All seven members of the diverse panel at the “America’s New Race Dilemma” forum agreed that communication is the best way to bridge the persisting gap between races. Many in the audience of the near-capacity crowd in Main 222 on Sept. 20, nodded in agreement as the speakers looked back on America’s history of racial discrimination and promoted steps to address the racial dilemma.
Dr. Robert Scott, the moderator of the forum on “America’s New Race Dilemma,” held sit-ins at lunch counter diners to protest segregation saw and endured things that can barely be seen on the grainy, black-and-white footage of the day, let alone understood by those who did not live through it.
“They were throwing feces on us and dropping urine on us and cursing us out,” Scott said. “I just got back from overseas, I’m a Marine veteran. You’re not supposed to treat veterans this way, you’re not supposed to treat anybody this way.”
Scott said Dr. Martin Luther King would tell them at meetings before the sit-in protests, “that things are getting better,” but after seeing the current wave of reports on police shootings of black men, he felt, “now here we are going through this same thing.”
For Dr. Scott, professor emeritus of multiculturalism and diversity at Pennsylvania State University, that was his first time in the American south.
Times have changed and conditions have improved. In Scott’s lifetime, America has gone from a country where black and white citizens were not allowed to sit together, to one led by a black president soon to complete his second term in office. Yet there is still more work needed to end racial disparities and inequalities.
“All times test men’s souls,” Scott said, alluding to Thomas Paine. “But we can’t do it unless we do it together,” adding “we’re tired of hearing about the problems; let’s hear about some solutions.”
Dr. Damaris Rau, superintendent of the School District of Lancaster (SDOL) since July 2015 and the first to speak, immediately dispelled the perception that poor parents don’t care about their children because they are not active in the school.
Many parents have hard choices to make, Rau said, “do I work my two or three jobs or do I go to my child’s school and meet with the teacher?” Furthermore, “families depend on their teenagers to work,” so they must also ask, “do I encourage my child to go away to college or do I ask them to stay and work?”
“Even though this is a very small city compared to the places I have worked at, it has the same urban problems that we encounter across this nation,” she said, citing that 90 percent of students in the SDOL qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“We know that poverty impacts students in a real way, especially because of the trauma that is associated,” Rau said, adding “our kids are dealing with stressors that many people do not have to deal with.”
Poverty relates to medical and dental issues, hunger issues, and especially behavior issues. Rau is seeking additional funding from the state this year to bring social workers, who were all cut under former Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, back to the SDOL. The district is also looking to hire a college and career coordinator so that “every student has a plan for what they do after graduation day.”
To cut the suspension gap, where “black males are three to four times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts,” suspensions across all schools have been reduced by 25 percent, Rau said.
Before introducing Lancaster City Chief of Police Keith Sadler, Dr. Scott told the audience that “Black Lives Matter does not mean that white lives do not matter.”
Historically, in the United States, “if you go back to the Dread Scott decision,” [the Supreme Court case which denied citizenship, and therefore Constitutional rights and protections, to the descendants of slaves] “if you go back to pre-slavery, black lives, and even the lives of women, were not equal to that of others.”
Chief Sadler, in his eighth year at the head of the Lancaster Police Force, cited School Resource Officers as “one of the best programs” in the city for interacting with youth, especially black and Hispanic children.
The program, which has been in Lancaster for 13 years, places officers full time in schools around the district. Two officers are at the McCaskey High School campus, one officer in each middle school, and one officer travels around the elementary schools, giving safety talks and presentations.
As schools in the 90s and 2000s increasingly turned to police to deal with disciplinary matters, often resulting in students being arrested for minor fights, parents were initially afraid the officers would act like an armed “private security force for the administration.”
“Prior to the [School Resource Officer] program, the arrest rate for students from Lancaster school districts was extremely high,” Sadler said. “Hard to believe, but teenage boys and girls have disagreements. Do you really want to put a case on somebody for teenage angst?”
School Resource Officers become closely associated with the students of the schools they embed in; many also volunteer with the Police Athletic League, coaching sports such as tennis and wrestling.
Sadler is also reviving the Police Cadet Program, which bridges the three-year gap between when a student interested in joining the police force graduates high school, until he or she turns 21 years old, the minimum legal age to become a sworn officer in Pennsylvania. There is currently one cadet, the first city resident to join the program in 10 years, taking criminal justice classes at HACC and working part-time alongside full-fledged officers in the field.
Kevin Ressler, the executive director of Meals on Wheels, community organizer, and Mennonite preacher faulted fundamentalist movements in America that preach a gospel of individualism.
He disagreed with Dr. Scott’s introductory statement that America was founded on a sense of spirituality.
“This country was founded on genocide,” Ressler said, and the institutions of “slavery, segregation and mass incarceration” are continuing legacies of America’s original sin, “the murder and eradication of multiple groups to make space for one group.”
However, as a biracial child of a white Mennonite father and Tanzanian mother, Ressler acknowledged his own privilege having two college educated parents.
Ressler called out to the crowd for anyone who identified as white, singling out those with an Irish and Catholic background.
“You’re not white, you weren’t white until the numbers got to a point in which there was a threat to those who were white, and then you counted,” he said. “The cultural blindness is when we chose to say there is one narrative which everyone else has to assimilate into.”
Ressler said it would be alright for him to wear the colorful, traditional clothes of Tanzania, where is mother is from, but he would be treated as a curiosity.
Nick Miron, the director of social justice and advocacy at the YWCA, began by likening his job to the same reason why no one sat in the front row that afternoon.
“People don’t step forward — often, willingly — to say we have, not just a problem, but a crisis,” he said. “We try to avoid what the problem often is.”
Miron, attended HACC part time over five years while working full time and parenting a young child, eventually earned an education degree from Millersville University.
Miron “found out” he had white skin in his 20s, because it took him that long to find out what whiteness meant, and how it impacted his life.
“We can talk about all the racial disparities that exist,” Miron said, “because we know the statistics.” However, “until we’re willing to sit down and look at dismantling white supremacy, what that would mean for us — take the risk personally and communally of doing so — we’re going to continue to have gatherings like this for many more generations to come.”
SGA President George Brown said HACC is about “trying to give all our participants in our community a chance to be educated.”
The cultural diversity, especially at the Lancaster campus is “beautiful,” Brown said, “however, we have a little bit of concern about the diversity within the faculty here at the campus.”
Brown encouraged students to become more active on campus through the many clubs and organizations such as Allies, the International Club and soccer clubs.
“We do have a place for people to go, to try and experience cross cultural awareness,” Brown said. “That is in our Office of Student Development. We give an opportunity for all students to come and understand and work with people of different cultures.”
Living in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Dr. Warren Anderson said, “I should be dead, in jail, or selling drugs based on how I grew up. I had someone looking out for me — someone who didn’t look like me — looking out for me.”
Anderson, who was nine weeks into his new job as HACC’s chief inclusion and diversity officer, criticized those who think students at community college are “not good enough to go anywhere else.” Having worked at four-year private and public universities, Anderson said, “we have students who are some of the best and brightest at HACC,” however, “those opportunities are not afforded to everyone.”
Anderson also gave closing remarks in lieu of Lancaster City Mayor Rick Gray, who went to Harrisburg for a meeting on gun control.
“My goal is that HACC becomes the most progressive, forward-thinking global-minded college in the country,” he said, noting that he is only the second chief diversity officer in all 14 of Pennsylvania’s community colleges.
Anderson concluded the forum with the three things he tells all students — three potentials that every person has inside them: the opportunity to be great, the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better, and the opportunity to change the world.
“By virtue of the fact that we have to opportunity to go to school, to better your life to actually do something for someone that can’t do it for themselves,” Anderson said, “that’s what makes us great as a people. Not as black people, not as white people, not as Americans, but everybody.”
“Our goal is to make this region better than it was when we got here.”