direct exposure to Black people or to other minorities other than Native Americans. Let’s face it. Boulder’s population has been largely white for quite some time. I was certainly told that discrimination against Blacks was wrong, yet I received mixed messages from family and friends – most of whom had also had no exposure to Black people. By innuendo and subtle actions, I was “educated” about the stereotypical Black person who was, for instance, said to be our “intellectually inferior.“ Somehow this bias toward Blacks and other minorities was inculcated in my psyche by a well-meaning greater community.
Did I speak out against these subtle slights of my fellow human? I sure don’t remember doing so. I listened, I assimilated it … and I was silent. I became racially biased. I absorbed “facts” about Blacks which I now know to be blatantly false. My racial bias was fueled by my own ignorance and misinformation.
As I traveled throughout the nation and held various National EMS leadership positions, my exposure to a variety of races and cultures increased significantly. In 2003, I left Boulder to begin a second career with the federal government in Washington, D.C., a city whose non-white population is now the majority. The big city life was a bit of a culture shock to this “small town boy.” The diversity was different, but in a very good way. Washington is now my very favorite city, with its racial and ethnic diversity being one of its most attractive features.
In that context, my ignorance of Blacks and other minorities gave way to a fuller appreciation of and friendship with them. I began supervising Black persons and was supervised by them including, eventually, one of my favorite bosses: David Strickland, the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who is among the nicest, brightest and most capable persons I know.
I had the pleasure to work and become close friends with a multi-cultural, multi-racial population. As I came to work the day after President Obama was elected, one of the Black guards at the Department of Transportation greeted me excitedly and said: “Mr. Dawson – it is a whole new day for our county, it is a whole new day for all of us, Black and white, to work together.” Indeed, she was correct and together we were happy for the future.
However, with my racial bias blinders removed, I became acutely aware of so many intransigent problems that were beyond my individual control. I saw racial injustice happening on so many levels.
I saw first-hand, at least anecdotally, the challenges of inequality of employment with Black people having lower paying jobs. I saw the trend of gentrification of neighborhoods displacing traditionally Black neighborhoods. I saw the challenges of homelessness as I walked to the subway each morning. And, I saw the results of disproportionate poverty among Black populations throughout the Washington Metropolitan Area.
The differences in access to health care between the Black population and the white population are stark and sad. African Americans are still much more likely to be uninsured than are whites. Black women are much more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women. Chronic disease remains a more serious problem among Blacks. Sadly, Black children are 10 times more likely to die by gun violence than white children.
Because they occur subtly over time, these issues slowly smolder, seldom pricking the public’s conscience. The current highly visible focus of racial injustice, the treatment of Blacks by some law enforcement personnel, ignites protests against both the law enforcement injustice and the other long-standing inequities which have been years in the making.
Overcoming racial inequality, in my estimation, is a greater issue than just changing the practices of some police departments, although that is important. Although it seems trite, each of us must honestly re-assess our own racial biases and make every effort to openly state and overcome them. We must address racial or social injustice on our own day-to-day level. In Montana, we must tackle the problems that contribute to racial injustice among the Native Americans. We should work to improve the health and income of all of our people – regardless of their race.
We can address racial injustice first as individuals and then through our organizations and our governments. It is a complex societal problem that requires attention from the highest levels of government, no question. However, addressing racial injustice starts with each of us. If you see racial injustice, don’t be silent. Say something. Do something.
I know from experience that that is sometimes easier said than done. There are times even today when I wish I had spoken out more openly against racial injustice. I am not always sure how or what to do better. I am, it seems, still learning – and, hopefully, growing.
Drew Dawson lives in Boulder and is a City Councilor.