By Rob Green
Director of Aquatics at St. Albans School for Boys
I was in the 9th grade at Benjamin Banneker Junior High School in Washington, D.C. when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots were breaking out one block away from my house, which was located at the intersection of 14th and U Street. I remember hearing Stokely Carmichael telling the crowds to burn the store fronts (run by white suburbanites) down, and so they did. I thought the world was coming to an end. I really thought it was going to be World War III. The National Guard troops barricaded the neighborhood, tear gas was thrown into the crowds and fires broke out. People were putting signs in their windows that said, “Soul Brothers Live Here,” in order to keep the looters out. Even white people were putting signs in their windows. In just a matter of hours, I saw my neighborhood burn down.
When I think back to what caused the residents of the 14th Street Corridor to react in the way they did, the only logical reason I can think of is economic disparity. Racism, in my opinion, is born out of economic disparity. Limited resources always create tension. Access to capital – a necessity for starting a business – needs to be available to everyone, not just a select few, in order for peace to exist among the masses. Racism is born when this access is given to only a chosen few. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, the black residents in the 14th Street Corridor turned on the shopkeepers, who were predominantly white, and they looted the shopkeepers in an act of revenge.
I don’t think racism alone is the result of peoples’ distrust in one another. In my opinion, it has more to do with economic disparity and class distinction. I think race is an easy tool, used to control limited resources. If you don’t feel like you’re getting a fair shake, naturally you feel resentful. And you will use anything to justify that resentment, even the color of someone’s skin.
People tend to want to be around people that look like themselves. I think it’s a psychological crutch. You feel less threatened. You distrust the people that don’t look like you, and you label them as outsiders. Neighborhoods are a great example of this. When banks don’t lend to minorities, they create an environment with just one group of people: all-white neighborhoods, all-black neighborhoods, all-Hispanic neighborhoods, etc. It doesn’t allow for inter-racial cohabitation, wherein people can learn different cultures and backgrounds. There’s no opportunity for trust to be established across cultural divides. When someone new tries to come in, they are labeled an outsider, and animosity towards them is created.
When I think about what it will take to rid the world of racism in all forms, initially I think, “a miracle from God,” but if you want a more realistic answer, I’d say to start with young people. Children are more trusting and haven’t experienced bigotry and hatred yet. That comes at a later age, when it becomes apparent that in order to gain resources you have to compete with those that differ from you; roadblocks are put up in the form of class distinction, and, when that happens, racism is sure to follow. As children, we are not aware of class. Children are taught bigotry and class distinction. If we refrain from teaching our children about bigotry, and we have education systems that allow young people to learn to appreciate and trust each other’s cultural backgrounds and differences, then I think we could eliminate racism in all its forms. Brown vs. Board of Education was our nation’s attempt at this, but we didn’t fully succeed because the “elites” could opt out and go to private schools.
The lesson learned from that experience is that obstacles to education need to be removed. Remove the barriers to education, and people will obtain knowledge that will help eliminate class distinction. We need to continue to fund education and demand high standards from our teachers and society to make it a number one priority. Investing in education will allow our citizens to compete in the global marketplace.
As an educator myself, I try to instill with the young people I work with the importance of fairness and not judging people by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Dr. King taught us that! I also stress that it is important to be open-minded. Team efforts always yield better results. So cooperation, self respect, and respect for others are key components to a strong team’s foundation.
The answer to eliminating racism is the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you want to end racism, don’t hate. Treat people the way that you want to be treated and there won’t be racism. In the words of Martin Richards, the 8-year-old boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombings, “no more hurting people, peace.”
Rob Green is the Head Coach for the St. Albans School for Boys (STA) & National Cathedral School for Girls (NCS) Swimming Program. He attended Mackin Catholic High ’71 and University of Maryland – College Park ’75 – ’77. He is a native Washingtonian who grew up in Columbia Heights. Rob Green is married to Gloria Buchanan Green. They have a son and a daughter, Renee Green, the Communications Associate for the YWCA USA, and they currently reside in Adelphi, MD.
This post is part of the YWCA USA Stand Against Racism blog carnival on issues of race, justice and diversity. We invite you to join the dialogue! Post your comment below, share your story and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism.