“I think our responsibility as black people is to love one another and to uplift one another and to support one another,” Ali Muldrow told the crowd of mostly students at Madison College Feb. 8. “I think white people are responsible for racism and I think white people need to be held responsible for racism. Ways to hold people responsible is to boycott institutions. If they don’t want us, we don’t want them. We need to think critically about the narratives that we have been told about ourselves and the way that we have been defined by a society that has not found a place for our dignity. I think there is a lot to be done and I think we have the energy and capacity to do it.”
Muldrow was one of the panelists who hit on important topics like overcoming racism and economic self-determination in a very frank talk about race and real issues. The event was hosted by the Black Student Union and the panel featured Muldrow, the director of youth programming and inclusion at GSAFE; along with firefighter and gubernatorial candidate Mahlon Mitchell; former state representative and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Mandela Barnes; Harold Rayford, pastor at The Faith Place Church and president of the African American Council of Churches of Greater Madison; and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.
The questions at the event coming from the audience where often just as thoughtful and deep as the answers given by the panelists. One student came out firing a barrage of questions saying: “What’s your advice to change the narrative here in Dane County around racial disparities? I’m looking at these dismal statistics and I’m wondering what we can do to make changes in our city, state, and country? What as African American should we do?”
“I think a lot of the dynamics that we talk about relate to power. If I want a job and I have to go to an institution that’s going to discriminate against me based on my name, that’s a problem,” Muldrow responded. “However, if I want to start a business that employs my community and serves my community, I have a different position of power.”
A lot of what we need to do is to take back power, Muldrow continued, and have a relationship with self-determination.
“We need to stop asking for jobs and to stop asking for a seat at a table where we’re not welcome and create our own table,” she said. “Slavery was built on the idea that black people were intellectually inferior. That is the achievement gap. Malcolm X said it really well, ‘It makes no sense to have my enemy educate my child and inform the way that my child sees themselves.’ So, I think a lot of what we need to do is to reclaim our intellect and be at the forefront of modern technology and modern decisions. We need to position ourselves to be a sustaining people.”
Barnes said that in very few instances will people invite you in. You have to be forceful and make your own way. “You have to pay attention. You have to show up and make your voice heard,” he said.
The topic of conversation switched over to education where all five panelists had some interesting thoughts.
“Our current governor took $1.6 billion away from public education in 2011, 2012, 2013 … but now that he’s running for office, he’s putting back $638 million. I’m not a mathematician, but when you take $1.6 billion away and you put $600 million back, you’re still coming up short,” Mitchell said.
“Our greatest commodity is our children and their greatest currency is their education. So we have to not only invest in education and invest in our kids, we have to make our teachers feel good about teaching because they are leaving for other states where they feel more needed and wanted there,” Mitchell added. “One of my top three priorities for my campaign is education.”
“Become a teacher, y’all,” Muldrow chimed in. “Become a mentor. Reach out to the people younger than you. Seriously. Be what you needed as a kid. It’s a really, really powerful position and it means so much to your young people. A young person that has one African-American teacher is three times more likely to graduate from high school.”
Rayford encouraged all of the students in the room to finish their education. “You are taking a major step towards making sure that diversity is not just going to be a word or a slogan. By completing your education and making sure that you are not only eligible to walk in the room but when you get in the room that your natural abilities and intelligence will be able to shine,” Rayford said. “Get all of the degrees that you need if it takes you your entire life to do it. Complete your education.”
There are a lot of educational opportunities in this state, Barnes said, and world-class institutions. But who has access to them?
“It goes back to the whole access piece. It’s the access to education that’s the real problem. Financial access, societal access. There’s a big difference when we talk about opportunity and achievement gaps for students in higher income school districts versus lower income school districts,” said Barnes, who grew up in inner-city Milwaukee. “If students go to school hungry; if they go to school without their health needs being addressed, chances are their performance in education will be significantly lower than students who have all of those needs met. That’s the biggest problem that we face in this state and this country.”
The subject moved to the power of voting and it was noted that Barnes and Mitchell have both been traveling the state quite a bit as they run for statewide offices – lieutenant governor and governor, respectively.
Mitchell talked about a recent trip to Eau Claire where he met an avid hunter fisherman who told him, “You know what? You’re gonna be the first black fella I ever voted for.”
“And then he whispered in my ear, ‘and the first Democrat,’” Mitchell said, the audience laughing. “You whispered Democrat? But you did not whisper black?
“But, overall, we have to show up and we have to speak up. Voting is important. There are people that died for us, for me, to have the right to vote,” he added. “For us to neglect that and say, ‘Well, politics aren’t for me.’ Well, everything we do in life is shaped by politics … and somebody is making those political decisions. Somebody is making key decisions that affect us every day. When you don’t vote, you are essentially giving away that power.”
Parisi said that there is work to be done on a lot of levels.
“I think that being politically aware and politically involved and being involved in the community is important and working with community-based organizations and elected officials,” Parisi said. “One of the things we’ve seen in the past is that when we have government organizations come in – very well intended – to fix a neighborhood or fix a situation, what will happen is not always effective. We need partnerships with communities and we need to grow community leaders. We can’t just have folks come in and do what they’re going to do and leave.”
The first and only question from the crowd that came from a white person was asked by a woman who mentioned that she had spent 12 years in South Africa and was sad about what she had seen. “What can I do as a white person to help?” she asked
“It’s easier to change society from a position of power. If white folks were more proactively anti-racist, they could do things like say that they want to be held to the same standard of the community around them,” Muldrow said. “A friend of mine said, ‘the easiest way to end mass incarceration would be if every white person who smoked marijuana turned themselves in.’ They would immediately shut down the system. I was born and raised in Madison. If I would have been smoking weed in Darbo instead of on Jenny (Jennifer) Street, I’d have a different criminal record.
“You have to reconcile that black people are not in the position they are in on accident and they are definitely not in the position they are in because they deserve to be,” she added. “It’s an abusive relationship that we have with the community based upon the color of our skin that goes back throughout our history. I think that white people addressing racism – addressing their family members, addressing their leadership, addressing their workplace – is one of the most important things that can happen. I think that white people need to be outraged about racism.”