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Invisible and not-so-invisible racism in Northeast Tennessee

Ed Wolff • May 12, 2019 at 8:00 AM

The media have presented extensive coverage of acts of racism throughout this nation. Racism has spawned the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Racism motivated the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. Most recently, the burning of three churches in Louisiana have supported the national concern.

Yet, in our area of Tennessee, there has been little media evidence of racism, except possibly the hanging of a black-faced dummy on Indian Ridge Road during Halloween. There are those who might even believe that racism does not exist in in Northeast Tennessee.

Yes, there was a lynching and burning of Tom Devert in Erwin in 1918. In the 1950s there was a displacement of the black community on Roan Hill to make way for a whites-only golf course as part of urban development. In 1965, the schools in the area were integrated, with little consideration of the students and faculty. But, it has been said to me, “That’s the past, we don’t need to relive it. The repurposing of Langston High School has been given as proof that our area is moving past the age of racism.”

I have no doubt Northeast Tennessee has become more sensitized to the issue of race and concerned about racism/inclusivity. From my perspective, ETSU and Northeast State are demonstrating concerns about lack of inclusivity/diversity. For example, the chief security officer of ETSU is a person of color. Our national laws have responded to the need for full civil and voting rights, although some have been diluted by Supreme Court decisions.

However, I contend Northeast Tennessee has a racist attitude that is very pervasive and subtle. Part of the reason is the low percentage of African-Americans (4%-6%) in the area. Another part of the reason is that people of color do not make themselves more known. Then, also, this area is not attractive to people of color for several reasons. Much of these subtleties can be attributed to what is called “white privilege.” Therefore, racism is more difficult to detect.

Most of the black population that I talk to say that being treated as invisible or insignificant is the most demeaning experience they face. Perhaps the following examples and questions might help us to recognize the challenges that are prevalent and need to be changed to dismantle racism.

When we are in a retail store, notice the difference between the way white people and people of color are treated by salespersons. Many times people of color are treated discourteously and watched closely as if they will be shoplifting.

If my information is correct, none of the governmental authorities in our area have policies that intentionally include diversity/inclusivity. Therefore, when job openings become available, many times there are referrals or information relayed to relatives and friends. With a low percentage of blacks, what is their chance of having a chance at the position? I was in a conversation with a representative of the town of Jonesborough. The representative said that all job openings are posted on the town’s website. When an employee announces their departure, how soon is the website updated? Do people of color need to constantly check the website? Should there be an intentional strategy to find people of color? (Yes, that sounds like affirmative action. From my point of view, white people have had affirmative action for 400 years. Just consider “red lining” and the difficulty of blacks entering higher education institutions.)

A blue line has been painted between the yellow lines on Boone Street in Jonesborough in front of the Robert Browning Administration Building and the Jonesborough Visitors Center. It is to honor our police in Jonesborough. Is it just coincidental that it occurred around the time that Black Lives Matter was prominent in the news media?

Is there a difference between the way black children are treated in the school systems vs. the way white children are treated?

It is my understanding that the Washington County School System recruits all its teachers from ETSU. The students in the Department of Education at ETSU are predominantly white. Where do children of color find role models who look like them in their schools?

I have heard a multitude of times how the black population “lives off the dole.” I have not heard people who make such comments check the data to determine the people who avail themselves of governmental programs. Actually, government provides more to people who are white.

Do people with white skin include people of color at personal dinner parties and other personal social events? How many people with white skin have had deep conversations with people of color about personal racial experiences?

The dismantling of racism will not be solved with law. It is a heart issue. If you think “white” is normal, you think like a racist. Yes, we all have prejudices. However, prejudice plus power is racism. We who are white have privilege just because we are the majority. We automatically have the power.

When the Divine created humanity, scripture says the Divine said, “It is VERY good.” The early humans were of color. Who knows more, white-skinned people or the Divine? By the way, Jesus was dark skinned.

Ed Wolff is a retired minister and progressive activist.