2001-04-01 Holland Sentinel Cross burning - take it seriously

Cross burning - take it seriously
Holland Sentinel

Cherise Jeannings received a phone call at 11:30 on the night of March 22 warning her a six-foot cross was burning in the front yard of her Allegan home. I would like for us to take a moment to consider the implications of that discovery.

Reports from the investigation currently indicate the suspects, three young white males, were inspired to this act of hate due to a prior altercation with a young black male. Current information suggests the targets of the burning crosses were randomly picked (one white family, one black family) that this was not a personal persecution. The white homeowner has indicated he does not believe the cross burning was racially motivated, it wasn’t done against him and was probably a random thing done by kids being mean.

The Jennings family, on the other hand, appears to be having a difficult time not taking this act personally or not seeing the intent s racially motivated. For those of us who have not experienced random acts of racism, we might wonder why there are such vast differences between these two perspectives.

When interviewed by the media, Ms. Jennings shared a story of her family history. “My grandfather’s brother was pulled out of a house by the Ku Klux Klan, castrated and killed.” (On television news, Ms. Jennings elaborated that he was lynched and burned). Ms. Jennings went on: “When I see this, it was like experiencing that all over again.”

In the years 1865-1965, more than 6,000 African Americans died in racial violence. The Tuskegee Institute Lynching Inventory refers to these years as “The Lynching Century.” Burning crosses were an important visual reminder to African Americans that they might be the next, if not a current target of lynchings, beatings, and other forms of extreme mistreatment. In the case of Ms. Jennings, the cross burning on her front lawn immediately took her back to this family’s experience with racially motivated torture and murder. This is not part of the white family’s history.

Some in the white community might suggest, this is old news, that day is over and it is time to move on. But is that day over? According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks the activities of racist and neo-Nazi groups in the United States, there were 602 hate groups who were active in the United States in 2000. Fourteen of those groups have been indentified in Michigan, towns like Portage, Michigan City, Stevensville, Traverse City and Petoskey. Include the area around the bottom of Lake Michigan and you factor in a great deal more hate groups. So is there a legitimate fear factor when one wakes up to a cross burning on your lawn? Probably, if you are not white.

The initial investigation indicates this appears to have been the act of a few youths, an individual act of racism not one by an organized hate group. Some suggest it is therefore not really that big of a deal. Or is it? Historically, many heinous, overt acts of racism have been carried out by individuals acting with a sense that their perceptions and actions would be tolerated. Although there is greater likelihood today that these crimes will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, does that community have a role in voicing its outrage? Clearly we have a responsibility as a community to respond constructively.

But other than these rare blatant acts, many of us wonder if we haven’t really relegated racism to the history books. Isn’t it really time for minorities to “get over it,” as one columnist indicated recently? Aren’t my grievances equally compelling as those people of color?

I would ask we consider the facts. Today 95 to 100 percent of top positions in major economic, political and educational organizations are held by whites. Recent national studies indicate discrimination in housing and financial institutions continue to limit the opportunities of people of color significantly. One particularly gruesome study of an Atlanta emergency room revealed blacks were treated for pain half as often as whites for similar injuries. In the Grand Rapids Metropolitan Statistical Area (which includes Ottawa and Allegan counties), a 1998 study on race relations was completed by the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights. This study indicated disparate treatment of people of color in all the typical barometers: housing, employment, transportation and education. Anecdotal reports of discriminatory treatment are reported with regularity to area racial justice and rights groups. And there are untold number of cases that go unreported. Is it fair or appropriate to expect minorities to “get over it” when “it” continues to be a nebulous, random, ubiquitous presence that just won’t dissipate.

Let us all take this gesture of hate and the frustrations of Ms. Jennings seriously. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “We have before us the choice of community or chaos.” May we choose wisely.

Gail Harrison is the executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.