East Falls Now Article: The Help

Last night I started to watch the movie The Help.  The first time I saw the movie was in 2011, during its initial release.

If you struggle to understand what is meant by systemic and institutional racism, watching this period drama will ‘help’.

Since I was a little girl, I have always had a heightened awareness of racism. However, needless to say, I was viewing this movie through a different filter than I did in 2011. 

My awareness now is framed by the Black Lives Matter movement of the past several weeks. And watching this movie for a second time in this context has been very instructive as to just how systemic and institutionalized racism is today.

In the early 2000s, I had the opportunity to have my consulting practice engaged by the Black Men at Penn.  This was a group of African American male social workers who were led by Dr. Walter Palmer.  They retained our services to explore the feasibility of establishing an Institute for the Study of American Racism within the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania.  It was an enlightening experience.  The engagement included interviewing a variety of key stakeholders, many of whom were African American, and who fought hard during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was interesting to hear their take on where we were at almost 40 years later and the road yet to be traveled.

What is different now almost 19 years after that consulting engagement? Unfortunately, not a lot has changed in a substantive way. Why?

Because much of the racism that exists is indeed institutionalized and that is what must change.

Institutional racism is a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justiceemploymenthousinghealth carepolitical power and education, to name a few.

Individual racism is often identifiable because of its overt nature, for example calling someone a name or making blatant and derogatory comments of a racial nature.

Institutional racism on the other hand, may be less perceptible because it is often far more subtle in nature. For example, if a state legislature passes a law that changes early voting to exclude some Sundays, that law actually reduces a citizen’s right to vote and should be generally understood as Institutional racism because many African-American churches promote voting, and often in conjunction with service on Sunday.

State policy often institutionalizes racism by making it more difficult for many poor people, many of whom are of color, to seek the services and aide needed to escape poverty.

Why do I think meaningful change will occur this time?

Over the past several weeks I have witnessed more folks who look like me, a Caucasian woman in case we have not met, involved in this movement and discussion.

A broader and more sustained effort that recognizes that if a fellow citizen, friend, or neighbor is at a disadvantage due to their skin tone more meaningful outcomes should result.

Already we have witnessed some changes at the local and state government level and discussion at the federal level is ongoing.

If we take time to advocate individually and as a group, we can effect the change that is so long overdue.

As I have said on many occasions, you are more powerful than you know.  You have the right (and responsibility) to vote and I have seen many elected officials seated with as few votes as 11.  You have the right to hold all elected officials accountable for their actions and to seek their commitment to ensure that policy will not further institutionalize racism.

Thank you for  making a commitment to further understand what our neighbors and friends of color have known all of their lives- that the inequities that exist were not created by them and that they are endeavoring to live their lives no differently from the rest of us who do not and rarely have had the same challenges.

Watch The Help, then send me your thoughts at RepDeLissio@pahouse.net or call the office at 215-482-8726.