Sunday, February 27, 2022

Telling Tales


I’ve been listening to the most recent episode of local podcast Elevate Maryland. Their guest, Sheryll Cashin, is the author of  White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality. Cashin is engaging and dynamic. The interview covers valuable information about housing and opportunity which is relevant nationwide but also specific to Maryland, notably Baltimore. The running time is about forty minutes, so it’s not a huge time commitment and the flow is good. You never feel bogged down or lose the thread of where they are going.

I had an epiphany this week about why it’s so important for me to recommend this particular episode, and why I need to read Ms. Cashin’s book, as well. It came when Maryland State Representative Jazz Lewis highlighted a moment on the floor in Annapolis in which Republican Susan McComas rose to speak on a bill about school behavior and student arrest. You can find the video here, which includes Delegate Lewis’ reponse.

I’m indebted to Josh Kurtz and Danielle Gaines of Maryland Matters for their transcript of this exchange.

Del. Susan McComas (R-Harford) stood to speak late in the debate.

“Over the years we’ve watched that society has changed, the family unit is different. And I’ve been accused of implicit bias because I said, you know, the Black fathers aren’t as prevalent as they were in the 40s and 50s,” she said, drawing ire from lawmakers in the chamber. “The bottom line is that we need to understand that the teachers are dealing now with a society now that has changed significantly.”

Lewis stood immediately after McComas finished her remarks.

“Colleagues, I know that passions are running high right now, but I ask all of you to be respectful in your language. Do not speak as to the passion or concern of Black fathers when you are not one,” Lewis, the father of a toddler, said, drawing applause. “I speak on behalf of all Black fathers in this room, tropes should not be used. Folks love their children. I think we should keep the conversation to education.

Here we see a member of the Maryland State Legislature walking right past language of “implicit bias” and wading into downright racist tropes which justify policing black students more (and differently)  than white students. 

In viewing that moment I immediately thought of Sheryll Cashin’s words in the Elevate episode where she talks the stories that white people make up and tell themselves about why things are the way they are today. Cashin posits that it’s important not only to comprehend how things like Red Lining codified a system of racial inequity in housing and opportunity but also how we allow that to become a foundation for self-justifying narratives that keep those things in place.

(I am going to go back over this episode with a fine-toothed comb to find that quote. But, in the meantime, listen for yourself.)

That is exactly what McComas is doing here. She is relying on generations of racial injustice to Black Americans to float criticism of the Black family. In her bland and even tones she becomes the story teller of white supremacy. “You know, they just aren’t like we are.”

The lack of investment in Black neighborhoods, combined with the punitive response to residents from law enforcement is an ongoing cycle which perpetuates itself as long as white people keep making up those stories and believing them. Cashin is blunt in her assessment that whites are active participants in this process as long as we look for ways to explain away the inequities that don’t tell the truth about how they got there and why they continue.

Delegate Lewis was absolutely right to rise and refute her remarks without letting one moment pass to normalize them.

I wonder when we will see white members of the House of Delegates start doing the same and challenging those toxic stories and reminding their membership that they have no place in the halls of governance in the State of Maryland. Lewis did the right thing but, frankly it shouldn’t have to be his job. 

When white people start rising to take on our self-justifying fables and tropes then maybe we will get somewhere.

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