Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hi, My Name is Karen

Fortunately, First Baptist didn't have a security checkpoint for heathens.

It was a good thing, too, or I'd never have made it inside for the "Color of Law" panel discussion tonight. The church has been holding discussion groups all month about Richard Rothstein's book "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America," as part of their acknowledgement of Black History Month.

I give them major props for that.

But tonight's panel discussion was open to the public and while Mac was the one who'd told me about the event, she couldn't go. Not long after taking my seat, a woman named Betty Ann approached to welcome me and ask how I'd heard about the event. Presumed on her part was that I was not a member of the congregation or she'd have recognized me.

I prefer to think I just don't look like a Baptist.

Not long after she moved on, a man came over to adjust the iPad mounted on a tripod right next to my feet. After introducing himself, he pointed to his name tag, letting me know it was there for me in case I forgot his name. Considering he was the pastor of the church, it didn't seem likely.

Besides, there was little chance I'd forget him after he stepped in front of the iPad - now turned on - and welcomed the home audience and told them that the event would be starting...when it started. That's a joke, son.

The five-person panel took their seats on the dais and my immersion into the history of government-mandated segregation began.

Prior to the 20th century, Richmond wasn't terribly segregated, in part because of all the urban slaves who lived here near their masters and worked the flour mills, the ironworks and the tobacco factories. But come the 20th century, the U.S. government got serious about extending segregation.

And to bring that home to RVA, Baltimore was the first city to adopt race-based zoning codes to segregate people. And, yes, sadly, Richmond was second in the country. It's not enough we have an avenue dedicated to white men guilty of treason, now this. We ought to be ashamed.

In its typically underhanded way, the government passed racial purity laws which stated, in part, that people could only live in neighborhoods made up of residents they could marry. Well, we all know Virginia (among others) had laws on the books prohibiting blacks and white marrying, so the racial purity laws ensured separate neighborhoods.

The panel reminded us that our country was built on a lie, citing the American Revolution as truly only half a revolution. That's because at the time of the Declaration of Independence, 300,000 whites were granted equality, life, love and the pursuit of happiness while 300,000 blacks were told to get back to work.

1776 is looking less glorious all the time.

We heard about urban renewal plans begun as early as the late 1930s and the formula was always the same. Tear down a black neighborhood and replace 1/3 of it with highway (hello, I-95), 1/3 with industrial and 1/3 with public housing. Even with my poor math skills, that tells me that X amount of people are now being forced to live in 1/3 the amount of space (and not allowed so much as a garden) simply because their skin is black.

The structural barriers of race were discussed, things like the FHA's refusal to make mortgage loans to blacks, thus ensuring they'd have to rent not own, a sure way to limit any possible wealth growth.

Lofty as it is, the goal, everyone agreed, is to economically and racially integrate.

After the panel discussion, audience questions were taken and don't you just know that some blue-haired white woman raised her hand and said it was her impression that black people wanted to stay in the projects. I think I saw a black woman on the panel silently count to 10 before she politely explained that that wasn't always the case.

"In many cases, they don't want to live there any more than you do," she said explaining it in a way that white privilege could relate to.

The minister was quick to remind us that anyone who'd come to this kind of panel discussion was a good person, but sometimes, you just have to cringe to be part of a race where people can be so clueless.

At the end of the evening, the minister led us in a short prayer (I spent the time deciding what dessert I was having next) and said he had an extra copy of the book if anyone wanted it.

Heathen that I am, I marched right up there and asked for it. He was more than happy to hand it over and expressed the hope that I come back again soon. And I may. I always enjoy their movies in the garden series in the summer.

Oh, that's not what he meant? We heathens can be so dense.


  1. It always amuses me to imagine you in church. What a hoot!!

  2. Right?! You know perfectly well I'm just the kind of heathen they're trying to save! At lest I didn't cause the place to be struck by lightening!