Fighting Systemic Racism

Tom St. Myer, In Weekly                                                                                           

Post Date: 2022-02-16 11:00:46

As he headed toward another section of the store, Brian Wyer overheard a conversation between two women. Their disparaging remarks served as a cruel reminder of how some in the community only see him through racist lenses.

“I heard, ‘That little boy ran from us,’” said Wyer, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Minority Chamber of Commerce. “I’m 6-foot, 300 pounds. That took me down a notch. No matter who I am or where I am, I’m still seen as a little black boy.”

Wyer shared his story during an Equity Project Alliance (EPA) meeting. EPA is a local initiative dedicated to confronting systemic racism and promoting transformative thinking, unity and equity in the community. Its vision is a collective focus to live in a community of authentic relationships that reflect equity and a deep appreciation of inclusion.

In the wake of the social unrest surrounding the murder of George Floyd, hotelier and philanthropist Julian MacQueen invited business leaders to participate in a series of conversations designed to allow persons of privilege to hear and understand how systemic racism impacts the lives of minorities in the community. The EPA held its first meeting in June 2020 and is up to about 30 sessions overall.

A longtime advocate for equity dating back to his late teens, MacQueen and his wife, Kim, established the EPA believing that the business community can ignite change that positively fights systemic racism and injustices that persist in society. MacQueen cited the Highlander Research and Education Center as an inspiration for the EPA. A social justice leadership training school and cultural center in Tennessee, Highlander has served as the training grounds for civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks and movements that featured Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis.

“My hope for EPA is we can establish not a big organization but a series of smaller organizations around Pensacola, Escambia County and Santa Rosa County,” MacQueen said, “and then use that as a model for scale regionally and nationally so that we can create these moments where we can start to understand the African American experience as best we can.”

MacQueen grew up affluent in a Birmingham suburb that embraced segregation. He said his family employed Black maids, butlers and kitchen staff, but he was oblivious to racism or racist undertones until he left for college and worked the night shift at a downtown Mobile hotel. He began to question his view of equity, especially after accepting the Baha’i faith, which believes in the oneness of humanity and the abolition of racial, class and religious prejudices.

Spend a few minutes on social media and humanity’s oneness is easy to question. Strangers spewing vitriol is commonplace any time the topic turns to race, religion, gender, sexual preference and politics.

“It just breaks my heart,” MacQueen said. “We used to have civil disagreement, and now it’s turned personal.”

EPA plans to address systemic racism through a methodical approach. Their guidelines include learning about their own participation in racism; finding equitable and creative solutions; seeking a positive impact in their own lives, businesses, communities and the region as a whole; and striving for genuine consultation, community care, innovative ideas and building trust.

Wyer cited results from the 2021 Quality of Life Report by the Pensacola Young Professionals as evidence of the disconnect between Black and white populations in the region on racism. The report released a survey that revealed 83% of Black participants believe that systemic racism exists in Escambia County. Only 42.3% of their white counterparts agreed. The survey further revealed that 83.8% of Blacks versus 58.6% of whites rate the relationship between the Black community and the police in the county as negative. Overall, 13.1% of Black survey participants versus 34.7% of white considered rate relations in the county to be positive.

“It’s not the overt racism that people in the ‘60s experienced with hoses and attack dogs,” Wyer said. “It’s behind the scenes that’s holding back the community.”

The EPA strategic planning committee is focused on three interlinked areas to improve equity—wealth building, leadership accountability and narrative change.

The U.S. Census reports that minorities own 28% of businesses in Escambia County—close to the actual percentage of minorities in the county (31.1%). But Wyer said a significant number of minority businesses operate with just one or two employees and with minimal revenue streams. A 2019 study by Florida Health Charts reports the median income for the white population in Escambia County is $56,446. That easily outpaces Hispanics at $42,627 and Blacks at $35,973.

The study further reports that 20% of Blacks, ages 16-24, in the region are neither employed nor in school. That is true for only 9% of whites in that same age range. Education is another area of concern, with 26% of Blacks earning a degree versus 47% of whites.

Dr. Lusharon Wiley, a board member and vice president of corporate culture for Innisfree Hotels, said her vision for wealth building is creating workforce opportunities in underserved neighborhoods and seeking grants and other funding sources to assist minority entrepreneurs.

“As a business leader, what can I do that will change the life of at least one individual?” Wiley said. “I believe that we need to create opportunities for employment in communities where there are no jobs, no transportation to get to a job. Why have vocational schools so far out when the people who need jobs are located in the inner city? Why are there not opportunities in those communities?”

Minimal influence from minorities is one of the underlying issues, according to Wyer. Their voices are unheard in the rooms where decisions impact the community.

“Many of the boards I serve on, I’m their only minority,” he said. “My goal is to make them more diverse so that it’s not just my opinion being shared around the board room.”

During EPA meetings, one of the primary topics has been addressing words that minorities associate with white privilege. Wiley said many terms commonly used are based on a history of racism and changing the narrative boils down to treating each other with respect.

“We’re building with this core group of people who are very diverse,” Wiley said. “We have people coming from a Deep South Georgia segregated community to folks who are pretty wealthy. They’re open to learning, changing the narrative and hearing other people’s stories. It’s sometimes uncomfortable for them to hear, but they’re committed. In the messiness of those conversations, out of that comes growth and opportunity.”

MacQueen agreed the conversations are sometimes uncomfortable but necessary for the EPA to fulfill its mission to confront systemic racism and transform the thinking that “little boy” is an acceptable term to describe a Black man.

“They’re very difficult conversations in a respectful way that allows mostly the white folks to understand why we are where we are and how it’s 600 years of behavior that’s unique in the world that has led us to this polarization of what the Black experience is like,” MacQueen said. “It’s wonderful to see everybody’s commitment to EPA. We all have our day jobs and belong to boards and other organizations, but this seems to be where everybody wants to come back to and learn from each other. It’s been a wonderful learning experience.”

• Dick Appleyard
• Rusty Branch
• Donna Curry
• Ted Ent
• Shawn Graham
• Kimberly Krupa
• Julian MacQueen
• Kim MacQueen
• Peter Nowak
• Scott Remington
• Lloyd Reshard
• Myra Van Hoose
• Bill Wein
• Brian Wyer

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