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A Community Conversation Confronts Race and Racism

Tom Flanigan

More than 300 people, including most of the Capital City's government and organizational leaders, jammed the Civic Center ballroom on the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 23.  What followed was two hours of tough talk on race.

The speaker was Broward County Children's Services Council Innovation Officer Dr. Sue Gallagher. She had drawn raves during her presentation at last May's Children’s Summit in Tallahassee and had been invited back for a much longer talk about racism and how to overcome it. She told the audience that two simple facts about Tallahassee were clear signs that embedded racism exists.

“You are home to the poorest zip code in Florida. You are also home to the area that has the lowest social mobility for children in poverty.”

Gallagher based her talk around some key concepts.

“What is this historical and structural racism and how does it relate to my work, my community and my own consciousness and psyche?” she posited. “So when I walk out of here, I have a couple of things on my to-do list that I can begin to be a part of this anti-racist change.”

She cited examples of how racism manifests itself in specific outcomes. In education:

“There exist racial disparities in your educational system,” she asserted. “Ninety-six percent of white students graduated, only 89% of black students graduated. That sort of system outcome is not the result of an individual student’s or family’s decision or behavior. Something in the system is producing this racial disparity.”

Similarly for the criminal justice system:

“While blacks are only 32% of the population, they are 81% of the youth arrested in this community. That’s a gross disproportionality!”

There was constant audience input and feedback during the session. In response to Gallagher's question "What is racism?" responses included Kwame Manuel's:

“Different systems that put people down, particularly people of color that white folks are able to get easily because of their skin,” he speculated.

Jason Flom suggested this definition:

“Racism is effectively an equation; power plus prejudice equals racism.”

Gallagher had this reply to those who assert that the days of institutionalized racism vanished with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

“Two questions:” she said. “Where are we following all the rules and people are still being hurt? And where is there inaction in the face of need? Just take those 2 questions, go back to your job and you will start unearthing institutional racism.”

Credit Tom Flanigan
Dr. Sue Gallagher makes a point from the podium during the community conversation.

And Gallagher closed out her remarks with some attitude and behavioral adjustment homework, both for those perpetuating racism and those suffering from it. Among the many local elected officials in the audience, Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna and nearly the entire School Board, including Darryl Jones.

“It is because as a school board we wanted to be enlightened and knowledgeable about the racial impact of our decisions. That’s why we want to provide uplift for our Title One schools. We realize that we have to have these types of conversations and be exposed, so we made a point to purposefully be here.”

There were also some Leon County Commissioners and Tallahassee City Commissioners. One of them was Diane Williams Cox.

“I already put the call out for a host for our next step meeting,” she said afterward. “I already got a call from someone who’s willing and has the capacity for 300 people. So we have not because we ask not. That’s why I like to ask and not assume that it’s not going to happen. Let’s make it happen and ask for help!”

There’s no word yet on the date of that follow-up meeting.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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