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Time for society to come to grips with institutional racism

We’ve all heard about Black Lives Matter both locally in Ashland and nationwide. Reading of a Black person being shot in the back, or shot for little or no reason, shocks our consciousness — a life taken away, due to being Black.

It is hard for some folks to fathom a Black child growing up afraid — afraid to walk down the street, afraid to stay out at night, afraid they may “look suspicious” to a white person, all because they may be harassed or gunned down by the police or someone else. Those who commit crimes against people of color may not face appropriate or any consequences for their actions, or these crimes may be ignored and the victim may be silenced. We like to think of Oregon’s racist history as in the past. Yet, racism is alive and well in Oregon, and in Ashland.

It is painful to realize that this is our society, our country, and that is still tolerated in Ashland and America.

But society also needs to come to grips with white privilege and racism in all of its forms.

Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, a nonprofit organization with roots in Oakland, California, defines institutional racism as “unfair policies and discriminatory practices of particular institutions (schools, workplaces, etc.) that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of color and advantages for white people. Individuals within institutions take on the power of the institution when they reinforce racial inequities.”

Structural racism operates at the societal level and is the power used by the dominant group to provide members of the group with advantages, while disadvantaging the non-dominant group. The dominant group uses structural racism not only to obtain resources, such as employment and wages, but also to limit the non-dominant group’s access to these resources (American Bar Association statement).

My client, Tony Akpan, was fired due to institutional racism. He was targeted because of his color. When he was called a “n-----” by a YMCA member while working on the YMCA premises, and targeted with demeaning comments by another member, the institution did nothing to protect him or to ensure that it didn’t happen again. Instead, the YMCA pushed him out — by promoting less-experienced white employees, demoting him from sports director to maintenance and custodial duties, and by cutting his pay by 35% and his hours by 50%. It was more important to “protect the YMCA” than to do the morally and legally right thing, by protecting Tony. This is institutional racism defined.

The YMCA puts a premium on protecting its “reputation,” such as putting current employees under a “gag order” (regarding Akpan) and trying to deflect the seriousness of the racial situation (CEO Dan Crocker calling my press release about the case “a media strategy” (Oct. 27 Tidings). When Tony was attacked with a knife on the YMCA soccer fields a couple of years ago, the YMCA persuaded him not to press charges because it did not want “negative publicity” about it. Tony obediently dropped the charges, and the culprit attacked another with the same knife a short time later.

It’s time that this fanatical obsession with protecting the racist institutions, keeping white privilege in place and therefore ignoring the reality for minorities and the oppressed, be replaced by holding institutions accountable, insisting that they be good community citizens and that they set an example for all of us.

Until such time that we take on institutional racism, ask the hard questions, make difficult changes and refuse to allow institutions and others to sweep the issue of racism under the rug, we are all responsible for what happened to Tony Akpan and to other minorities — and will be until we hold institutions, and every individual, responsible.

Tom Dimitre is an Ashland attorney.

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