Colorado Humanities highlighted ways white people can assist minorities in America during its Changing the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity panel Aug. 12.
The event streamed on YouTube and Facebook and covered various topics revolving around the theme of “Whites and racial justice.”
Dwinita Mosby Tyler, Chief Catalyst and Founder of the Equity Project, moderated the event with Michael Johnston, Gary Investments CEO and president, and Helen Thorpe, journalist and author, serving as panelists.
During the discussion, panelist highlighted recent racial issues and examples from the 1960s to illustrate how America has changed but remains the same.
Johnston recalled learning in school about the Birmingham Church Bombing, which occurred Sept. 15, 1963. The bombing, which happened in Birmingham Alabama, killed four Black girls and injured more than 20 after members of the KKK detonated a dynamite bomb at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
“I remember how inhuman it was that an American would target children at church and try to kill them for the color of their skin,” Johnston said. “It seems like when you learned that story in school that’s an America you never go back to.”
But Johnston showed how we haven’t strayed far from the bombing and revisited the Charleston Mother Emanuel Church shooting, which occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015.
White supremacist Dylann Roof, who was sentenced to death in 2017, entered the facility and killed nine Black churchgoers and injured another after a shooting spree.
However, Johnston said, in the 1960s, the government passed bills in attempt to rectify hate crimes that occurred in the country.
Following the Charleston shooting and various other hate crimes and racist acts, Johnston said he was disappointed by the U.S. government’s inaction.
“We failed the test,” he said. “When you look back, that was a heinous act but what did America do? They responded to the Birmingham Church Bombing by passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” he said. “What did we do in the wake of both the Mother Emanuel shooting or the Charlottesville marches? We tried to convince ourselves that was just a small subset of America and not a national problem to resolve.”
Johnston did find a glimmer of hope for future generations shortly after the death of George Floyd, who died May 25, 2020, after NYPD officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes.
Johnston heard his son fiddling around in his bedroom around 11 p.m. and entered his room to figure out the commotion.
“I opened the door and he was there with a little tiny booklight making this portrait of George Floyd,” Johnston said. “And I thought, ‘He gets it.’ He has the sense he’s living in a moment in history that he can’t sit down. He too will do the things I did which is asking all the adults in his life, where were you [and] what did you do in this moment?”
Tyler said we’re living in “a recycled moment” that reflects the ‘60s and said people can use the positive from that time to continue improving the world.
“In the 1960s we were doing something, and it was a collective of people doing something,” Tyler said. “This feels like that same opportunity to me where we might come together to do something.”
When asked how white people can best leverage their privilege toward effective change without unhelpful or beneficial mistakes, Thorpe said eliminate the idea of being flawless.
“There seems to be a real need to be perfect,” Thorpe said. “The only thing people seem to know how to do now is to signal their virtue so they can only share stories where they are either a savior or a good person doing something to sponsor racial justice. They cannot describe themselves in any other terms. … We don’t feel safe or know how to be vulnerable or explore our feelings.”
Johnston said it is best to eliminate the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality and recognize not everyone fits that bill.
“Hidden in that story is this notion of meritocracy that if anyone works hard enough, they have a chance,” he said.
Johnston noted how his parents owned a mountain lodge and received a loan to secure the property. An opportunity minorities likely wouldn’t have with his father’s history.
“When my dad got that loan, his record was: he was an alcoholic with a failed marriage and two failed businesses,” Johnston said. “That wasn’t a very good bet to bet on my dad at that point, but First Bank did and they gave him a loan in 1968.”
Tyler said she feels as though the world doesn’t recognize the difference between charity and justice work regarding assisting a cause financially.
“When it comes to white saviorism and white centeredness, white people [believe] they have to help in charitable ways instead of helping in collective and strategic and active allyship kind of ways,” Tyler said. “I believe white people don’t tend to see themselves as complicit and a partner in this work and more about righting a wrong in this work.”
Thorpe concluded the panel saying she is inspired by younger generations and their work to right the ship.
“When I look at my son’s generation, he’s had so much more of a chance than I ever did to have a diverse circle around him,” Thorpe said. “He’s been at [Denver Public Schools] where he’s been in the minority or right at 50-50 … he really gets it and understands we’re a diverse country. He understands in his bones that in a way people my age may not. … I think they’re going to get it right.”