"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
Each week as I read the newspapers, I am amazed at a number of anomalies that reflect our past and paint the realities of our current conditions. Sometimes those issues are based upon everyday events in front of our faces. In one of my African-American classes, the students received the results of their mid-term exams. Many did not do as well as they had expected. Nevertheless, what is to be expected when students have no semblance of African-American culture or history? Whites grow up in a system that is packed full of white privilege, and when they encounter an Afrocentric person, many have no ability to engage in that worldview.
As I distributed the graded exam, I shared with students that I would be collecting the exams back because I reuse some of the questions on future exams. This is similar to other professional exams drafters where the drafters reuse their questions. Why not recycle exam questions when most of the content will be repeated for the next class? As I started to collect the exam, I noted that one student had torn his exam into four pieces and set it on the desk in front of him. I asked him why he had torn up the exam in spite of my asking students to return the exam after they had reviewed their scores. His response was that he was disappointed in the results and did not like the exam. In my 20 years of teaching as an adjunct, I have never encountered a student who illustrated such behavior.
Each week I expect students to submit e-mail reaction journals on the content of the class readings and lectures and also on things that they normally might not want to share in class with other students. Race is such a difficult subject for many people, and the school of thought that advocates being “color blind” is the mentality promoted by institutions. The student in question is a good student in terms of all other engagements in this class—such as the class discussions—and he offered salient comments on this exam in the journal, as well as in his reaction after I probed him about that behavior in class. His comments were that he considered the exam trivial and that many of the exam questions did not get to the essence of the course. It is not uncommon for white students to think they know more about racism and the African experience. This same student has repeatedly labeled some of the guest speakers as racists toward African-American culture because of some of the comments they have made about oppression and historical experiences, as well as their personal observations.
I have asked students not to use the term racist to describe people of color in a society that practices supremacy and overt apartheid. If one looks at the local census data, the city of Omaha is 31 percent people of color. Nevertheless, some of the elite, smug individuals like projecting onto the victims of so-called democracy their perspective of victimhood. This is similar to the bankers on Wall Street who stole billions of dollars while getting public bailouts and still collected bonuses for their incompetence.
When I ask students each semester if this is their first course dealing with diversity and African-Americans, or if I am their first African-American teacher, the majority of them respond yes. There lies the problem. We live in a diverse city, where most of the students have attended public institutions where taxpayer funds are utilized. For many of us, our race-based and -imposed speeding or traffic infractions are handed out by a police force that despises African-Americans and people of color. We are taxed either directly or indirectly by being required to support systems that offer no semblance of justice or equal employment opportunities for people of color. The State of Nebraska Department of Labor will not collect unemployment data by race because it will illustrate a public and private apartheid system.
I intend to ask my state senator if she will introduce legislation next session that requires any private or public institution that uses public funds in the city of Omaha to reflect the same demographics as that of the community or population served by that institution. Why are organizations able to acquire nonprofit status when clearly they are fraternities or clubs, or serving only members of their group? If I help send my future grandson or granddaughter to parochial schools, the schools should practice some form of diversity in order to get public funds. Many of these gated elite institutions are located only a few blocks from where there are large unemployed populations of people of color, and they refuse to hire them because of a myriad of dubious reasons.