Prof. Jamila Michener, government, brought her classroom to a Wednesday evening church service — breaking down racial inequality to an audience that knows her more as a sister than a professor.
Michener unfolded the injustices underlying the protests pouring through American cities in a talk titled “Grace and Truth,” processing these demonstrations with her fellow members at the Syracuse Regional Church of Christ in a public live stream.
“Even as we grapple with and try to understand how to respond to difficult truths that are now ravaging our country and our world, we should still hold onto grace,” the public policy scholar told the more than 40 congregants. “That’s actually something that I struggle with a lot, which is why I highlight it.”
For Michener, confronting the truths of systemic racism means understanding race as a historical and social construct, responsible for America’s vast racial inequalities. The political scientist has spent her career investigating the politics of poverty, race and public policy in the United States, exploring how communities of color experience government. Her 2018 book Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics tracks how uneven Medicaid policies influence democratic participation.
While drawing from academic research, Michener insisted that the talk wasn’t specifically an academic one, but rather a conversation accessible to a “group of believers.”
She pointed to data that overwhelmingly shows that systems, not individual actors, have caused wide-scale disparities — a matter of “life and death.”
“People of color in this country are just more likely to die at the hands of the police. We’re in the middle of a global health pandemic, and in the United States, the consequences for black Americans are dramatically different,” Michener said. “The brunt of the burden of this virus is being born by black communities.”
The numbers tell the story: 13,000 black Americans would be alive today if the coronavirus affected them at rates similar to white Americans, according to recent estimates, Michener said. On average, white families hold seven times the wealth of black families, and according to some metrics, inequalities are only growing.
“Race is a social fact. It’s not a biological construct. It is expressed in outcomes in people’s lives, and it shapes life trajectories,” Michener said. “In the United States, it’s been true since even before we were the United States.”
Long-standing systems that have perpetuated inequalities in areas from education to housing and incarceration explain these disparate outcomes, Michener said, encouraging her audience to think about these institutions as both historical and contemporary systems that have disadvantaged people of color.
But Americans are deeply divided over how they view these racial inequalities. While 84 percent of black Americans say they are treated less fairly than white people when dealing with the police, just 63 percent of white Americans say the same.
“Those differences can divide us,” Michener said about the perceptions of racism. “If you think that this is not really a big deal, and I think that it is, you might not hear me when I’m talking about my experience.”
While Michener told the congregants she doesn’t “have the answers” for healing these divisions, she said storytelling is part of moving past them. In her classes, Michener tells her students anecdotes from her life that illuminate racial inequalities.
“I’ll ease them into thinking about hard truths that people who don’t look like you actually get treated dramatically differently than you do,” Michener said. “Most of us don’t necessarily know that unless we’ve experienced it.”
Still, Michener said everyone is implicated in these systems and must respond to the realities of racial discrimination. She encouraged this response to be actively listening, learning, loving and leaning into discomfort, instead of deflecting, distracting, diminishing and demanding the experiences of people of color.
“Listening is a first step. Learning is another. If you’re like, ‘I’ve never heard of any of these things that Jamila talked about tonight,’ that suggests there’s some room for learning,” Michener said. “It means that there’s room there for understanding the world better and understanding each other better, just to learn and love more.”
Acting on systemic injustices can manifest in a variety of ways, Michener said. That could include protesting or addressing these issues through local non-profits. Michener stressed that making institutional changes also means paying attention to policy decisions about budgets, resources and legislation that are often contested in town and school boards.
“It’s a matter of figuring out: In my sphere, what is my capacity?” Michener said. “And within that capacity, what can I do? What are my gifts?”