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Arizona professor: Country needs to acknowledge racial history to heal

Demonstrators march through downtown Atlanta to protest the shootings of two black men by police officers, Friday, July 8, 2016. Thousands of people marched along the streets of downtown to protest the recent police shootings of African-Americans. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

In the wake of recent racial violence, a Valley professor says we need to address our racial history as a country if we want to begin the healing process.

“This is not a black problem, it’s not a police problem, it’s an American problem,” said Dr. Neal Lester, director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

Lester has been studying race and culture for 30 years, and he said understanding and acknowledging our history is the first step to healing.

“The divide is not just between police and underrepresented communities,” he said. “We have to look at the conversation about race as being more complicated than one group against another.”

The divide is systemic and includes, among others, the municipal system, the justice system, housing and education systems as well as our economic system, he said.

“There are historical roots that I don’t think everybody is aware of. (We) need to go back to see exactly what led us to the civil rights movement, what led us to Jim Crow, what led us out of Jim Crow,” said Lester. “What led us to this moment where we’re talking about black lives matter, and people assume that other lives don’t. To say that you care about AIDS doesn’t mean you don’t care about cancer and diabetes.”

People have to get away from the notion, he continued, that somehow to be pro one thing means that you’re automatically anti something else.

“In this particular country there’s evidence historically that shows that every life has not been valued the same,” Lester said.

Even as far back as the founding of our country, he said, there are elements that are not always talked about relative to race.

“When we talked about all men being created equal, we were not necessarily talking about me of color, and we know that black people weren’t even complete human beings then,” Lester said. “We were not talking about women, we were not talking about poor people, we were talking presumptively about white men.”

Up until the civil rights movement, the police enforced many of the unjust laws, he said, in addition to the KKK and other vigilante-type groups that could affect change with very few repercussions.

“One doesn’t get over 200 years of being traumatized overnight,” he said. “That’s why we’re here, that’s how we’re here.”

Then advance to 14-year-old Emmett Till, for example, lynched in 1955, reportedly for flirting with a white woman.

“Or advance to the Atlanta child murders and the list goes on and on and on to show that historically black lives have never mattered in the same way that other lives have mattered,” Lester said. “Poor people’s lives have never mattered in the same way that rich people’s lives have mattered, and this is not just about the police.”

That’s what has to be unpacked when we start talking about this baggage of history, Lester said, that can both teach us; but also it can leave us very ignorant if we’re not willing to address it together.

So what can we do?

This country really needs to acknowledge that we have a race problem, he said.

“And it’s about more than just recent events. We have to engage in honest talking, listening and connecting,” Lester said. “This notion of listening means not listening in preparation for a response but really listening and hearing.”

We have to recognize that we do have a shared humanity, that doesn’t mean we’re the same, but we have a shared humanity.

“We have to do work,” Dr. Lester said. “And it’s not going to be easy.”

As a person who once struggled with diets, he sometimes uses the example that the country is facing a battle similar to weight loss.

“So many people come with this notion that maybe if I’ll take a pill it will melt away,” Lester said. “That’s sort of like American history. It didn’t take us a minute to gain all that weight, (and) it’s going to take us more than a minute to get rid of it.”

And to keep it off, he said.

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