King workshop participants say race remains an exceptionally difficult subject for many to discuss

By Sean Barron


Many people know that institutionalized racism embodies a slew of discriminatory practices, procedures and policies, but conversations about the problem would be incomplete if they failed to address the economic aspects, a longtime minister contends.

“Racism will never end as long as someone makes money off those who are less fortunate,” said the Rev. Michael Harrison, pastor of Union Baptist Church on the North Side.

An historical examination of institutionalized racism reveals that slavery, today’s largely inadequate educational system and high rates of incarceration that disproportionately affect people of color – and even much labor that went into building many of the nation’s cities – were driven by economic incentives, the Rev. Mr. Harrison explained.

The minister was among those who attended Monday morning’s Community Workshop Celebrating the Life & Legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at First Presbyterian Church, 201 Wick Ave., near downtown.

Sponsoring the three-hour gathering was the Martin Luther King Planning Committee of Mahoning County. Its theme was “Remembering What is Civil and Doing What is Right: An Examination of Institutionalized Racism.”

The keynote speaker was the Rev. DeVante Hudson of Lilburn, Ga., a 2011 Liberty High School graduate who grew up in Youngstown.

Despite racial progress that’s been made since King’s day, race remains an exceptionally difficult subject for many to discuss openly and honestly. Nevertheless, true justice is “love in action,” and any gathering that fails to produce constructive means to tackle institutionalized racism “just becomes another pep rally,” the Rev. Mr. Hudson explained.

When King came to Memphis, Tenn., in early 1968 to help the city’s 1,300 striking sanitation workers, he also was fighting for the rights of not just black workers, but those who were white and poor, he noted.

Institutionalized racism also is deeply entrenched in issues of class and ethics, and it affects everything from disparities in the health system to how many people worship each week in church, Mr. Hudson continued.

“Even some churches are more about their marketing strategies than their community programs,” he said.

Also part of the workshop were panel and roundtable discussions on criminal-justice and education reform, entrepreneurship and concerns of young people.

It’s important to keep in mind that those who go through the criminal-justice system should be treated with respect, said Patrick V. Kerrigan, executive director of the Oak Hill Collaborative on the South Side and a former Youngstown Municipal Court judge.

Group members said greater awareness should be brought to bear on the ways that mental-health and drug problems plague many communities. They also expressed a desire to build stronger relations between police, the courts and communities.

Ben McGee, former Youngstown City Schools superintendent, discussed an initiative that could be implemented next fall that focuses on providing internships to high-school students. The program likely would assign interns to work with school social workers and/or attendance coordinators.

Omar Aslam, son of Jaladah Aslam, the Youngstown Warren Black Caucus’ president, recalled having attended Austintown Fitch High School during open enrollment, which changed the school’s racial composition. Consequently, certain teachers had difficulty relating to some of the black students, he said.

Also, many young people would like to see the end of means to criminalize schools, such as requiring students to bring clear book bags and pass through metal detectors.

It’s imperative that funding continue to be available to assist small, female-owned and minority businesses, and for people to “pull their money” from businesses that discriminate, said Jonathan Bentley, the city of Youngstown’s human-relations director.

Councilman Julius Oliver, D-1st, who also owns Kingly Hand Wash & Wax in Youngstown and Boardman, noted that young entrepreneurs should look within themselves to discover what they wish to pursue. What they learn in school doesn’t always provide what they need to be successful, he said.

“Don’t let anybody label you,” Oliver continued. “Don’t let anyone place markers on you saying, ‘This is what you should be.’”

Making additional remarks were state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd; state Rep. John Boccieri of Poland, D-59th; Penny Wells, executive director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past; and the Rev. Kenneth L. Simon, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church.

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