North Carolina’s capital city has avoided protests like the ones that have marred Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., following the deaths of unarmed black men by police. Still, the issue of race is a top priority for the capacity crowd that attended a forum on the subject in Southeast Raleigh on Wednesday night.
The forum in the Family Life Center Auditorium of the Martin Street Baptist Church drew more than 200 people of different races and generations, including elected leaders, law enforcement officials, educators, businesspeople, community activists, retired professionals, clergy members, affordable housing advocates and students.
Organizers included the city’s Human Relation’s Commission, the Raleigh Martin Luther King Committee and the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association. They hoped the event would kick-start efforts toward greater economic equality for people of color and improving the lives of young people through job training and improved academic performance.
They hope to receive federal funding by participating in President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative to help implement strategies to improve the lives of young people, particularly African-American boys, who are six times more likely to go to prison than college and more likely to drop out of high school if they live in homes headed by a single parent.
“Homicide is the leading cause of death for black men,” said Horace McCormick, the moderator of the night’s panel discussion and program director of the UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flager School of Business.
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But organizers also wanted to have a frank discussion about race and racial attitudes on the local level. Bruce Lightner, chairman of the MLK Committee, said he hoped there would be another race forum in the fall and, in the interim, smaller conversations among groups in neighborhoods throughout Raleigh.
Members of the audience expressed varied concerns. One asked panelists Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison and Joseph Perry, the city’s deputy police chief, if their officers had received diversity training to ward off a potential situation like the ones that occurred in Ferguson, where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen was shot by a white police officer, or Baltimore, where Freddie Gray died while in police custody. Both law commanders answered yes.
Another issue that emerged during the forum was the need to hire more blacks and other people of color as police officers and firefighters. Perry said it was challenging because the Raleigh Police Department must compete with neighboring agencies, particularly Durham, in hiring officers of color. But Harrison said his department has about a “50-50 ratio” of black and white employees.
Panelist Norma Marti, vice president of the non-profit Alliance of Latinos Promoting Better Health, said it had been “a powerful night, but we have a long way to go.”
Marti, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up with an African grandmother and Spanish grandfather, said when she was a child, “Negro” or “Negrita” was a term of endearment. Then her family moved to the U.S. and she encountered the N-word.
“There’s no way that I can be separated and be in two places. Most people all across this world are more than one person,” she said about her mixed racial heritage. “My people, who are your people – please don’t exclude us. Because we are you.”
Before the night’s conversation began, McCormick, the moderator, said that racism has “deep, deep roots.” He noted that babies as young as three months express a preference for being with people of their own race. He said human beings “are hard-wired not to change.”
McCormick challenged people to unlearn racism.
“What if the opposite of everything I believe, what if the opposite is true?” he asked. “We can’t change if we aren’t willing to challenge our own assumptions.”