To the residents of Burke County:
The tragic and unjust death of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, has exposed once again the ugly reality of racial injustice within our nation. White Americans have been taught the perception that African Americans in general, and young males in particular, are a threat to their safety and well-being. Tragically, this perception plays out all too frequently within our culture. Today’s roots of prejudice and discrimination run deep in our society, and they must be effectively addressed and changed at all levels of our society.
Unfortunately, agitators and anarchists have recently turned peaceful protests into violent and destructive riots across our nation. The many riots during the last two weeks have only worked to further complicate any efforts to effectively address the injustices which exist in our society. And yet, there are numerous examples across the nation where people have set aside anger and have begun to communicate with each other peacefully. In those cases, the seeds for trust and mutual dialogue have begun to break down the barriers of hatred and violence. Follow-up work is needed at all levels in our society.
Here locally, residents have been working to address racial inequalities and build relationships between black and white residents for decades. The annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebrations have challenged community leaders and residents to build coalitions and to continue to work for justice. Members of black and white congregations, led by their pastors, gather periodically to worship together and promote racial harmony. Also locally, tensions surrounding the Confederate flag and monuments have led to the creation of a three-part symposium called “Symbols of the South,” which began this past January, at Western Piedmont Community College. Drawing from the expertise of a leading historian and a cultural sociologist in the region, the series examined the historical and cultural factors which led to the creation of monuments across the South at the start of the 20th century. The symposium explored how monuments and flags were reinterpreted to support white supremacy throughout the 20th century. The third gathering of the series, scheduled for mid-March, was designed to explore how these symbols are interpreted by various groups in our society today, and was intended to provide a catalyst for further dialogue between different interest groups in our local community. Unfortunately, the third event was postponed due to the impact of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order.
As constructive as these efforts have been, they have had little impact on addressing the underlying systemic structure of racism in our society. None of these efforts alone bring about a lasting change to the racism which plagues every aspect of our society, from our criminal justice system to our public and private educational systems, from playgrounds and sports venues to worship in our nation’s churches, synagogues and mosques.
The problems surrounding racism will not go away simply by pretending they don’t exist. Nor will they dissipate by a few residents occasionally listening to guest speakers at community events. What is needed is an ongoing dialogue between different groups in our society that addresses racism and its injustices, and begins to dismantle policies and practices that perpetuate the racial prejudices which have plagued this nation throughout its history. The time to start is now.
Dr. Michael Helmick,
President, Western Piedmont Community College
Dr. Leslie McKesson,
Rev. Dr. Kevin E. Frederick,
Pastor, Waldensian Presbyterian Church
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!