How Can We Achieve Racial Equity and Justice?

Jul 27, 2020

Over the past months, incidents of police violence and nationwide protests have served as a clarion call to double down on our efforts to dismantle systemic racism. Our President & CEO, Juanita James, recently sat down with two guests who have made a profound impact by fighting for racial equity and social justice in Connecticut. Attorney Marilyn J. Ward Ford is a professor of law at Quinnipiac University, and has been a civil rights activist for more than 40 years. Corey Paris is President of the Connecticut Young Democrats and the Development Director for Childcare Learning Centers.

James: Marilyn, you’ve been involved in civil rights activism for many years. How does this moment compare to the 1960s?

Ford: I view what’s happening today with the protests of the murders of Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others as not only a clarion call, but a parallel to what happened after the murder of Emmett Till. That was a catalytic event of the civil rights movement.

We are where we are today because of United States Supreme Court’s ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws under the “separate but equal” doctrine. That put the imprimatur of racism on American society.

Many people think the Supreme Court’s later ruling in 1954 on Brown v. Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in public schools, took care of everything. But it didn’t. In the 1960s, Black people and many of our White allies had to go to the streets and protest to get the rights we thought we had achieved during the civil rights movement.

If you look at what’s happening in our communities today, centuries of socioeconomic inequality have caused Black and Brown people to suffer disproportionately during the coronavirus pandemic. And when you look at what’s happening to Black men and women in the streets being shot by police, you think, well – we have a civil rights issue of today. And that issue seems to be achieving justice in policing and in the criminal justice system, and trying to get rid of what I consider to be the systemic racism our Supreme Court established in Plessy vs. Ferguson.

James: Didn’t some people think we had solved the problem of racism when President Obama was elected the first Black president of the United States?

Ford: I think they thought wrong. The major portion of Black Americans are still underemployed, don’t have health insurance, earn lower incomes, and have children in schools where they’re not equally educated. We have many of the problems we had before the first Black president, because we still have systemic racism.

We have to have people of good faith who are willing to have the conversation about the elephant in the room. We’ve got to deal with it, and we have to undo racism.

James: Both of you are passionate about this work. How did you get involved in civil rights activism or politics?

Paris: My great-great-great-grandfather Edward Banks escaped slavery with two other families by traveling over the Missouri River into Kansas, which was a free state at the time. They were met by the Wyandot Indians on the riverbanks, who gave them their first piece of land. It was in a township called Quindaro.

Quindaro was a historically Black township that had its own Black universities and colleges, its own Black hairdressers, banks, churches, doctors and whatever you may think of. This was the Black Mecca in Kansas. It was torn down, burned down, and overrun by White settlers and Jim Crow enthusiasts. Our family, being one of the founding families of that township, helped to build out what was known as the modern day social justice movement in Kansas City.

So this has always just been ingrained into my DNA. My grandparents taught us that if you aren’t sitting at the table, then you’re on the menu. So you need to find a way to be at the table, advocating for both yourself and also for those who are voiceless and marginalized, to make a difference for them. It’s not enough to live a life of privilege and not ensure that others can do the same as well.

Ford: My background is similar, except my family didn’t escape to the North and get freedom. I was born in Fitzhugh, Arkansas on the plantation my great-great grandfather was on when emancipation came. I’ve picked cotton, and went to a one-room school house with a tin roof. You used to put your shoes across your shoulders and walk past the White school to get to the Black school, go out to the pump and wash the dirt off your feet, and then use the outhouse. So we have a similar background, and it starts there.

James: Corey, tell me a bit more about what’s happening in Connecticut. Do you feel we have the same issues here as around the country?

Paris: I almost find people to be more prejudiced in Connecticut than I’ve found being born in Arkansas and growing up in Kansas City. I think here it’s more hidden. You have to kind of understand, where do I stand with certain people and groups? In my opinion, it’s more socioeconomic-based and institutional prejudice, because of how high the education level and quality of life is here.

So I do think here in Connecticut, we have a lot of the same problems. I think we have to do better at not covering up those problems, and tackling them head on. If we don’t, we’re no better than many of those living in Dixie.

James: Marilyn, you’ve been involved with activism for a long time. What advice would you give Corey as a young leader about tactics that have proven effective?

Ford: Looking back on tactics I saw during the civil rights movement, we needed some White allies to be with us. We needed the press.

One thing that stands out in my mind was when Dr. Martin Luther King was leading the Birmingham movement, and the police and fire department used hoses and dogs on peaceful protestors. The press captured that image, and it went around the world. And when images of the Little Rock Nine trying to get past protesting Whites who did not want their children to go to school with Blacks hit the national press, we got support.

If we had not had White people in the street with us, we would probably still be marching and singing “We Shall Overcome.” So it’s important to use your allies and White friends who are willing to take a stand using the press and peaceful protesting in the street to speak truth to power. Whether it’s local, state, or national, they are telling politicians that it’s time for change.

Even more important is having an end game and being able to articulate your goals. What are you protesting about? What do you want? Those are some of the things I would suggest continue to be done – and, of course, registering to vote.

Paris: First, we want to raise awareness about the importance of Juneteenth and make the case for it to be a state holiday.  We also want to honor Black ancestors who’ve come before us, and those murdered unjustly. And we want to call out systematic oppression and get people to talk about policy.

We’ve started this process and got all this great momentum. Now we want to ensure that there is a long game and we can really make substantive change within the system. That’s the only way I believe we can attack it: to infiltrate the system from the inside out, to help our communities and interests.

I was brought to tears by a picture taken in Austin, Texas two or three weekends ago of nearly 10,000 people – Black, White and all different colors – with their fists in the air in solidarity for Black lives. We need everyone in this fight. It is important for people who look different from me to be at rallies and lend their privilege to bring awareness to issues of injustices. We can’t get this done without them, unless they stand on the right side of history.

I’m really devoted to telling all of my White allies to stop, listen, understand, and acknowledge that there is a problem, and to do more by calling out the pervasiveness of racial inequality in this country.

I would stand to do the same thing when the women’s movement and the women’s marches were taking place. It was not a space for me to go and tell people how they should feel or react, or what they should be doing. It was a space for me to listen, acknowledge my own privilege as a man, and to understand how to do more and give utterance to their cause.

James: What is the most important call to action you think we need right now?

Paris: Hubert Humphrey said, “And now I appeal to those thousands, yes, millions of young Americans to join us, not simply as campaigners; but to continue as vocal, creative, and even critical participants in the politics of our time. Never were you needed so much, and never could you do so much as if you were to help now.” That was in 1968, a year quite reminiscent of 2020.

And I would implore young people all across this country, as well as older seasoned people, to get out and ensure everyone is registered to vote and has filled out their census – and that they’re counted in that process as well. We need to fight like hell to ensure we have all of the policy needs to help our communities and marginalized people be represented and reach equality in a fashion that is different than the systemic oppression that has been in place for so long.

Ford: We also want them to become educated and help educate others on implicit bias, especially in the criminal justice system; and on systemic and structural racism. Because I am focused on what’s happening with the killing of young men and women of color, I want to make sure we are educating police. We have great police, but we also have police who need to be trained about implicit bias. We should require every police department in the nation to familiarize themselves with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, adopt it and implement it.

James: Thank you for your passion and commitment to working with all of us to change the system, so that together we can thrive.

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