Home Opinion The Root of our Problems: Not so Black and White

The Root of our Problems: Not so Black and White

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terri-e-sharpley2011By Terri Sharpley

Commissioner David Carrington recently wrote that “racial mistrust” is holding back Jefferson County. As a thirty-something, Alabama-raised, African-American woman—I disagree.
I went to college in Memphis, Tennessee – 5 minutes from the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. King was assassinated. I attended law school at the University of Alabama – less than a mile from where Governor Wallace made his stand in the schoolhouse door. And I work in downtown Birmingham –blocks from where Bull Connor ordered attack dogs on African-American children.
I know that our past continues to impact our present. But to say that “racial mistrust” alone is holding us back, undermines the sacrifices of those who marched, fought, and died for the progress we’ve made.
The sad reality is that in 2013, too many elected officials continue to use race as an excuse for our government’s incompetency. Don’t get me wrong— race is clearly an issue in Alabama politics, but “racial mistrust” cannot be the only explanation for why our state lingers at the bottom of every list that measures American progress.
Dr. King gave us the answer when he told us to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. And in some instances, America has listened.
Look at Paula Deen’s fall from grace. On the surface, her use of a derogatory slur is a racial issue – but deep down, it’s more about character.
She made a choice: she fostered a work culture that promoted outright and subtle forms of racism and discrimination – and she paid the price. Many of her fans and corporate endorsers made a conscious decision to stop padding her pockets. America identified a major character flaw in her, and we took action.
Birmingham made a similar statement on August 27 when it cleaned-house at the Birmingham Board of Education. Voters made it clear: our children were suffering because of the collective incompetence of the school board.
We live in a democracy. The beautiful thing about a democracy is that when something misrepresents us, we can take action. We are free from tyranny as long as each one of us honors our duty to speak up.
We have all said things that didn’t reflect our best self. I’m guilty, and my guess is that you are too. Fortunately though, what we are today doesn’t have to be what we are tomorrow. That’s true for Paula Deen, for our school board, and for our entire community.
I’ve heard plenty of politicians – Black and white, Republican and Democrat— make far more racially charged statements than Commissioner Carrington. But if I had to sum up the problems facing our community in two words, I think “poor leadership” is more accurate than “racial mistrust.” So while I commend the Commissioner for starting a difficult conversation, I whole-heartedly disagree with him.
As we celebrate 50 years of progress, we should honor our history by continuing to move forward. Let’s pledge to try to judge people by their character instead of how they look. Let’s pledge to try to remember that we have more in common than we have differences. Let’s pledge to honor our duty to speak up if something misrepresents our beliefs. And let’s make sure that 50 years from now, we’re not at the same place we are today.