Author and activist Tim Wise challenged Toledo residents to examine and explore issues of inequality to solve problems stemming from institutional racism — an inherited legacy of discrimination that he said needs to be dealt with now.
“The problem is when you are caught up in a system of inequality, sometimes you don’t see that. It’s very easy to miss the stuff that you don’t have to see ...,” he said.
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A diverse, standing-room-only audience at Woodward High School’s 575-seat auditorium attended and applauded Mr. Wise’s speech on Thursday. The Nashville author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son provided the keynote speech during the two-hour community forum “Changing Minds and Changing Lives: Combating Racism,” which was sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo Community Coalition.
Mr. Wise pointed out examples of inequality — from prisons whose inmates are disproportionately black, to vast pay discrepancies between white and black workers, and to classrooms where black and Latino students are twice as likely to be taught by the least experienced teachers.
He said these “systemic realities” of racism need to be understood before they can be corrected.
“We inherit the legacy of everything that has come before,” he said. “We like to talk about the good; we just don’t want to deal with the bad.”
In a speech punctuated by bursts of audience laughter, applause, and nods of agreement, Mr. Wise called for conversation about race to lead to examination and solutions, not paralysis.
“You cannot fix that which you will not explore and examine,” he said.
Understanding racism and solving local problems is the aim of an effort kicked off by Thursday’s forum. Organizers plan to hold additional forums in coming months, involve the public in initiatives geared to students and churches, and form small, inter-racial “dialogue to change groups” that will meet weekly for six to eight weeks.
Organizers were heartened by the strong attendance and enthusiastic reception to future initiatives. Many people filled out cards expressing interest in future small groups, said the Rev. Karen Shepler, a coalition member.
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The Rev. Robert A. Culp, pastor of First Church of God in the Old West End and coalition co-chairman, praised the turnout from business, government, and educational leaders.
“It bodes very well for the future, if persons will sign up and follow through. We are on our way for a real breakthrough. I see the possibility really of this being more than just nice forums. I see it becoming really a movement that will actually produce change in our city,” Mr. Culp said after the event.
Organizers were motivated to hold the forum after The Blade’s publication of “Battle Lines: Gangs of Toledo,” a series that started in April and sparked discussions about gangs and race. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Florida fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin provided another timely reason to discuss racial issues locally.
Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee who participated in a panel of community leaders after the forum, called for the city to convene a gang summit, provide job training for gang members, and encourage community organizing in neighborhoods.
The Blade initiated its gang series after the mayor refused to make available a police map showing where local gangs operate. John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, said he wants to help in any way with the alleviation of the city’s gang problem and wants to know what can be done in the short-term regarding gangs.
Mr. Block said it’s important for newspapers to be in “the middle” of community conversations, such as the one launched by Thursday’s forum, which he attended.
“There’s a need for some organization to help out, so we were happy to do that,” he said.
The city has “not ignored the gang issue,” said Mayor Mike Bell, who said he would consider Mr. Velasquez’s ideas “if there’s some content to what he is saying.”
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The mayor praised the forum and the main speaker, Mr. Wise. Whether it and related efforts will lead to citywide change on racial issues is something that remains to be seen, he said.
“We have a lot of people that are willing to talk, very few people prepared to bring action. So, when they are prepared to bring action then we’ll see the change,” Mayor Bell said, adding that he’s ready to “bring action every day.”
For Ella Hall of Toledo attending the forum was a chance to find out what she can do to help better the city. Mrs. Hall, who said she was the only black student to graduate in her 1959 class from the then-Holland High School, said she believes change occurs when people “get to know each other.”
“We’re all the same … good and bad and everything,” she said. “I say more social contact … getting to know people. That’s the important thing, because the worst thing in the world is fear.”