How Different our World Might Be…
by Ashley Bean Thornton
“I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob – somebody who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”
— Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine
In September of 1957, nine African American high school students enrolled in formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Arkansas Governor, Orval Faubus, welcomed the students, saying: “We have done some terrible things in this country – we enslaved people, we oppressed people, we killed people – based on nothing more than skin color. We can never erase these things, and we must never forget them, but we can and do repent of them. We are humbled, today, to be on the front lines of righting a great injustice. We look forward to beginning a process of racial integration that will benefit all our citizens, Black and White! For too long our schools have been segregated. For too long the Black students in our state have had to make do with inferior facilities and materials. For too long our communities have missed out on the full benefit of nurturing and feeding and growing and celebrating the minds and hearts and spirits of these beautiful young people. I am here today to throw open these doors in welcome, to usher in these nine exceptional students, and to usher in along with them a new era of freedom, justice and prosperity for the great state of Arkansas and, indeed for our whole nation.”
Oh, White America! How different our world might be if this were the story we could tell!
It is not.
Instead of giving these nine young people the heroes’ welcome they deserved, we met them with angry mobs and screaming. Instead of welcoming them, we threatened them and spat on them. We closed down the school district for a year rather than integrate it. When that didn’t work, we abandoned it. We ran away.
I’m not just talking about Little Rock any more, I’m talking about cities across the South, throughout the country…We moved out of the city. We created White suburbs and we put in place deed restrictions and loan restrictions at the bank so that the Black children could not follow us.
Now, almost sixty years later, we no longer have to scream and spit. Now instead of saying we moved out of town to “get away from the Blacks” we can say we moved out because “we want our kids to go to a good school.” Who can blame us for that? Never mind that our schools are “good” because rather than lean toward fairness and equality, rather than work for schools that could have benefited all children, we chose to gather up our resources (earned, certainly, but earned on a playing field that was anything but fair) and move to a place where Black children could not follow.
Now, a generation or so into our re-segregated lives, we feel perfectly justified in saying, “I’m not prejudiced or anything, but why should my hard earned tax dollars go to support a school system where my kids don’t even go?”
And so the struggling school districts keep struggling.
And so, the richer folks, who just happen to generally also be the Whiter folks, get better schools. And, the people who get better educations, as we know, get better jobs…and so on, and so on…
And what about the ones who were left behind? The ones without the good schools…the ones who are getting worse and worse educations, and worse and worse jobs? The ones who just happen to generally also be Blacker? It’s actually pretty easy not to see them.
And then someone…a young black man…gets killed. And another. And another. And another. And then five police officers are killed. And then we are wondering, what’s happening? No place feels safe anymore. What’s going on?
What’s going on, White America, is that we did a bad thing, many bad things. We enslaved people, we oppressed people, we killed people — based on nothing more than skin color. We treated our fellow human beings as less than human. We believed ourselves to be better than them. And when the time came to repent, to turn around, to acknowledge our wrongs and to sincerely devote ourselves to doing right, we did not. We still have not.
Instead of throwing the doors open wide, we called in soldiers to keep the door shut. When that didn’t work, instead of staying and building schools and communities where we could all live and thrive together, we grabbed our stuff and ran away. We figured out a way to build a society that has allowed us to continue to accrue the benefits of being White without having to admit to the unpleasantness of racism. At every step we have done the least we could do, and fought like Hell not to do that.
And now we White people realize something that Black people have known for a long time. The situation is dangerous. We are worried and afraid. We made this situation, White people, and it is going to be hard to fix it. And we will never fix it unless we take responsibility for it. If guilt is what it takes for us to take responsibility, then we need to admit our guilt. If self-interest is what it takes to take responsibility, then we need to realize that we will all be better off when our Black Brothers and Sisters are better off. If religious conviction is what it takes for us to take responsibility, then we need to pray to God to give us a hunger for righteousness. We need to take the responsibility. We need to shine a light on the disparities that still exist between the races, and we need to get to work doing our part to fix them.
This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco. She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.
The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.