Black Caucus panel tackles painful issues of discrimination, diversity
By SHERRY HALBROOK
It was standing room only at PEF headquarters in Latham on November 29 when the Albany Chapter of the Black Caucus of PEF presented a panel discussing diversity in the “new” America. Not only was the room filled to overflowing, when the two-and-a-half-hour program was scheduled to end at 8 p.m., the audience approved of continuing it for nearly another hour to keep the discussion and comments going.
The diverse crowd of interested PEF members and community members were attentive listeners as the six panel members and others talked about their own experiences, their professional expertise and their ideas for making everyone in this society feel their individual uniqueness and dignity is respected.
The Rev. Dr. Regena Thomas, co-director of human rights and community relations at the American Federation of Teachers, moderated the event. The panelists included state Sen. Marisol Alcantara of New York City, state Assemblyman Harry Bronson of Rochester, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares, SUNY Albany professor of economics Dr. Kajal Lahiri and Albany NAACP President Gwen Pope.
Thomas shanghaied PEF Region 8 Coordinator Michael Blue to join the panel because she said it needed the experience and viewpoint of a “straight” white male.
While each of the panelists spoke powerfully about their experiences and the challenges they face professionally and personally, they all agreed that every person has dignity and deserves to be respected.
No one was more forthright in describing their experiences than Alcantara, who said she was born in the Dominican Republic where her mixed-racial heritage was common, but learned for the first time when she arrived in the U.S. that she is “black.”
“I realized I’m in a country that judges you by what you look like,” the senator said. “When you are Latino in America, you get it from both sides: ‘You aren’t black enough to represent blacks, and you aren’t white enough to represent whites.’ You learn that you live on a continent that doesn’t respect you.”
Alcantara said she does not find that attitude when she travels to other countries, and she urged Americans to travel and learn to see these issues through fresh eyes.
Because being in the U.S. made her so conscious of her racial identity, Alcantara said she now feels it is her responsibility to speak “for every slave that died.” Her increased racial sensitivity has also made her sensitive to gatherings, institutions, groups and bodies of power that are predominantly or exclusively white. It makes her want to ask, “You couldn’t find any black people?”
Sheehan, who has a black son, said that as mayor of Albany she sees “the results of decades of racism and discrimination that has separated the city’s neighborhoods and schools racially.
Redlining by banks and discrimination by businesses in hiring and by political leaders in their appointing power has created racial divisions that have deep roots and are challenging to overcome.
“It’s just the truth,” Sheehan said. “We have to say it out loud and get past the defensiveness, to ensure we do the right things going forward.”
Lahiri said he emigrated from India to the U.S. and he finds his students at the university are very diverse.
“We have 41 percent minority students,” Lahiri said.
But when he looks at the census data for how Albany and other communities are made up, he finds “1.5 million black males are missing.”
“Where are they?” Lahiri asked. “You know where they are. They are dead or in jails and prisons. At every age group, longevity is lower for black males than for black females.”
It is a tragic situation that spurs him to ensure his students grasp this reality and its economic as well as social implications.
“I’ve been bringing up race in my classroom for 40 years,” he said.
Soares said he, too, feels the weight of historic racial divisions in the U.S.
“This country went to war with itself over race and slavery,” Soares said. “What did the ‘Reconstruction’ period following the Civil War mean to former slaveholders? It meant, ‘We have to give up something to the people we were brutalizing.’
“We are talking about power and wealth then, and we are talking about power and wealth now. The difference is that today the power and wealth are weaponized with more precision and accuracy against working people of all races. We continue to be manipulated and exploited in much the same way.”
Soares said he believes people must have conversations about race with regularity.
Bronson said he has been co-sponsoring legislation every year to protect the civil rights of non-heterosexuals. While that legislation is always passed by the state Assembly, he said, “It never even makes it out of committee in the state Senate.
“I’ve been a gay man and activist for decades,” Bronson said. “I will never know what it is like to be black or a woman, but I do know that discrimination against one of us is discrimination against all of us.”
Bronson said he thinks life in this country has changed in 2017 because “We have a leader in the White House who believes that if you are ‘different,’ you are a threat.”
The assemblyman said he believes the president and his supporters see everyone who isn’t a white, straight male as a threat because “They know they will soon become the minority and they are holding on to their power for dear life.”
Bronson added that he believes Georgia Congressman John Lewis was right when he said, “Civil rights isn’t the fight of a year or a decade. It is the fight of a lifetime.”
Asked how he sees these issues, Blue said he recognizes that his life is easier because of “white privilege” and that the lives of non-whites are more challenging in this society.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to help my friends understand how white privilege affects their lives,” Blue said.
Pope said she sees positive change in Albany, because city and county officials are including the NAACP in the conversation when they want to make positive changes or tackle challenging social issues in the community.
The NAACP is not just an advocate for persons of color, Pope said. “We look out for the rights of people across the board.”
Thomas asked a young student in the audience, Fabien DeSilva Jr., about his concerns. He said the disrespectful language used by his schoolmates in their day-to-day conversations only worsens racial divides.
Sheehan spoke to the suddenly accelerating public concern about sexual harassment, and how that seems to be a backlash to what is seen and felt as legislation and public policy at the federal level and in many states that is insulting and overtly hostile to women.
“Whether bias against women is overt or more subtle, it is about power,” Sheehan said. “We are reaching a point where white males will no longer be in the majority, but they will still be in the plurality.”
That longstanding attitude of power and superiority must change, Sheehan said, because it is holding back the entire country, as well as individual people.
“We’ve got to wake up. We need everyone around the table. If we continue to disadvantage women and people of color, the doctors and scientists and leaders we need won’t be there in the future.”
Soares said he is convinced women are “the group with the greatest ability to force positive change.”
Bronson said he, too, has been impressed by the power of women leading the Women’s March in January 2017, and their involvement in the Climate March of 2016.
“We all need to do it together,” Bronson said. “We need a movement for the rights of all.”