Within the last couple of weeks, several former students and individuals I have mentored have expressed interest in discussing and reading more about racial issues. As an educator studying and teaching on the subject matter, I am glad I can serve as a resource.
But as a Black American, I am curious why it took so long for many white Americans to understand race in our country.
I often taught racial politics at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering and science-centered institution. At the time, students were required to complete subject areas beyond their majors including humanities and social science classes. This did not mean that students always enjoyed classes I taught, including Black Studies, East Asian Studies, and Urban Studies. But years later, former students are asking for resources related to racial politics and history in America. Even at my current SCSU institution, some former and current students want to know more about the subject.
In fact, nationally there has been a recent surge in sales of books on topics related to race in America. Americans, particularly white Americans, have a sudden interest in learning more about racial politics, and there are plenty of reading suggestions. This should not be shocking amid a racially stratified pandemic, racial protests, and significant economic loss. But does it take a trifecta for Americans to have an interest in racial politics?
There is so much to learn, but we should begin in our backyards. Many forget that in New England, our racial issues remain significant and problematic. We may profess to be a progressive place, but we are largely divided based on where we live, work and socialize. Even in education, our schools remain highly segregated.
What many former students want to know is this: What can be done to address the racial and economic divisions right now? Integrated residential housing options, vocational housing and affordable housing policies have been coded words for many since they could help address stringent local zoning laws that set the table for discriminatory development practices. But these approaches often raise NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard) concerns.
Many Connecticut homeowners cherish home rule or sovereign local power structures. But do we recognize whom we shut out with those policies? Maintaining character and charm are ongoing concerns in various towns, but the same level of concern should also be applied to creating economic and racial diversity.
Understanding the damage done by redlining and steering practices is integral to Connecticut’s progress here. The very act of insuring – or not insuring – mortgages in some neighborhoods (redlining), and sections where some families are shown – or not shown – homes (steering) remain longstanding issues, especially in suburban Connecticut. The unfortunate reality is that few people know that these practices create racially and economically divided localities.
Amending zoning laws and reading books are not the only ways to recognize our racial divisions. Race and class can be such abstract concepts that we often forget to look within our social circles.
As a state and region, we need to connect with each other as well as respect our history. This moment is long overdue, but I wonder how long the interest will last. As an educator, I am hopeful that more students and residents will question and want to learn about racial issues. But as a Black New Englander, I sense that this moment is another flash in a pan.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent guest on WNPR’s Wheelhouse radio show.
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