June 2020

Columbus’ black leaders call for action, ‘accountability’ in tackling racism

Courtesy of Columbus Business First
June 2, 2020

Black leaders in Columbus have a clear message following days of protests fueled by pain and anger about ongoing police violence against American Americans: they want meaningful action from city, state and federal leaders to address systemic racism.

Columbus Urban League president Stephanie Hightower said on Monday afternoon that she is tired and “weary, like most African American leaders and black people are.”

“We haven’t had a chance to really mourn,” Hightower said. “We’re just waiting. The wait is what’s so frustrating right now. It’s hard to mourn when you just start adding up and talking about all of the individuals killed over the last two to three years. It’s not just about George Floyd. It’s Ahmaud Arbery. It’s about Breonna Taylor. It’s about Philando Castile.

“I don’t want to hear anyone else tell me that ‘We did cultural competency training.’ I don’t want to hear that a whole bunch of folks sat around and talked about their differences. (We) keep doing stuff the same old way, expecting to get different results.”

The Urban League and its 90 affiliates nationwide are planning a joint statement that calls for specific recommendations for police reform and accountability.

Those include the widespread use of body cameras and dashboard cameras by police, a revised use of force policy in police departments, as well as taking a look at police officer training and hiring standards, Hightower said.

“Until we really talk about racism in a way that we can disarm anyone from feeling guilty and create an equity agenda that has real measurable outcomes and we hold people accountable, we’ll continue to have the ability for people who don’t want to see change to lean on systemic racism and maintain the status quo,” Hightower said.

Columbus City Council on Monday night approved a resolution declaring racism a public health emergency. Council President Shannon Hardin said, “We need transparency accountability and policy change to address racial disparities in our city. And that starts with our police department.”

Hardin has called for independent investigations into police use of force, “including negotiating a civilian review commission into the next police contract.”

Nana Watson, president of the Columbus chapter of the NAACP, said her organization is joining with other chapters to call for “sweeping police reform,” including “federal legislation mandating a zero-tolerance approach in penalizing and/or prosecuting police officers who kill unarmed, non-violent and non-resisting individuals in an arrest.”

The NAACP also is calling on a ban of the use of knee holds and chokeholds by police, implementation of citizen’s review boards in municipalities to hold police departments accountable and other measures.

Watson said the NAACP also is willing to broker conversations between protestors and some of the individuals and organizations that are being protested.

But, she said, “We’re not going to keep meeting and meeting,” The Greater Columbus Arts Council, whose CEO was one of hundreds of Watson said. “We like action and that’s what we do.”

Watson decried the property damage that occurred as a result of the protests, but said those who were violent “hijacked what was meant to be a peaceful protest.”

“While buildings were defaced, while glass was broken, windows busted, and that is all being cleaned up, racism is still going to be there,” she said. “Until this community has an open, honest dialogue about that, we’re going to continue on this road.”

Institutional racism

Kyle Strickland, senior legal analyst at Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, said people need to take a side. “We all witnessed an unconscionable killing of George Floyd, yet another instance of the killing we’ve seen with Breonna Taylor, Arbery, and on and on.

We talk about it for a few weeks, people post something on Facebook, but they move along with their lives and don’t do anything to demand real accountability and justice. “We have allowed this to continue. It requires us to do more than we’ve ever done before.”

It’s not enough anymore to simply not be racist, Strickland said. People must be anti-racist, he said. He said that starts with understanding that Columbus, like all U.S. cities, has a legacy of institutional racism that has not been fully rooted out, reversed, or even acknowledged.

For example, the city has a history of banks not lending to black residents in certain neighborhoods. And the state put I-71 through black neighborhoods, Hightower said.

“It was a covert way of beginning to re-segregate our community in a significant way,” she said. “If you look at what Mount Vernon Avenue used to be, it was a thriving % neighborhood. All of that deteriorated when you put that freeway that separated downtown from the Near East Side neighborhoods.”

Then there is the truth that we have normalized inequality today in many forms, Strickland said.

“We’ve normalized the idea that we consistently see black and brown communities underrepresented in all sorts of industries and sectors,” Strickland said.

“Systemic racism is very much alive. It literally permeates throughout our institutions, when you see violent behavior by those in power to oppress people of color. We allow it to occur and it’s just the status quo we accept.

“Until people who may not be directly impacted by these actions start to recognize this is their problem too, we’re not going to get anywhere. It does require us to stop being so indifferent.”

What black leaders want from business leaders

Hightower said Columbus-area businesses need to step up as well, delivering more than just platitudes.

On Monday, nearly 1,000 Central Ohio business leaders, ranging from neighborhood bakeries and bars to the CEO of the state’s largest publicly traded company, signed a letter supporting the city’s declaration of racism as a public health crisis.

Hightower said businesses need to look inward at their own institutions.

What are their hiring practices? Who do they award contracts to? Who do they give charitable grants to? Are those processes ensuring diversity – or are they shutting people out?

“Their silence in this moment … can be deafening if they don’t do something,” Hightower said. “It has to be culturally competent and culturally authentic. I would love it if everyone would say they’re going to create an equity agenda at their business. … Just like they did the challenge for everyone to ensure that the minimum wage went up.”

Hightower said if businesses don’t hold themselves accountable for change, their employees and customers will.

“Now that this has economic ramifications and economic interests are being threatened, now everyone wants to focus on social issues,” she said. “If you want a strong community, then you’ve got to pay attention to the social issues. That means racial iniquities and social justice, so they don’t become a threat to the economic interests of this community.”

By Hayleigh Colombo Staff reporter, Columbus Business First

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