Earlier this week, in Oxford, Mississippi, two unidentified perpetrators placed a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue at the University of Mississippi. There was also an old Georgia state flag (which incorporated the confederate flag) draped around his shoulders.
James Meredith was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”
as it is still most commonly called. The campus has had several negative incidents of intolerance in the past few years – riots and racial slurs after President Obama’s re-election, heckling and homophobic remarks during a performance of The Laramie Project.
As a current undergraduate student at another college here in Mississippi, the first question that came to my mind when first hearing of this incident was: Where do we go from here?
I know this is not representative of that entire campus and community, but the fact remains that it happened (as did the heckling at the play, as did the racial slurs after the presidential election). It’s not enough to just not he perpetrators; we cannot just be bystanders. I grew up in the South and am certainly not a stranger to racial tension, but this is something much, much more deeply rooted and severe. It is something from which we cannot look away. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to – purely out of coincidence, I am going to Oxford this weekend to visit an old friend, now a student up there at Ole Miss, who happens to be African-American.
While I still look forward to the company of my friend, I will also feel a certain sense of dread sitting on the bus that will steadily edge closer to Oxford. In a way, this bus will be a time machine, taking me back to a Southern past I had assumed I would never experience firsthand.
Which brings me to my next question: As a white person with many close black friends, what is my own responsibility in improving race relations in our country?
In many ways living in the Deep South mirrors the experiences I had studying conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. In Belfast a peace agreement was signed in 1998, officially putting an end to The Troubles. The key word here is officially. While the violence dramatically decreased, much of the cross community tensions remained and were still present when I traveled there in 2013. However, because there is infrastructure for cross-community dialogue in Belfast this sentiment has been changed in some of these most hard lined members of the conflict.
Perhaps we in the US can take a lesson from the Northern Irish in thinking about our own civil rights movement. Although the campaigning days of Dr. Martin Luther King are gone, agreements have been signed, and laws have been made, we still desperately need cross-community dialogue.
This is, in part, why the work we do in the community engagement department is so important. Engaging the community in dialogue and discussing these horrible incidents of racism when they occur is one of the most important steps toward a better future. It helps this white Southern college student be part of answering that first question: Where do we go from here?
It’s something I’ll be thinking about while riding that bus, just as others did in the past, and I’m glad to continue working with a team to encounter difficult truths and come up with shared solutions.
What’s the first Jewish holiday we’ll be welcoming in the secular New Year of 2014 (besides Shabbat, of course)? Tu Bishvat!
This holiday is connected to the agricultural cycle of Israel. This year, Tu Bishvat is on January 16th, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day is only a few days later—January 20th. Could there be a connection between these two, seemingly unconnected holidays?
Tu Bishvat has in many ways become “Jewish Earth Day.” We are encouraged to pay attention to all forms of life on our planet including the life of plants, trees and produce. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we celebrate the life of one of our nation’s greatest transformers, a man who did so much to advance the human experience by highlighting the dignity of all people.
In thinking about this exact question, I remembered a clip I saw that helped me better understand racism and the 3 primary ways in which racism manifests itself in our society. I thought I’d share it for two reasons: It describes the depth of racism and what Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting against. It also uses the metaphor of a garden—perfect for Tu Bishvat…
Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, according the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, is a family physician and epidemiologist whose work focuses on the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of the nation. In her article Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale, she focuses on health disparities between people of different races. This film provides a general framework for looking at racism and can be translated to issues beyond health including education and criminal justice. In honor of both of these days, I encourage you to watch the film (and also read this article):
Maybe this film can help start an important conversation about acceptance (perfect for MLK Day) using the beautiful metaphor of a garden (perfect for Tu Bishvat)!
I also encourage you to host a Martin Luther King Jr. Tu Bishvat Seder/Shabbat supper. You can use this guide published last year by Repair the World and this Sunday Supper guide prepared by Points of Light. Perhaps you want to combine the themes of these two days, look at these questions as a group:
- How does my community respond to each level of racism? Am I usually pleased by the response of my community?
- How do I respond when I see the different levels of racism? How would I like to be able to respond to the different levels of racism?
- What about Dr. Camara Jones’s question: Who is the gardener? Do I want to try and influence the gardener? How?
- Are there similar allegories that portray different levels of racism?
Share any additional ideas or inspiration you may have for observing these holidays – we’d love to hear them!