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Friday, September 30, 2022


"The Color of Our Skin–The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race"
"We are all condemned to live together" Albert Camus
About a month ago, I received in the mail a package from an old student and good friend of mine. It was a book written by his sister, along with another colleague at American University. Title above. This insightful book speaks about the state of race relations in America today. I want to talk about it, and especially how it applies to us here in the Virgin Islands.
The authors, Barbara Diggs-Brown and Leonard Steinhorn, argue, and I strongly agree, that integration is an illusion, a reflection of the hopes and dreams of an idealistic nation, having little basis in reality.
"Integration", said Martin Luther King, "is the ultimate goal of our national community." Bill Clinton, like so many of his generation, both black and white, identify integration as the most important moral ideal he grew up with.
What exactly is integration? It is about the realm of life governed by behavior and choice, not statutes and institutions. It should not be confused with desegregation, which means the elimination of discriminatory laws and barriers to full participation in American life.
While desegregation is a necessary precondition for integration, it is entirely possible to desegregate without integrating – for blacks and whites to live on the same island, in the same territory, without learning much about one another or becoming friends, without mixing much on or off the job.
Desegregation may unlock doors, but integration is supposed to unlock minds. Indeed, what makes integration so compelling is that it is about people, not laws. It is about the way we perceive each other; about the way we act toward each other, whether there will ever be room in our hearts, homes, and classrooms to welcome each other as neighbors and friends.
Steeped in the pluralist tradition, integration is both color-blind and color-conscious. It insists on a color-blind approach to character, ability and personal relationships — that people not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. It is built on universal acceptance of people as individuals. Yet it appreciates and welcomes the different black (West Indian) and white traditions, perspectives and historical experiences that make our islands whole.
In a racially integrated Virgin Islands, blacks and whites would choose to live side by side, socialize with ease, see each other as peers, recommend each other for jobs, harbor little mutual distrust, respect each other's outlook and appreciate each other's contributions to each of our islands and the territory.
Prejudice and stereotypes might not completely disappear in an integrated society, but they would not define relationships, images and behavior as they do today.
As former civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin used to say, "We will be truly integrated when a black person can make the same mistakes as a white without anyone drawing special attention to it."
To hear most whites talk about it, here in the territory, they are living up to their part of the bargain. So pervasive is the integration consensus that people are often unprepared or confused when confronted with evidence of its' breakdown.
Shock and surprise are sentiments expressed by one or another political leader almost every time overt racial conflict breaks out — these incidents must be the exception — not the rule. Many whites state their preference to live in a racially mixed neighborhood, but few neighborhoods actually reflect that mix.
While these are gross generalizations, look closely at Chocolate Hole, St. John, to Jacob's ladder; Savan to Mafolie Estates in St. Thomas; Frederiksted and Christiansted to name just a few.
The story is no different when it comes to schools. On St. John look at Sprauve as compared to Pine Peace; on St. Thomas compare Sibilly with Peace Corps, or Eudora Kean with Antilles. A majority of whites support public schools, just not for their own children.
Or look at the bars: Compare Mooey's with Skinny Legs; Two Plus Two with The Lost Dog; The Petit Pump Room or Percy's with Eperney or Alexander's. The contrast between professed racial attitudes and actual racial reality should come as no surprise.
Ever since the 60's, as society began to shun overt bigotry and applaud gestures of racial tolerance, social scientists have found whites to exaggerate their contact with and support for blacks.
Once, however, we strip away the rhetoric and symbolism of integration, we are left with an island only marginally less divided than it was when a quarter of a million Americans descended on Washington for the great civil rights march of 1963.
Perhaps, if we hold constant for decreased numbers, we, in the Virgin Islands, are even more divided. The barriers today create a different type of separation — behavioral, social, residential, and psychological — but it is an abiding and resilient separation nonetheless.
There is a perceptible perception gap between the ways that West Indians in particular and blacks in general, view the world, as compared to the views of white Americans.
Built into almost every interaction between blacks and whites is the entire history of race relations in America. The past is truly prologue here; it shapes who we are and how we understand the world.
Although blacks are reminded of it daily, no American is free of this cultural and historical dowry. In most black–white interaction the history remains buried and rarely springs forth, but when it does, it releases a coiled up tension almost four centuries old in the making.
Whites, often so oblivious to the history, are taken aback and even offended when blacks react with such deep anger. This happened and abruptly terminated the "racial sensitivity" sessions held on St. John several years ago. Whites appeared terrified by the hostility verbalized by young West Indians at the session, and refused to return.
Most compelling are the different ways that whites and blacks view the problem of discrimination. Whites see themselves as well meaning and concerned about racial equality. They believe themselves to be fair, if not color-blind, and cannot imagine themselves as blatantly discriminating. Needless to say, blacks don't view discrimination the same way. Most Virgin Islands blacks see or experience at least some type of discrimination whenever they come in contact with whites.
Whereas whites see racism as an exception today, to blacks, the exception is when race doesn't enter into their daily lives. How many restaurants have West Indian servers? How many businesses in down town Cruz Bay, or even in Coral Bay, are owned by West Indians? How much major business concerns are owned by blacks? Who is the black Prosser? The black Ackley? The black Hess?
What emerges is a cycle of misunderstanding that begins with a gap in perception and escalates as whites and blacks deal with the consequences. The chain reaction begins when whites deny the extent of racial discrimination in our territory. The more whites minimize discrimination and elevate "reverse discrimination" as the moral equivalent of the black experience in America, the more blacks feel compelled to validate, defend and amplify their grievances.
If whites do not see discrimination as a serious problem, attempts to remedy it will indeed seem outrageous to them. To blacks, the white inability to acknowledge the prevalence of discrimination is reason enough that affirmative action must continue.
Misunderstanding, bitterness, and polarization are all by-products of the perception gap. Integration is its primary victim.
It is time for our new administrator to place racial issues high on his agenda, and move toward stopping the prevailing denial. It is time, as well, for our new governor to address these issues on a territorial basis. The time is now, before a serious incident precipitates
reaction rather than a more proactive stance. May we hear from you regarding this?
Editor's note: Dr. Iris Kern is director of the Safety Zone in St. John.

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