Race dialogues

Honest conversations are needed to hear out divergent views

CURRENT NATIONAL DISCOURSE urges us all to choose a side. Black Lives Matter versus Police Lives Matter.  Build a Wall versus Stronger Together. Political Correctness versus Straight Talk.

What gets lost in this “us versus them” dichotomy is our ability to disagree without being disagreeable.  We seem to have lost sight of the utility of coming together to speak about our life experiences without the preconceived notion that fellow neighbors will not understand for their life experiences are different. Battle lines have been drawn and those lines in the sand leave little room for positive, productive conversations about how we can collectively address the root causes of the chasms between us.

Nowhere are these tensions more rigid than in conversations regarding race. Research, experience, and recent tragedies together insist that we as a society can no longer afford to ignore the cumulative, intergenerational, and racialized impact of the disproportionate treatment of people based on their race. Access to resources, rights, and justice in our neighborhoods and communities should not be drawn along racial lines, but they are.  So the question becomes, how do we have a conversation about steps toward changing this racialized reality if we cannot acknowledge our common humanity? We will only see progress if all voices are given equal merit and not only those of the team we have chosen as allies.

By most measures Boston has recovered better and faster than most other major cities after the recession of 2008; however progress has come at a cost. Nowhere is this seen more dramatically than in the geographic and racial disproportionality in our incarcerated population.

At the facilities I oversee as the Suffolk County sheriff – the Nashua Street Jail and the Suffolk County House of Correction – the system overwhelmingly incarcerates young men of color from neighborhoods that have chronically and intergenerationally borne the burden of decreased opportunities for success in the legitimate economy.  Limited access to quality education, to quality vocational training, to quality health care and nutrition, and to strong, well-connected social networks that could elevate someone out of this reality all contribute to inequality in Suffolk County. These factors in turn help to explain why the experience of incarceration continues to be disproportionately concentrated in certain neighborhoods, in certain demographic groups, and among those of certain socioeconomic statuses.

The Black Lives Matter movement is currently the most prominent example of protest against the status quo of race and inequality in our communities. Protest is the appropriate response. We need to protest ourselves as a community – for we allowed racial, social, and economic inequality to grow on our watch.

We allowed mass incarceration to ravage our inner cities while deindustrialization, drugs, and violence did the same. We forgot to do the work. We forgot that the police were never intended to do the entire job of community building. That is our job, too. We forgot that true progress only comes when those citizens who are the most compromised have ladders to legitimate success. We forgot that true community comes from meaningful connections between all people and not just the people who are like us. It is easy to like those people – it is easy to champion those causes. What we need to do is get honest, and take ownership.

Conversations about race like the one I hosted on August 23rd at Roxbury Community College are necessary to undertake this too-long forgotten work. This conversation asked the esteemed panelists to speak openly and honestly about their own personal experiences as well as their views on the racial issues facing our community. Topics ranged from the experience of race and gender in Boston to gaping economic inequality facing people of color to the disproportionate contact people of color have with the criminal justice system.

But the most prominent theme was the lexicon of race. From different angles and out of different life experiences the panelists discussed a need for frank discussions on race where the words we use are carefully chosen, for the words we use matter. While each panelist gave different examples or metaphors there was a distinct call to action: use your voice, describe your experience, and if your experience or voice has not been marginalized, then use the words of those whose voices are to demand change.

Race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, neighborhood, political views – these are all social constructions that we have control over. We dictate their boundaries, their rules, their norms, and their prescriptions for our behavior. We can make the critically necessary changes, but we have to do the work. We need to have the hard conversations; we need to be willing to listen to perspectives and opinions we do not agree with; we need to understand that though we cannot walk in each other shoes, we can walk next to each other.

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We cannot afford to essentialize the experience of race relations – conversations on race need to examine all of the other social constructions we have woven into our concept of race. Here in Boston and Suffolk County that means having the hard conversations about inequality and what it will take for us to do collectively what’s needed to make life chances available to the many and not just to the few.

Steven W. Tompkins is sheriff of Suffolk County.