On February 20, as part of Black History Week, Rick Jennings II, President of Sacramento City Unified School Board, spoke on Black history to a near empty theater on campus. Approximately 25 people showed up to hear a eloquent, dynamic speaker trace the history of racism in America– and no one seemed to care– or were too busy with their lives to take an American history lesson in oppression, prejudice and civil rights violations.
How quickly they would have come, however, if someone suddenly told them that they wouldn’t be allowed at Yuba College because of their skin color, or religion or sex. Or that they couldn’t drink from the same water fountain because they were wrong color.
The issue here is one of taking for granted basic human rights that, until about forty years ago, were routinely infringed upon. This type of apathy is dangerous because it builds a numbness that few realize until it is too late. To think that something doesn’t touch us because we are not directly impacted creates a false sense of security.
To his credit, Jennings was not deterred by the low turnout or apparent lack of interest, perhaps understanding it as a sign of the times. Nevertheless, he went on passionately to trace a historical past where slaves cried for freedom in poignant songs as they were brutally transported in slave ships, where it was better to jump into the sea when given a chance, than to live lives of imprisonment in a strange land. This was not some two thousand years ago, but less than two hundred years and in the United States.
Segregation was commonplace in the nineteenth century and for half of the twentieth century. It was even legalized in l896, in “Plessy vs. Ferguson,” where “separate but equal” became the norm until the famous l954 “Brown vs. Board of Education” Supreme Court decision finally overturned this racist doctrine.
Yet we must recognize that there are more examples of legalized racism than those Jenning’s spoke of. The Japanese Internment of the l940s comes to mind, especially after listening to a keynote speaker at the Yuba College graduation ceremony last year, who was of Japanese descent.
He spoke of a time when he could not get his Yuba College diploma because he was imprisoned in a concentration camp– in America! Many in the audience seemed to gasp. Perhaps some were just too young to know about it. But one comment overheard coming from a Yuba College graduate remains disturbing: “He is so boring. I wish he would just finish so we can graduate and get out of here.”
In recent times racism and civil rights issues are still being fought. In the 1990s, anti-immigrant initiatives became the norm. Proposition l87, which strove to take away government benefits and education, a basic human right, from those that were not citizens of America, and even from legalized elderly Latino residents in California, was vaguely disguised as trying to save tax payers money. In reality, statistics show that illegal immigrants are not flooding the welfare rolls or making it rich on Social Security and have never been. In fact, many pay into the tax system and never get anything back.
The fact that Proposition 187 was followed by Proposition 227, an initiative that attempted to do away with bilingual education, is an obvious example of a drive against the Spanish-speaking community that is as racially sinister as the segregationist laws of Jim Crow of the nineteenth century.
The fact that both of these laws were overwhelmingly passed says something about how we still haven’t learned the lessons of history. We still haven’t learned to look beneath the surface to see what forces manipulate minds and distort the law to satisfy racist agendas. These so called reformers like Ron Unz, who spearheaded anti-bilingual initiative 227, have learned to work within the system quite effectively and are finding a lot of support.
Once again, some may say, “Why should we care? It doesn’t impact me directly.” This type of self-serving attitude is dangerous. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The point here is that we have to care before it is too late. The war against intolerance and racism is still being fought and now on a new frontier as the computer age and the Internet has a new, often younger audience checking out websites with racist agendas.
The evil winds that unleashed the demonic climate that led to the Holocaust are still with us and are being fanned today by the seemingly benign condition known as apathy.
Some complained that there was a lack of information and promotion of the Black Student Week activities– that they simply didn’t know about it. In fact, during the presentation, Sheila White-Daniels, Yuba College Director of Matriculation and Transfer Services, went into the cafeteria and tried to get students to come to the presentation but they were too busy eating.
One has to take responsibility to find out what’s going on. Go to the meetings of The Black Student Union. Go to the meetings of MEChA, (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) or NASA (Native American Student Association). Take the time to read the bulletins on the counters or on the walls.
As we enter a new millennium, we all have to take a responsibility to fight ignorance, racism and apathy, especially when it comes to the precious gift of human rights.