2001-10-17 Holland Sentinel Hope professor, audience have frank discussion on racism

Hope professor, audience have frank discussion on racism
Holland Sentinel

A confederate flag and a aged photo of a smiling lynch mob greeted people on Tuesday night as they sat down to discuss the roots of racism in the United States.

Fred Johnson, an assistant history professor at Hope College, began the discussion at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church with these two objects as chilly ice breakers for questioning why racism persists in today.

“The same things that the Confederacy was known for also occurred under the early republic, like racism and the oppression of minority communities,” Johnson said.

“What is it about the nature of our society, for instance, that mere hours after the Sept. 11 attacks led Arab Americans to declare their loyalty as citizens?” he said, referring to the racist backlash that immediately occurred against the racial group.

The crowd of about 100 people who attended Tuesday’s meeting, which was the last in a series for the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, nodded and took notes while Johnson talked. But most of the provocative part of the evening was the question-and-answer period.

Audience members shed any politically correct pretense and quizzed the professor on his thoughts on reparation for descendants of slaves, a racist definition of beauty and his perceptions of racism in Holland and at Hope College.

Johnson obliged them, offering examples that he said proved that racism still exists.

“I was pulled over on a supposed routine traffic stop the last time I visited my mother in Maryland,” he said.

Dressed in business attired and at the wheel of a luxury car, which was the only vehile available to rent at the time, Johnson said “the cop pulled me over because he must’ve thought that it was out of my financial range. I spent close to an hour in the car, with dogs sniffing around for drugs.”

Johnson said wile be continually reminds himself that this is a new era for race relations, and that police must carry out their dusty to “service and protect, this was the same (police force) that when I was 14 years old beat me within an inch of my life.

“What we have no is not sufficient.”

Community members appreciated the opportunity to have such a frank discussion.

“I go to these things because I want to know what’s going on,” said Evelyn Vukin, 86, of Holland. “I like to hear what makes people happy and what makes people unhappy. I always think there are two sides.”

Penelope Brown said she showed up for exposure of the minority community, and expressed some disappointment at the lack of attendees.

“I felt like a lot was brought up about the deep history of racism,” she said. “It was very informative. There should have been more people.”

But Johnson’s fellow Hope College professors felt more encouraged by the discussion than anything. Charles Green and Miguel De La Torre stood outside in the chilly air after the meeting and continued the dialogue.

“Americans do not have a vocabulary to talk about issues of race,” said Green, a psychology professor.

“It’s the dear of being accused as racist,” said De La Torre.

“When I listen to white people talk about race, even after 400 years of racism, we still think that the big issue is what words to use – black versus African America, “ said Green. “The big problem is not that white people may be uncomfortable. We need to understand that our own comfort is not the paramount issue.”

But De La Torre said he was encouraged by the number of people who showed up to talk about a potentially uncomfortable issue.

“This is the first place I’ve lived in that people really want to do what is right,” he said. “I don’t think you could have this conversation many places.