Community organizers outline guidelines for deconstructing white privilege, racial inequality

Adrian Wan, Reporter

Organizers of a seminar series aimed at deconstructing white privilege and racial inequality introduced a curriculum and objectives for future discussion at an event Monday evening.

About 80 Evanston residents and members of faith-based organizations attended the first part of the month-long seminar series Transforming White Privilege, organized by Unitarian Church Evanston, Beth Emet Synagogue, Grace Lutheran Church and Lake Street Church of Evanston. At the event, held at the Unitarian Church, attendees shared their interpretation and personal experiences related to white privilege.

Elaine Robbins-Harris, a professional learning and development consultant, and Rina Campbell, a social educator and trainer, coordinated the event.

Campbell said the bias toward particular social groups was not an “innate characteristic” of human beings, but that it originated from people’s unwillingness to interact with those who have different backgrounds. The lack of understanding what other social groups value limits people’s ability to empathize and can often “escalate into prejudice and discrimination,” she added.

Consequently, Campbell said, the curriculum of the seminar was designed to help participants identify and reflect upon existing racial disparities, which are reinforced by institutions — ranging from healthcare system to media outlets — that neglect the need of underprivileged groups.

“When all these layers of bias, prejudice and discrimination go unchecked, they become structural,” Campbell said. “It becomes cemented in our institutions … and it churns out inequality.”

Pointing to the case in which a 60-year-old Evanston man mistaken for an armed robbery suspect was forcibly handcuffed by Evanston Police Department officers, the seminar’s facilitator, Susan Carlton, said she believed the man was targeted because of his racial identity. Although many local residents are strongly committed to social justice work, the incident showed that Evanston is not “immune” to white privilege, she said.

She added that the racial discrimination was also exemplified in the low enrollment rate of black students in Advanced Placement classes at Evanston Township High School. According to the Illinois Report Card, in 2017 there were 171 black students across grades 10-12 at ETHS enrolled in AP classes, as opposed to the 629 white students enrolled. Black students thus made up just over 16 percent of enrollment in AP classes, but 29.4 percent of the total school enrollment. In the total school, Carlton said the ETHS administration’s inability to effectively address the achievement gap shows the insufficient attention from the public.

“(Those AP classes) have been predominantly white,” Carlton said. “So what’s going on that there are so few black students in those classes? Those kids aren’t stupid.”

Sarah Vanderwicken, one of Transforming White Privilege’s organizers, said during the next three seminars, participants will explore the how past legislation, such as the Naturalization Act and the Social Security Act, laid the foundation for current racial inequality. Signed into effect in 1790, Naturalization Act required immigrants to live for at least two years and be a “free white person” to be considered eligible for applying for U.S. citizenship.

Vanderwicken hopes to eliminate the institutionalized white privilege that aggravates racial inequality, and said she expects the program to encourage community members to advocate for positive changes in the Evanston community.

“It’s not until a large number of white people begin to understand this that I think there’s going to be opportunity for some significant change without a race war,” Vanderwicken said. “(And after the program), they will have language to use and skills to use that will help other people … begin to understand this.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @piuadrianw