59 minutes | Jul 2nd 2020

IN Focus with Betsy Schlabach

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In the month of July I’m guest-hosting a few episodes of IN Focus, the public affairs program on Whitewater Community Television‘s WGTV Channel 11. In talking with my guests I’m hoping to keep the conversation going around our region’s biggest challenges and opportunities when it comes to addressing racism, and making sure that white people are listening, learning and taking meaningful anti-racist action. On today’s episode I talked with Betsy Schlabach, who has not only studied and taught about the history of race relations and racism in our country, but has also facilitated a workshop locally about anti-racist parenting techniques. We tackle the vocabulary of conversations about racism, what systemic racism looks like, how to build on what kids already notice in the world to help them think about race, and where racism and quality of healthcare availability intersect. I hope you find the conversation helpful; I know that I did. You can watch the video below, on WCTV’s YouTube channel or as the episode is replayed on WGTV Channel 11. The audio of the show is also available via the Richmond Matters podcast feed, which you can find in your favorite podcast listening app. Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: Hi and welcome to this week’s IN Focus on Whitewater Community Television, WGTV channel 11. I’m Chris Hardie and I’m sitting in for Eric Marsh as your host for a few episodes in the month ahead. As Eric and I talked about possible themes for these next few episodes, we felt that it is very important to continue the conversations in our community around the essential question of what it looks like for Black people in our city and our state and our nation to feel and to know true equality. We also know that we cannot fully explore that question without white people in our community joining in and attempting to understand our role in systems of racism, what privileges and biases contribute to that and what actions we can take to be a part of the solution. I think that as white people, we need to show that we are listening, that we are understanding and that we are willing to do some hard work on issues of racism in the name of justice for everybody. My first guest is someone who I think can help us have at least a part of that conversation. Betsy Schlabach is an associate professor of history and African and African American studies at Earlham College here in Richmond. And she is someone who’s done a lot of research and learning and teaching around these topics. Betsy, thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate you being here. Betsy Schlabach: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me. Chris: I wonder if you could briefly just tell us a little bit about your background and your areas of study and teaching. Betsy: Sure. So my research focuses on African American history, urban history and race relations. Most recently, I’ve been working on the intersections of racism and public health specifically how that relates to the pandemic of 1918, which has a lot of relevance for our current epidemic. And so I teach African American history. I teach urban history and I’ve published a book on Black Chicago, and I hope to soon publish another looking at women’s roles in Chicago’s economy in the mid 20th century. So yeah, that’s a little bit of what I do in the classroom and outside of it. Chris: Great. Vocabulary can be so important in these discussions we’re having. So before we dive into some questions, I want to make sure we take a minute to get on the same page about a couple of key terms. And I know that it can be really tempting to oversimplify racism as kind of overt, clear, bad acts that someone commits with the intention to hurt someone else because of their race. But I think that we’re learning to kind of go beyond that definition of racism and think about systems of racism and systemic racism. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what systemic racism is and how it works. Betsy: So I think systemic racism refers to the ways in which like you said, that racism, yes can be these overt acts of violence committed against people of color. But racism is also about the systems and the pervasive nature of racism. So it’s not just one incident of racial bias or racist actions, but it’s how those intertwine and filter through the systems that we live in. So how racism might inform access to health care or voting rights, college admissions policies. So it’s about the ways in which racism informs the structures and the systems that govern our lives that give white people more privilege than Black people. Chris: And is there a way to quantify something like that? Like can you say a given country or region is experiencing or has a certain level of systemic racism or another, or is that part of why it’s hard to get at because it’s hard to measure? Betsy: I think it is. It’s part of the reasons why it’s really hard to measure it. I also think that it’s, we should hold … we should be skeptical of trying to quantify it because once we quantify it, we think we can measure it. And that’s when again, like even the systems that might measure it are informed by racism. And so it’s really messy and tricky. And in terms of which nations are more or less racist, I know the UN has done some summits on racism, global racism and the United States hasn’t had a good track record of participating in such things which should tell us something. But I think that quantifying it is difficult because those systems of quantification would also be informed by racism. So it’s all, it’s very messy and I think to help me understand it, I’ve always, I’ve most recently I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist. And in his book, just to go back to your question about definitions, he sets up in the introduction. He starts his book by offering definitions of racism and anti-racism and he doesn’t want us to rely on a binary of racist or not racist, because what he says, racism is supporting a person who is supporting or ignoring policies or racist policies through their actions or inactions. Okay. So he says … I’ll say that again. So racist is one who supports a racist policy through their action or inaction. And he says anti-racist is one who supports an anti-racist policy through their actions or expresses an anti-racist idea. And so that’s the binary that he wants us to adopt and abandon this idea that something’s not racist, because we live in a racist system. So everything is informed by that condition of being within a racist system. And then going back to systemic racism, what I think these definitions offer us as an opportunity to attack racist policies. So look at those policies, look at those systems or the policies that inform systemic racism and attack the policy, not the people because policies are easier to change anyway, in my opinion. It’s very hard to change someone’s mind. Chris: Yeah. Do you have an example of a policy that might be informing or reinforcing a racist system, just so we can kind of wrap our heads around what that looks like in practice? Betsy: Sure. So red lining, for example. Looking at mortgages and lending practices. So my work focuses on Chicago and there are some really, really interesting and thorough studies of housing and mortgage lending in the history of Chicago. And so specifically I’m talking about something called restrictive racial housing covenants, and these were agreements between realtors and homeowners that home owners wouldn’t sell their properties to people of color. And that effectively kept neighborhoods white. Or their agreements between or among real estate agents that they wouldn’t rent homes or show homes to people of color in certain neighborhoods. And so that’s a racist policy that really, even to this current day informs our way, the way in which we think people move throughout the city of Chicago. Like so African Americans only settle on the South side and white people inhabited the suburbs, like that just occurred naturally. Well, that’s not the case. There’s a racist policy in play that created that dynamic that informed segregation that we’re still living with today. So that would be a policy and people did this, they mobilized a policy that people attacked to hopefully rid the city of racism. And again, but we’re not there yet, right? Like that’s why Kendi also says in his book that being anti-racist attacking racist policies is an everyday pursuit that you have to wake up and commit yourself to it every day. It’s a lifelong journey and you’ll lose focus and you’ll experience fatigue. But that it’s a commitment that you really have to make. Chris: And we’ll talk more in a little bit about sort of what that action might look like. I want to also get to this other term white privilege, which I know is a phrase that’s used in so many different ways. And just off the cuff, it could feel like a phrase that’s maybe off putting to a white person who hasn’t explored it before. So let’s talk about like what is white privilege and what does that mean in the context of thinking about racism? Betsy: Sure. So when I talk about this with my students, particularly in my white students, I try to use myself as an example. So I was raised in a very white, rural town in Northern Michigan. I was not exposed to a lot of racial diversity. And then I went to college and my first semester I learned about white privilege and I had no idea what we were talking
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