This past month, I have followed various Santa Clarita City Council forums held around the city, and there appears to be an overwhelming consensus indicating institutional racism is not raising its ugly head in our fair city. But I wonder how true that may be.
To put things in perspective, I searched for a definition of institutional racism and found most of the information provided in dictionaries or online was not free of racial bias. So, I settled on the Cambridge Dictionary, which stated institutional racism is, “racism (when someone is treated unfairly because of their race) that has become part of the normal behavior of people within an organization.”
Think of how well Cambridge understands, it does not matter which race is being treated unfairly, or if the intention is to make up for the past. When anyone is given preferential treatment or not treated fairly, because of their race, ethnicity, or religion, the problem of racism is on display for all to see. Plus, when we witness it occurring at a school board meeting, during a City Council districting discussion, or at any other meeting of an organized group, it sounds like, it smells like, and it is, a group practicing institutional racism.
Why is it important to discontinue all forms of this practice? Because when you provide preferential treatment to one racial group over another, you create a scenario of “winners and losers” based on criteria the person left behind has no way to remedy. Such a feeling of helplessness creates a new round of animosity against the institutionally preferred race, as well as the institution itself.
You must remember, when any person perceives they are being treated unfairly, their perception is their reality, and you are not going to change their perception by demonstrating in the street, while shouting meaningless talking points, and assaulting people.
It was over 40 years ago when I came face to face with such issues. A time gone by when I still had jet-black hair and was in mid-career as a department manager. My boss was out of town and left me to stand in for him when I received a phone call from our VP’s secretary. She told me Mr. VP was also out of town and had been invited to an important senior staff meeting and asked if I could attend on his behalf. She revealed the date, time and conference room location, but when I asked what the subject was, she did not know. Not to worry, I answered, I will handle it.
Well, I was concerned about going to an important meeting unprepared, so I decided to get to the meeting a few minutes early, hoping someone would be there to clue me in. Arriving at the conference room with five minutes to spare, I started to enter and immediately saw three people sitting at the conference table. I knew all three and where they worked. I was also aware, none of them were members of the senior staff. Was I in the wrong place? I felt embarrassed as I did not know what to ask and was just about to leave in order to confirm the meeting location when I heard: “Hi Al, come on in, you are in the right place.” So, I sat down by the trio and engaged in small talk as the rest of the attendees arrived.
Finally, our human resources VP stood up and announced we were about to participate in a cultural diversity seminar. The three employees I had been talking with, were about to share what it was like to be Black and work at our company.
The most pivotal presentation occurred when a young woman stood up and emphatically said “I never go to meetings early.” When asked why, she replied, “If I am the first to arrive at a meeting, other attendees will look in, see me, and leave for a while.” She was convinced it was because she is Black, and the other employees did not want to be alone with her. Well, her testimony was answered with many denials and assurance her perception was in error. What became abundantly clear is, “You cannot change a person’s perception by telling them they are wrong.”
Holy (insert 4 letter words here), I thought to myself, I almost did the same thing, but it had nothing to do with her ethnicity. I was embarrassed and was not sure what to ask.
I recalled how many times I checked out a meeting and then ran for a cup of coffee, made a phone call, or visited the restroom. I wondered if I had inadvertently offended anyone.
Well, it was my policy to have a weekly employee staff meeting. I shared the young woman’s comments and retold her story. I asked my staff to be more sensitive to the feelings of others by either not exhibiting similar behavior, or if necessary, to explain the reason they were leaving for a short time. What surprised me was having a couple of my staff share similar feelings.
The moral of my story is, to improve like situations you must change “your” behavior, which when recognized by others, will alter their perceptions. So, if for example, you believe there is a problem with low-performing schools in minority areas, discuss the school and the school’s ratings without pointing fingers at the students’ ethnicity.
A school’s rating can be improved, while a person’s ethnicity is something they should be proud of for a lifetime.
Alan Ferdman is a Santa Clarita resident and a member of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee board.