Thinking About Racism

This past Friday evening I attended Sabbath services at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, located at 1224 Dempster. The guest speaker was Rabbi Capers Funnye (pronounced fu-NAY) of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi Funnye also participated in a panel discussion after a delicious Shabbat dinner attended by about 200 people and catered by Curt’s Café.

The panel was moderated by Rabbi Andrea London, Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet. In addition to Rabbi Funnye, the people on the panel included:

Each person shared their personal perspectives about how they see and experience racism. Every speaker was poised and articulate, easily connecting with the supportive crowd.

I learned many new facts that evening and considered things which I previously took for granted or never bothered to re-examine. For instance, Evanston Public Library is one of the jewels of our city and one I’ve written about here. I live within walking distance of two out of the three library locations, yet it never occurred to me to consider why a branch is not located further south or west for the convenience of residents who live there. Admittedly, this lack of thinking on my part is endemic of the overall problem–real change has to come from people who benefit from the inequity and who are motivated to upend the status quo.

This geographical disadvantage is not just about borrowing books and videos; it is about access to tools and skills for finding employment and other essential resources. Libraries have public access computers and librarians can instruct technologically unfamiliar patrons how to establish an email address, complete an online job application, create a document in Word or save one as a PDF. Online access is essential in the twenty-first century. Do we have a responsibility to make that access easily available to more residents, especially those who do not have those resources at home? I think we do.

Drs. Witherspoon and Campbell spoke movingly about the positive changes they are starting to see in test scores at ETHS. Eight years ago, when Dr. Witherspoon first started at ETHS, he noticed that Advanced Placement (A.P.) classes were filled with white students and regular classes were filled with minority and low-income students. He realized students were automatically being tracked into particular courses based on the results of their eighth grade standardized tests. Past behavior was establishing future expectations with little opportunity for the impacted students to request or make a change.

To combat this institutional and systemic racism, Dr. Witherspoon set the bar higher and increased expectations across the board. All incoming freshmen were automatically enrolled in honors-level English and humanities (a history class). The goal was to help as many students as possible be prepared for A.P. courses by eleventh grade. Not only were more students enrolled in more A.P. courses, but the school developed all kinds of support for students under the aegis of teamASAP (Team Access and Success in Advanced Placement). Tellingly, as success was expected and encouraged by the school administration, the students delivered.

Between 2011 and 2014, A.P. enrollment at ETHS was up 30%. When tracked by racial group, each student group showed an increase: 19% among white students, 35% among black students, and 78% among Hispanic students. The number of white, black, and Hispanic students achieving a score of three (out of five) or better on an A.P. test., typically high enough for college credit, also increased. The increases by racial group for students taking A.P. exams and scoring three or better were startling: 31% among white students; 98% among black students; 116% among Hispanic students. Not surprisingly, Drs. Witherspoon and Campbell are just getting started: their work is not done at ETHS in spite of well-deserved national attention. Listen to a PBS News Hour podcast about these amazing results here.

One of the most poignant and inspiring speakers of the evening was the sole ETHS student on the panel, Cameron English. She spoke of her work with SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) and what SOAR is doing to increase awareness of racist attitudes and opinions among fellow students both at ETHS and other schools along the North Shore. SOAR works with Northwestern University to conduct programs twice a year. I look forward to hearing more about SOAR’s–and Cameron’s–good work in the future.

One of the questions asked of the panel toward the end of the evening was what each of us could do to be part of the change and make a difference going forward. The suggestions were elegant and simple: Listen more. Go outside your comfort zone. Read a book by a black author. Listen to music or go to a movie by a black artist. Expand your set of experiences. Try to see what life is like from another’s perspective. Embrace another’s reality as your own. Recognize that racism affects all of us regardless of skin color.

It was a lovely and heartfelt evening. I learned a lot. I met new people. I am proud of my synagogue for hosting such a program and shining a light on this important social issue. But I left feeling humbled and chastened by how much more I need to do.

The year is still young. I resolve to do better. Will you join me?

[Post Script: For more information about the locations of the library branches and who can easily access them, refer to this article and this part of the city budget.]




2 thoughts on “Thinking About Racism

  1. Clearly a column to be proud of!!! The stats from ETHS are startling, aren’t they? I would have expected 8th grade achievement scores to be a correct determinant for future success, so this item alone was eye-opening! As far as you know, is somebody doing something that helps these kids between grammar school and h.s., or are the 8th grade tests flawed or…..maybe I missed something but it seems odd that they do so unexpectedly better just because people expect more of them than they did before! Doesn’t it?

    Anyway…..when are you coming over to talk about coming over? Bindy >

  2. I love this article!! So inspiring and with lots of good information ; you write so well.

    Sent from my iPhone


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