The first nine stories on my news feed Sunday were about race. At least we’re talking about a problem we’ve ignored or tried to cover up for a few hundred years.
But if we can’t transition from words to actions, are we really better off? Or — like Langston Hughes’ dream deferred — do we wind up in a worse place than where we started?
Here’s what we now know. Racism is baked into the systems we have created. Not because we’re all a bunch of racists. We’re not. It’s because the systems favor the folks who created those systems.
I’ll give one example using religion instead of race. Jewish families often have problems getting their children excused from school for Jewish holy days. “Why should we give Jewish students preferential treatment?” some school districts ask. “We should treat them just like everybody else.”
What those districts miss is who made the school calendar in the first place. Do you think the Christian majority would ever schedule school on Christmas or Easter? The calendar is only a problem for those who didn’t get to make the rules.
When it comes to criminal justice, education, employment, banking and health care in America, white society made the rules. And surprise! They were designed to favor whites. That’s why no white person was convicted of killing an African American in the South before 1945. The all-white juries wouldn’t do it. It’s the same reason blacks couldn’t attend white schools, live in white neighborhoods or even receive medical treatment in white hospitals.
Federal judges — who didn’t have to stand for election — began changing that in the 1950s, and Congress — goaded by the civil rights movement — passed legislation in the 1960s, but attitudes and outlooks lagged. Now, at long last, white society is beginning to acknowledge these harsh realities: that our black neighbors are more likely to be pulled over by the police, abused, arrested and convicted solely because they are black. Equally troubling are the massive disparities in income, education and health that are the sad legacy of four centuries of slavery, Jim Crow and discrimination.
So now what? What can we do to address these disparities that is both affordable and likely to work?
Any long-term solution will have to involve education. Education is the single biggest driver of better incomes, housing and health.
Fortunately, Tennessee already has made some smart educational investments by raising standards, increasing teacher pay and creating the nation’s first and best two-year college scholarship program with tnAchieves and Tennessee Promise. But those benefits are available to all Tennessee students. What will we do to help level the playing field for the offspring of America’s slaves, the people who bore the lash, picked the cotton and on whose bloody backs we built the Southern economy?
Maryville has found one promising strategy, but it needs to be expanded countywide, and it will take several million dollars to do it. The William Bennett Scott Scholarship program is a creation of the Maryville City Schools Foundation and is designed to assist qualified African American students who wish to attend four-year colleges and universities. Scott was Tennessee’s first African American mayor, publisher of the state’s first black-owned newspaper and a member of St. Paul’s AME Zion Church on Broadway.
Three individuals were awarded scholarships this spring, but at least five students were deserving and in need of the $7,000-per-year award. Some years only two or three students may need assistance, as many choose tnAchieves while others win athletic or academic scholarships, but every qualified African American student who needs help should receive it.
But why should Maryville High graduates be the only ones to benefit from this program? Why not include graduates of Alcoa, William Blount and Heritage? With great companies like Arconic, Altar’d States, Clayton, DENSO and Newell in Blount County, why not indeed?
Like tnAchieves, Scott Scholarships are a smart investment in the community. When African American students are given the opportunity to reach their full potential, everybody wins. And when this pandemic ends and tax revenues are flowing as before, perhaps Maryville, Alcoa and Blount County will step up and alleviate some of the financial burden on the private-sector partners. That’s how we did tnAchieves.
Maryville, William Blount and Heritage probably only need a half-dozen or so scholarships per year each. Alcoa needs twice that many. Some Scott Scholars will not complete their four-year degrees, but most will. My guess is the program would level out at about a hundred total scholarships in four years. That’s about $150,000 per year for each of Blount County’s five largest employers. That’s the equivalent of just one executive salary package. Not very much when you think about the impact this program would have on our community.
The time for talking soon will be over, and the time for action at hand. Maryville has developed a promising pathway to success for many African American students. All we need is the wisdom, courage and generosity to expand it.