MANSFIELD — When a friend of Micah Derry recently made a racist comment, the Mansfield man was taken aback.
“It broke my heart when the words came out of his mouth because I think more highly of him than this,” Derry said.
He paused, contemplating how to respond to the uncomfortable situation.
It’d have been easy to tell his friend off. At the moment, that’s what he wanted to do.
It’d have been easier yet to quickly end the phone call, disregarding the comments.
Instead, Derry addressed the situation by listening and asking questions.
“We talked on the phone for an hour and a half, and right before we hung up, he told me, ‘You know what? You made me think about some things I haven't really thought about. Can we talk about it again?’”
It was the start of a longer conversation -- one with the potential to move one person closer to understanding the limitations of their own experiences that resulted in the racist remark.
On Sunday evening, Derry intentionally placed himself in another uncomfortable situation. He attended Shop Talk, a collaborative effort between 419 Barbershop, DRM Productions, Mankind Murals Inc. and Richland Source that brings community members together to discuss race in the United States.
“I allowed fear to creep up on me before coming in here tonight because I didn't have all the answers,” Derry admitted. “I think that as I'm sitting here, hearing each of you talk as we go around for this final question, I’m realizing that I've allowed some conversations to not even happen because I didn't feel prepared.”
He and the group of five others moderated by Richland Source’s Solutions and Engagement Editor Brittany Schock were asked to share one takeaway from the conversation.
“One thing I want to do differently is I want to stop letting fear get in the way of me having conversations when I don't already know all the answers about where other people are,” Derry said.
Sunday evening’s conversation featured Derry, Ray Hoskins, Lamont A.D. Lindsay, Alomar Davenport and Beth Castle. The group of local individuals met at the 419 Barbershop Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
The group discussed what it sees as the biggest problems regarding race relations in the United States and what could be done to eliminate systemic racism.
To begin, the group recognized overt racism -- noticeable, easy-to-distiguish discrimination -- that they’ve seen or personally experienced in Richland County.
A pastor at the Book of Life Church, Lindsay was considering purchasing a building in the south end of Mansfield when an older White man said, “I don't want you in my neighborhood.” Lindsay wanted the building to launch a program for special needs children.
“No matter what you're doing in life as a Black man, you always are going to come into that confrontation of someone of the other race that has an old mindset,” Lindsay said. “It was not new to me.”
However, the group recognized that not all racism today is quite as obvious. To describe the problem with racism today, they settled on the word “covert,” meaning not openly acknowledged or displayed.
This covert racism is why Mansfield city councilman Davenport says he always had to work harder than his peers to achieve the same thing. It’s why Lindsay says his wife was passed up multiple times for a job promotion and was only adequately compensated when she announced intentions to leave. And it’s why Hoskins advises his Black son to wear a suit, not only a shirt and tie, to an interview.
Hoskins and his wife already had four White sons of their own when they took in an 18-year-old Black man, who had bounced around numerous foster homes during his childhood. Hoskins had been one of the young man’s teachers.
Hoskins’ son joined the military about five years ago, and on a recent visit, Hoskins recalls hearing accounts of the racism his son encounters there.
“He said, ‘Dad, there's, there's so much racism, even in the military,’” Hoskins said.
A veteran himself, Hoskins realized something he hadn’t whenever he served. His son had to work harder because of his skin color.
“In the military, we're all supposed to be equal. We're all on the same team. And when I was in, I didn't see it, but I'm not coming from his vantage point either,” Hoskins said. “So I really had an epiphany or an eye-opening moment there this past weekend.”
Fellow panelist, Derry shared how he once scoffed at the notion of White privilege.
“I didn't graduate high school, didn't get a college degree. I was an addict by the time I was 21. I was homeless, and I worked my way out of that,” Derry said. “And so (if) someone told me that I've got white privilege, I’d be like ‘Hell I do. I worked my butt off to get here.’”
Now, he realizes, a Black person in the same situation would have faced further challenges to achieve a similar outcome, to have the life he does now. A Black person may not have been given the same opportunities Derry had.
What he overcame made him angry and assertive, qualities that helped him land a job and ultimately get things done effectively and efficiently. But those same qualities in a Black man, would have likely been seen differently, Derry said.
The actions needed to break down racism in the United States today, the panel determined, aren’t the same as those that broke down racist policies decades ago.
“It's not as obvious as it once was about tearing down Jim Crow laws. Instead we have policies that are racist in their impact. They disproportionately impact minority communities.That's where we’ve got to be looking,” Derry said.
Davenport agreed. It starts with policy, said the Mansfield councilman, who is currently serving his first term.
Change will require Republicans and Democrats to work together, and as Derry said, to consider the impact of legislation on all people.
“I don't know that the divide is as great as we all think it is though, because there are enough underlying agreed-upon principles that are somewhat universal,” Derry said. “I think that the vast majority of Americans would agree that the law is supposed to apply uniformly. Everyone, no matter what their race or gender is, doesn't matter, it is supposed to be equal.”
It isn’t, but it should be, and if leaders started there, he’s hopeful the conversation could move forward.
The young people who led the first Black Lives Matter protest in Mansfield in early June have Lindsay feeling hopeful, too, but he thinks time is the only thing that will result in substantial change.
“It's sad to say this, but it's going to take our children's children for (today’s racism) to really move out,” Lindsay said. “It may take another two or three decades before it really evolves to... where we won't be worried about the color of a man, but the content of his character.”
Conversations like Sunday evenings or the tough ones that aren’t avoided between friends and family also push in the right direction, he said.
To Davenport, the death of George Floyd at the hands of White police officers on Memorial Day in Minneapolis provided a spark, launching what appears to be the most significant modern movement against racism in the United States.
What happens next is up yet to be determined, but history shows it will take persistence. Derry pointed to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted 381 days.
“I don't know how long it's going to be, but my job right now is each day to keep on, have conversations like these,” Derry said.