Race In The Rock River Valley: First We Talk, Then What?

Nov 21, 2016

About 100 people packed a meeting room this weekend at Midway Village Museum in Rockford to talk about the realities of racism in their community. It’s part of a year-long collaboration between the Rockford Register Star and WNIJ. The Register Star’s executive editor Mark Baldwin says the idea behind the discussion is to bring people together for a thoughtful, productive conversation. People can look each other in the eye, not just type at each other on social media.

A number of people in the audience pushed the group to take it further. Pastor Rickey Bates of Promise of Life Ministries says it’s time to stop talking and do something about institutional racism. Matthew Johnson is minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockford. He says there was a hunger in the crowd for action, but is the community as a whole ready for that?

Brandi Brown is ready for that. She’s an education advocate and consultant. She says there wasn’t the usual denial of a problem in the discussion, and “that’s a good sign that people are ready to address it so the next generation doesn’t have to talk about it, but they can be about it.”

One of Brown’s missions is to make sure teachers and their classrooms are culturally relevant for all students. Antar Baker works with children at the Booker Washington Center’s after school program. He says people will be skeptical of any conversation about racism until they see action toward rooting it out in the city’s institutions. Baker says there hasn’t been a clear state of emergency approach applied to Rockford Public Schools, even after several federal discrimination lawsuits. Without that urgency, the desire to take down racist institutions in the city won’t be sparked.

So how do you talk about an issue that makes so many people uncomfortable, even defensive? Matthew Johnson says step one is to get over it.

“The question isn’t are you a racist or not. We all are. We hold implicit biases and we hold racist ideas. We are inculcated into a system of white supremacy. The question is what are you going to do to resist it, and what are you going to do to fight against it? The question isn’t ‘how racist are you?’ It’s ‘how anti-racist are you going to be?’”

Some participants talked about meeting again, in smaller groups, with different crowds. Some will work on their families. Some want to see a movement sparked in Rockford. The Register Star’s Mark Baldwin says it’s the media’s job to plant the seeds for these discussions by presenting facts. He says “Nothing would please me more, and I think nothing would please the community more, the people who were here, than to see these seeds sprout in church basements and union halls and PTO meetings and things like that.”

Baldwin hopes to hold quarterly roundtables like this on race in the Rock River Valley. The next stories in the works involve public health and the school system.