EDITORIAL: Racism thrives in many forms

CHANCES ARE GOOD if you’re reading this you are white. The last census in 2010 found that 90.6% of county residents identified as white. The percentage identifying as black or African American is 4.5%. That’s only 2,850 people out of a county of about 63,000.

The numbers don’t reveal anything about our attitudes toward race and racism. For that we have to look at how people act, and lately we’ve had more than the usual amount of information to work with. Let’s start with the Confederate battle flag.

We reported last week on a sporting goods and firearms store in Valatie that flies the battle flag and a woman brave enough to complain in public about it. She said it intimidated African American residents in her building across the street.

Village Board members told her, quite correctly, that local government is powerless to help her or the other village residents. Flying the flag is a form of speech protected by the Constitution, even though that speech is, or should be, repugnant to people who believe all Americans have a right to be free and equal in the eyes of the law. It should never fly over a government building, but a private business is different.

It’s hard to believe that this particular flag is flown anywhere by accident. And while you could make all sorts of assumptions about the justifications for flying it, the one inescapable conclusion about the decision is that it’s selfish.

Flying a flag embraced to this day by forces of racist hatred and violence is about the surest way short of an ebola outbreak to lower property values. To most tourists that flag says: Don’t stop around here, there’s bound to be controversy. And what reputable business would knowingly locate nearby? So if you wanted to trash the tax base real fast, what better way to do it than to hoist a flag that serves no historical purpose other than to intimidate the neighbors.

Whatever led to the appearance of the flag, village residents, businesses and concerned passersby have to tell the owner of their dismay. That flag won’t come down because we wish it would. It will only disappear when we raise our voices enough so that the owner hears us.

THE VALATIE FLAG is an example of a conscious decision that exposes racism in our midst. The flip side is clueless racism, as in: That’s not what I meant! Recent events at Columbia Memorial Health offer a case in point.

Some nurses with supervisory jobs who are trying to improve their education decided they’d do a show-and tell presentation on the subject of cultural competency. So they summarized information on African Americans from a textbook and mounted their work in what looked like a 6th grade science project, though handled more professionally it’s a common approach to healthcare presentations.

Cultural competency is an established tool in sociology and social work. At its best it provides insight into how a caregiver can communicate more effectively with people from other cultures by understanding behaviors and beliefs that may differ from a caregiver’s culture. The nurses, who were not African American, did an excellent job of selecting points from the textbook that seemed to support their own biases about African Americans. They ignored the book’s warnings not to stereotype the people with whom they hoped to communicate. These nurses proved to be 100% culturally incompetent.

Had this been a classroom exercise, they might have learned a lesson with no consequence other than embarrassment. Unfortunately, the presentation was set up in a couple of employee spaces, creating an environment that was needlessly hurtful, insulting and threatening to African American employees.

The hospital, to its credit, has apologized directly to the employees and has taken what it says are appropriate actions affecting the people involved. It also promises to improve its policy on what gets posted. That’s a start, but these steps don’t address the core problem.

Maybe that’s more clearly stated as a principle: The preparation of critical health information for African American employees should include input from at least one African American whose training includes cultural competency. This goes for other minorities as well.

That would be a step forward, but the problem of clueless racism is hardly unique to CMH staff. The insensitivity of the nurses involved feels all too familiar, like nothing more than an extreme case of the indifference to the racism that still afflicts us all.

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