A Message from Mendi Blue Paca: Memphis’ Tragedy Hits Home
Feb 27, 2023
This Black History Month, I’d intended to write a hopeful message in the spirit of our month-long celebration acknowledging the tremendous contributions of local Black equity trailblazers to our national fabric. I’d intended for my reflections to be a capstone to our recognition of regional heroes, Black nonprofit staff, who are leading in place doing critical work to improve our community.
Yet every time I sat down to reflect on what this month means to me and to highlight key accomplishments, I couldn’t help but think that for me, this Black History Month, was punctuated by thoughts of Tyre Nichols.
On January 27th videos were released of Nichols being beaten to death by Memphis police just 60 yards from the home of his mother to whom he called out as he lost his life. As the video replayed continually across my television, my heart sank, and my emotions vacillated between outrage, numbness, and utter despair. It is those brutal images, like so many others over history, that serve as the traumatic backdrop to my reflections this month.
And while I cannot shake that imagery, I lead an organization that focuses on local issues and context, and Nichols’ tragic death happened more than 1,100 miles away. So, the question that keeps arising in my mind is, what does this seemingly distant event mean for us in Fairfield County?
Sadly, we are not immune from the impact of a system that values Black and Brown residents’ lives differently than it values their White neighbors. We are not immune from the impacts of a racial caste system so deeply entrenched that it can even result in Black people undervaluing Black life as we witnessed on camera in Memphis.
We know this from our own experiences — and from the raw data compiled by DataHaven for the forthcoming Fairfield County Community Wellbeing Index.
- 24% of Black adults and 17% of Latino adults in Fairfield County say they have been unfairly stopped, mistreated, or abused by police, compared to 10% of White adults.
- 9% of Black and Latino adults said this had happened to them multiple times within the past three years, compared to only 1% of White adults.
- During traffic stops, 9% of stops of Black drivers and 5% of stops of Latino drivers by Fairfield County police departments led to a search — compared to just 2% of stops of White drivers. When you get down to the town-level data, these gaps are often wider: in several towns, Black people made up less than 2% of the population but between 8% and 15% of drivers stopped.
And while most of us living and working in Fairfield County — including those working in law enforcement — principally stand against racism, we live and work in insidious systems that reinforce racial inequity not just in criminal justice, but in housing, health, education and employment.
As the 2023 Fairfield County Community Wellbeing Index will soberly remind us, bias, discrimination, and barriers — both subtle and overt — play themselves out throughout our region, resulting in persistent and significant racial disparities on virtually all social measures.
Nevertheless, while I continue to grieve for Tyre Nichols and his family, just as I have grieved for countless men and women before him, I have faith that within our own community, we can work to change these conditions and create a Fairfield County where all of us have an equitable opportunity to thrive.
In October, we went public with Fairfield County Forward, a community strategy to advance racial equity by changing the systems and structures that perpetuate inequity. And on this final day of Black History Month, just two weeks before we release the 2023 Fairfield County Community Wellbeing Index, it has never been clearer to me why we made that commitment and how necessary and urgent our work is.
If you share my sense of necessity and urgency to make positive change in our region, I encourage you to stand up and join us in advancing Fairfield County Forward. I can think of no better way to culminate this Black History Month and to honor the lives lost to systemic racial injustice.
Mendi blue paca
PRESIDENT & CEO
FAIRFIELD COUNTY’S COMMUNITY FOUNDATION