Thursday, April 14, 2016

Celebrate Jackie Robinson Day for the right reasons

Jackie Robinson swung for the fence in more ways than one
April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day. It’s an annual date I celebrate with reverence. Not because it honors the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB). Instead I recognize this day because it symbolizes a lot of the things that are right about America. And wrong.

              Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson became the first African American to play in the majors during the modern area. He shattered the baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947, when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This historic moment pivoted American sensibilities.

              Earlier this month, in an apparent effort to atone for the emotionally brutal treatment of Robinson during his visits to the City of Brotherly Love, the Philadelphia city council issued an apology. It came in the form of a resolution and delivered to the wife of the late MLB Hall of Fame player, Rachel Robinson.

Robinson possessed a fierce poise and demand for respect
              According to a Philly newspaper, the resolution stated in part that the City Council recognizes, honors and celebrates April 15, 2016, as a day honoring the lifetime achievements and lasting influence of Robinson. The resolution also speaks to the racism he faced as a player while visiting Philadelphia.

              Back in the sports world, Major League Baseball announced this week that it’s boosting its financial contributions to the Jackie Robinson Foundation and expanding its partnership with the organization.

              According to reports, the commitment includes funding 30 four-year Jackie RobinsonFoundation scholarships. That’s one scholarship representing each MLB team. A $1 million contribution is also being made to the Foundation’s Jackie Robinson Museum project.

              The gesture is a relatively small one in light of baseball’s foul treatment of black athletes in earlier years, but nevertheless commendable.

              The National Association of Baseball Players, the first organization governing American baseball, was formed in 1867. Black athletes were banned. Records are sketchy, but according to Negro League Baseball, several African-American players may have been active on the rosters of white minor league teams in the late 1870s.
Behind every successful man...
              In historical context, the possibility of black persons in baseball at some level is somewhat conceivable. Consider: just after slavery was abolished in 1865, the Reconstruction Era was witness to significant social and political revolution – when ideals associated with the American Dream included formerly enslaved black people.

              A significant number of African Americans were elected to local, state, and national offices. Some perspective: at the beginning of 1867, no African American in the South held political office. Within four years, around 15 percent of Southern lawmakers were black – a larger percentage than in 1990, according to author James M. McPherson in 1992’s Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution.

              In Southern states between 1870 and 1876, there were 633 black State Legislators, two black U.S. Senators (in Mississippi!) and 15 black U.S. Congressmen. This, according to author E. Foner (Reconstruction: America's unfinished revolution, 1863–1877).

              Then the walls came tumbling down. Hateful and murderous policies, sanctioned through government backed Jim Crow laws of segregation and discrimination, obliterated early reforms toward racial equality. So much for the American Dream.

              Two steps forward, one step back.

              This history lesson is important, to America and baseball, because it set the tone for what was in store for folks like Robinson - the first persons of color in their respective fields. Like many, he was mythologized (as was Dr. King) as a black man who passively turned the other cheek in the wake of racism. In reality, like Dr. King, Robinson was a fierce agent of social change who used his celebrity to speak out against discrimination.

              With the stroke of a pen Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger and first black man in Major League Baseball. That was just the beginning. He, along with his family endured a heinous racist gauntlet. Robinson’s middle passage to acceptance was pocked by unimaginable acts of loathing and prejudice and discrimination – all because of the color of his skin. Color many white people today insist they do not see.

              Instead of claiming to ignore a person’s distinctive attributes (like color), why not instead hold those differences close. Use it as a means to reclaim all the wonder and diversity of human beings. Ultimately, it’s what binds us together. The fear is what tears us apart.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Say it Loud: He’s Black and I’m Proud

Eye on the prize

Until my two-year-old son is old enough to self-identify racially, I’ve declared him black. I’m raising him African American. Socially and legally. This, despite him being half white. Why? It’s in his best interest. But it’s not without serious, sometimes deadly challenges.

              Being black in America has a bad rap. This, according to media, history books, government policy and even statistics. We’re the collective punching bag of mainstream society.
              It’s open season on black youth. It’s okay to shoot first and ask questions later. We’re guilty until proven innocent. We’re viewed as a physical threat if we raise our voices in anger. Or throw up our hands to surrender. There’s more.
              We’re subjected to suffocating inequities, racism and discrimination, then told by its very architects, “It’s not really that bad” or “It’s just your imagination.” The result: many of us internalize our ongoing subjugation. We enact verbal and physical expressions of self-loathing, borne through generations of being assaulted repeatedly by unbridled oppression.
              Then we’re blamed and shamed for not keeping up with the rest of society.
              Being a person of color in the United States – especially black – comes with many unearned and undeserved socioeconomic penalties. We all know the numbers. Or maybe we don’t.
              With respect to health and wellness indicators, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease are all statistically off the chart for African Americans, compared to whites. In primary education, scores trend lower than other races. And when it comes to jobs, guess who’s rates of unemployment eternally tops the charts? Black folks.
Everyone has skin in the game
              So why would a black father like me enthusiastically claim “African American” for his toddler – a moniker that’s historically stigmatized by so many? After all, my son’s mom is white so alternatives exist. Among them: “biracial”, “multiracial” and “other”.
              Anybody remember, “A Boy Named Sue”? The poem was written by Shel Silverstein and made popular by the hit Johnny Cash song in 1969. It tells the tale of a boy whose father named him “Sue” so that the youth would grow up tough. And like a boy named Sue, being black can instill grit in a place where “white is right”.
              There’s another, more important reason I declare my son African American. Pride. I’m proud to claim a racial identity that has survived the brutalities of yesterday’s slavery, Jim Crow and challenging today’s racist systems that include mass incarceration. Proud to associate him (and myself) with a culture that has withstood generations of physical and psychological violence, appropriation and other abuse perpetrated upon it, yet endure. Indomitably resilient and defiant. Bloodied but unbowed.
              Black actor Taye Diggs not too long ago proclaimed his half-white son to be “mixed race.” This, after penning a children’s book, “Mixed Me." Good for him. According to reports, Diggs hopes his book will help his son and other mixed race children realize they don’t have to choose black or white but embrace both races equally.
              That aspiration is reasonable. It’s vital to claim one’s entire identity (race, gender, orientation, abilities, etc.) in order to live in whole and complete ways, for reasons of mental as well as spiritual health. (I’m currently on my own personal journey to more fully embrace my African, Native American and Irish identities.)
All strapped in for the ride of his life
I also recognize there are governments, institutions and individuals in this country that systematically define blackness visually, often assigning economic, social and legal penalties along the way. This is America’s reality; one that must be reckoned with.
              Amid such enduring color bias, his mother and I are arming our brown-skinned son with a robust sense of racial and cultural self. An emphatic image to start; one rooted in reality but also acknowledges prevailing adverse illusions that present barriers for people of color. A sturdy platform on which to germinate and then evolve identity.
              When he’s older I will support, nurture and promote whatever way he chooses to identify. Until then I will say it loud: he’s black and I’m proud.
Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Time to Take Collective (as Opposed to Individual) Approaches to Food Access Issues

It's a crying shame so many people lack access to good food
There’s a problem in our food system and it’s a big one. It centers on access and equity. Access to good food and the equitable availability of it. And between the two of them it’s killing us.

              According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 111 million people in the U.S. are obese. That’s more than a third of all adults and almost 20 percent of children and adolescents.

              Obesity is not experienced equally. According to CDC reports, 35 percent of African Americans are considered obese. Among Native Americans, it’s 30 percent, with Latinos also weighing in at about 30 percent. With white Americans, the number drops to 24 percent.

              This all speaks to poverty and hunger, something that at first glance appears contradictory, carrying unhealthy body weight and being hungry. Again, it all boils down to access and equity.

              Folks with a high enough income tend not to believe access to good food is a problem. Many assert that anyone can get food if they really want it. There are stores, farmers markets, government programs, food banks, pantries, you name it. If a person’s obese, it’s their own fault.

              But it’s not that simple.

There's a big difference
              The food movement is ripe with an ethic of individualism. Whether it’s a concern about obese people choosing to eat fattening food or a permaculture farmer who wants to live “off the grid” and grow her own food, the underlying theme is an individual’s relationship to food.

              Yet with few exceptions, this perception of individualism is a farce. We live in a culture driven by systems. Driving those systems are corporations, which are about as far from individualism as you can get.

              What we have are collective problems. This raises questions of equity. What’s fair? Who has what, how much and why? Put another way, who doesn’t have what and why?

              In this community, it’s a fact that persons of color make up a statistically disproportionate number of residents earning low wages. Food experts refer to many communities of color as being “food deserts.” It’s a term coined by the federal government and defines a geographic area in which there are few if any grocery stores. Depending on which agency, the distance is one or two miles.

              A couple miles isn’t a big deal. Unless you have a several bags of groceries and have to walk because you don’t have a ride. Or have to tote them on a bus that doesn’t pass near your home. Or must shuttle there and back a taxi. Or have small kids with no sitter. So much for access.
Good food is fresh, green and affordable

              A review of studies by Policy Link discovered that only eight percent of Blacks live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. That’s sobering information. It’s also a clear indication of racial inequity.

              Here’s the “good” news: the term “food desert” is actually a misnomer. There’s plenty of food. The convenience stores, fast food joints and gas stations all have it. It’s just the majority of the food is processed versus organic. It’s also high in fat, salt and sugar – all drivers of poor health outcomes. Hence the unequal rates of obesity.

              To top things off, the term food desert conspires to portray these communities as negative, unproductive places, when in fact many thrive with backyard, church and community gardens. Not enough food to feed the entire community but still. The unflattering perception fosters and perpetuates inequities, perceived and real.

              It’s time to focus on solutions that make collective changes, instead of blaming the individual. Let’s act beyond creating alternatives or niches for small, privileged groups of persons, and examine and remove policies and practices that result in food system injustices. It’s the equitable thing to do.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Facing the Plain Ugly Truth about Privilege

Who's missing from this picture?
Privilege. The driver of so many social ills plaguing our communities. It benefits historically-included groups while oppressing those that have been historically excluded. Yet privilege can be a tool for change. First the down side.

              One of the damning aspects of white privilege, for example, is the vehement denial that it even exists. This assertion of its non-existence would be laughable except that like other forms of privilege, white privilege operates in stealth mode. It runs in the background of our culture (at least it does for people with white skin). And it’s hard to scrutinize something you can’t see.

              A few individuals here and there make the farfetched assertion that white skin guarantees an easy, prosperous life. That of course is ridiculous. However it does carry certain unearned social, political, or economic benefits not afforded persons of color.

              People with white skin aren’t the only historically-included group. Those of us who are nondisabled (and I'm one of them) benefit from arguably the most insidious unearned privilege operating today. It’s certainly among the most potent. Nondisabled privilege is so powerful, we who possess it have essentially rendered invisible those persons with disabilities. And it’s criminal.

              Historically we’ve isolated, institutionalized and even sterilized persons with disabilities, against their wishes. Then we claimed it’s all in their best interests. Bullshit. It’s for our own comfort and convenience.

Not thinking about certain things can be a privilege.
              That’s the heinous thing about privilege: it implies the right to assume a delusional righteousness of our own experiences, casting others as different or even deviant while arrogantly viewing ourselves as normal. Now isn't that a mouthful?

              What's more, you don’t even have to be in the majority to hold privilege. Case in point, male privilege. Woefully, I also claim membership in this historically-included group, which consistently engages in intentional and unintentional policies and practices that demean, demote and degrade women.

              And because it has endured throughout history, much of that oppression has come to feel like part of some twisted “natural order”. But it isn’t. Just ask a woman.

              Then there’s the nonsensical insistence by more than a few who are part of historically-included groups that insist they are the ones being oppressed or discriminated against. To prove their point, individuals cite instances in which they personally experience discomfort. But what they’re feeling much of the time is equity.

The natural order of things isn't natural
              Examples of this equity include municipal regulations for accessible public spaces for the disabled, food stamps for the poor, and affirmative action for women and persons of color.

              Though such policies that seek to level the playing field are needed, they often are rejected as unjust by people accustomed to their privilege. Or misunderstood as handouts. Again, the culprit for this individualistic thinking are the socially invisible characteristics of privilege.

              In some ways it’s almost understandable why so many among historically included groups play the victim card. They/we are used to having our own way every day. It just feels right and natural, even though it’s wrong and artificial.

              Mass media (i.e., television, radio, newspapers and internet news sites), fueled by social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube provide ever-growing opportunities through which historically-excluded groups may share more regularly their experiences.

              Despite being a relative drop in the bucket in terms of awareness, it’s getting harder and harder for historically-included groups to remain cocooned in their often self-imposed ignorance of glaring inequities.

If you see something, say something
              “Privilege” is a term one that chaps the hide of many individuals within historically included groups. Invoking the term often triggers defensiveness and can shut down conversations. Especially among those who grew up under less than desirable circumstances.

              Yet as more people with privilege become aware that they have it, some are beginning to use it in ways that seek to interrupt social inequities that exist. How? By speaking out.

              If you’re part of an historically-included group, use your voice to point out oppression. It’s the greatest privilege of all. 

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Diversity & Inclusion 101: Time To Walk Through the Doors of Truth

United we stand...
We as a race – the human race – are divided. And not just along color lines. We’re separated and segregated, figuratively and literally. Mentally, physically and spiritually. It’s of our own doing too, consciously and unconsciously.

              A lot of us prefer it this way, being divided. Particularly those part of historically-included groups. You know, male, straight, able, Christian, documented. White. So many benefits, so much access. So easy not to notice the inequities affecting those who are different.

              For historically-included persons it’s comfortable to maintain human categories and social divisions, even preferred. That’s because the alternative requires leaving the bosom of ignorance and facing hard, unsettling truth. Coming to terms with society’s self-inflicted inequities is no psychological walk in the park. Examining the worst of harmful, age old cultural practices and institutionalized policies can resemble a gut punch. It’s jolting, even painful.

              It’s a fact that once faced with the truth, lots of folks refuse to stomach the stench of inequity that exists. They turn away and sink back into the murky bog of ignorance.

              Knowing but not knowing.

              Here’s the good news: if you facedown the sobering fear and shock of truth, there’s salvation. It comes in the form of reclaiming your humanity. All it involves is getting curious. No easy task though when your universe has been tilted.

So many of us see, but do not see.
              Yet it’s also funny how something as simple as getting up close and personal with people different from yourself can help you see their humanness. And yours. That is, if you approach such encounters with an open mind and heart.

              Setting aside bias, prejudice and stereotypes can be difficult, if not impossible. It’s also uncomfortable. There’s nothing like believing in a thing only to discover it is not in fact the truth.

              Take poverty. Like other historically-excluded groups, poverty fosters a toxic, limiting belief system. One that dehumanizes a broad swath of our population. It generalizes, stigmatizes and therefore marginalizes people. In turn, institutions and cultural attitudes conspire to cement in place and thus perpetuate the conditions of those affected.

              It took me serving as board president of Woman’s Co-op to unlearn all I had learned about what poverty is, who’s affected and what their reality is.

Women helping women succeed
Woman’s Co-op is a nonprofit network of women working together to improve their lives through life management skills, education and employment opportunities. Many members have low or no income.

              Until I got knee deep in the work of Woman’s Co-op, I used to make up in my mind what it meant to live in poverty. I based it all on my limited encounters with poor folks: on the street, in stores, at meetings, wherever. I also drew on warped media images, especially on TV and in movies. In retrospect they were mere snapshots – moments in time.

              What it took for me to see the truth was “being” with them. Listening and withholding judgment. Eating with them without critique. Crying with without offering pity. Holding their babies as if they were my own. Laughing to share their joy. Equally important was sharing my own woes – personal secrets that polite folks like myself conveniently keep out of conversation so as to maintain membership in the coveted Middle Class Social Club.

              That back and forth sharing, over time, resulted in an unleashing of a mutual authenticity that allowed me to “see” persons living with lower incomes. And the majority of them are me, just from different circumstances.

              We’re at a pivotal moment in history. At no other time have so many doors of truth been more visible. It’s time for us to open those doors. All of them; not just those we’re comfortable with. Open them and step out of ignorance. Time to embrace justice. And in the process reclaim our humanity.  

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Black Hair Matters

Rockin' it all natural
I love black natural hair. The way it looks, the way it feels. And the way it makes me feel, inside. And I’m not the only one. There’s a revolution coming. Maybe it’s already here.

              More and more, I’m noticing African American men and women increasingly embrace their natural hair in all its creative styles. Dreads, plaits, twisties, cornrows, naturals, Mohawks, faux hawks, afro puffs, dookie braids. You name it, I’m seeing it.

              Kinky, curly, coily, bushy, tight, short, long – I’m loving it.

              Reasons for going natural are varied. For some, it’s convenient; for others it supports a healthier, more chemical free lifestyle. For a whole lot more it’s just more affordable.

              Sure, lots of black folks still “process” their doos. They’re perming, weaving, tinting, dying, highlighting, and wearing toupees and wigs. That’s fine by me; do your thing.

Required reading
              Unfortunately, that “thing” includes succumbing to hair-related esthetics and preferences favored by white Americans. Sadly, we (including me) all have generations of social conditioning to thank for that. It’s fueled by media that, consciously or not (read Tom Burrell’s Brainwashed), is designed to prop up whiteness as the end-all, be-all standard. But I digress.

              It’s just I’m lifting up sisters and brothers who are styling their hair in ways associated with our indigenous African American heritage. And they are rockin’ it with flavor. Leading the charge are young folks. No surprise there.

              Back to the revolution. There was a mantra in the African American community of the 1960s: “Black Power”. The catch phrase popularized by activists Kwame Ture and Mukasa Dada, better known as Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks. The pair were organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

              Their work sparked one aspect of the nation’s collective Black Power movements, which became widespread nationally and internationally by the early ‘70s. It was further fueled by historic firebrands like Angela Davis and Malcolm X. They and scores of others at the time were demonized by mainstream establishment. In recent years however, many historians have come to view them more evenly and recognize their stalwart efforts during a difficult period of social change.

Natural history
Hair is a big deal in American society. Unfortunately, the tops of African Americans’ heads have for generations been a blistering battlefield. A scarred landscape on which oppressive cultural warfare continues to be waged.

              Witness the systematic and institutionalized workplace racism centered on hair. Citing policies and “appropriateness” as placeholders for white supremacy, African Americans were/are made to conform to hairstyles that as much as possible resemble standards of beauty and acceptability associated with whiteness.

              Dreads, twisties, braids, cornrows, even if perfectly coifed, until recently were banned in office environments. Still are in most mainstream institutions. In spite of it all, African Americans, though savaged by their inability to express a cultural individuality, nevertheless endure. But at what cost?

              It all speaks to resilience, what’s happening now. Figuratively speaking, once upon a time Black Lives Matter was called Black Power. But like the ‘60s and ‘70s slogan, it’s being twisted. Perverted by those afraid of some sort of uprising in which African Americans are “gunning for whitey.” But nothing could be further from the truth.

A person's hair is nothing to toy around with
              More and more persons uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter movement assign blame of recent tragic killings of law enforcement personnel to an adamant but peaceful activist campaign. It’s a move rooted in fear and driven by a resigned notion that in our society there are people who must necessarily be oppressed in order for others to thrive.

              I don’t buy it. Neither should you. Natural black hair, like Black Lives Matter, embodies a growing reclamation of cultural humanity and sense of social justice. It’s time to set aside fear in favor of authentic efforts toward equity in our institutions and systems. Join the revolution.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at