“Our community is well along on the journey from what we were to the potential of what we will ultimately become — a vibrant Greater Dayton affording a wonderful place to live, work and raise one’s family, filled with people who are part of a caring, compassionate and giving society.” TY GREENLEES/STAFF PHOTO.

A call for a new civil rights organization in Dayton

Thankfully, the era in which blatant discrimination against African-Americans, sanctified by law or by established customs of many generations, has been significantly, but not completely, eradicated. While much progress has been made, hate-crime incidents and the proliferation of hate groups are increasing. Moreover, racial stereotyping (the conclusion, reached without knowing an individual, that someone thinks and acts in a certain manner because of the color of his or her skin), has barely abated over the years. The obvious racism of the century after slavery ended has been replaced by subtle, “below the surface,” institutional racism and discrimination that permeates every aspect of our society. This is the racism resulting from facially neutral laws, regulations, policies, procedures and customs that, even if unintentional, continue to disparately impact minority members of our country and, most certainly, our community.

Our community is well along on the journey from what we were to the potential of what we will ultimately become — a vibrant Greater Dayton affording a wonderful place to live, work and raise one’s family, filled with people who are part of a caring, compassionate and giving society that, with its developing economic base, will equal, if not greatly exceed, the greater Dayton community of the mid-20th century.

As a community, however, we must not squander our potential by failing to address the subtle discrimination that permeates every aspect of our lives. To fulfill this potential, I propose a new civil rights organization in the Dayton-Montgomery County area, an organization that most certainly is not designed to replace the NAACP, which more than any other group is responsible for ending the overt discrimination permeating the Jim Crow era. Today, the NAACP is headed by a dynamic, creative, young leader and remains a vital organization in our midst. The NAACP does superb work, both reacting to incidents of injustice and educating its members and the community on many issues.

The call for a new civil rights organization envisions a group working together with the NAACP and other like-minded groups. However, the new organization will be separate and distinct. Its aim is to proactively bring out the best in our community; enlist all members of our community — white, black and brown, young and old, of whatever race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, or political persuasion — to identify and, to the extent humanly possible, eliminate the vestiges of racism; and to educate and focus on the civil rights issue of the 21st century: Inequality of opportunity.

This type of inequality, which affects people in all communities, manifests itself through generational poverty; the seeming inability of schools to educate our young for the jobs of today and the future, given that so many begin the educational process unprepared to learn and several years behind their contemporaries in basic knowledge and skills; and a criminal justice system alleged and perceived to be discriminatory — one that punishes but fails to address the root causes of crime, and while successful at imposing sanctions, is an abject failure at prevention and rehabilitation.

Other manifestations of inequality of opportunity include inadequate and unaffordable housing; inequitable lending practices; youth violence; inadequate treatment for addiction and physical and mental health; breakdown of the family unit; and the need to curb an exponentially rising prison population, by doing a far better job of identifying individuals who do not need to be in prison in order to protect our safety and who can be helped in the community at 10 percent of the cost of incarceration. We also need to focus on reentry efforts to help released prisoners successfully reenter the community. Furthermore, inequality of opportunity, and its companion, poverty, is actually rising and manifests itself in our society’s failure to bring all young people, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, to the starting line, equally prepared to succeed in life based on merit, strength of character, and their effort.

In short, I propose the need to address not simply diversity, which consists of numbers and percentages, but rather inclusion of all people in every positive aspect of life. In this way, we can address the widening disparity between the haves and have-nots of our society. We must strive to help all people to the starting line, equally armed with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed, and with the ability to achieve due to the strength of their character and effort. To accomplish this, we must address institutionalized racism, which disparately impacts minorities and the socially and economically disadvantaged, despite facially neutral laws, rules, legislation, customs and regulations. This impact prevents an increasing number of people from ever reaching the starting line.

The new civil rights organization will not “reinvent the wheel,” but will work for systemic change in all these areas with groups now in existence, and will connect under the belief that 10 organizations working separately can do far less than 10 working together. Hopefully, the new organization will be a catalyst for collaboration, cooperation and change.

Most importantly, this new civil rights organization will not be confrontational, because approaches so very necessary a half century or more ago will not effectively address today’s civil rights issues. Rather, we will identify issues in given areas, i.e., housing, education, employment, etc., that promote institutional racism and inequalities of opportunity, will meet with decision-makers and those who carry out those decisions in given segments of our community, and will educate them about the disparate impacts of their policies, regulations, procedures and customs. In addition, we will discuss how such impacts increase the inequality of opportunity so many citizens face. Finally, we will collaboratively work toward improvements and solutions on issues that affect all community members.

While these tasks may seem daunting, the proposed new organization will work tirelessly and pro-actively to fight inequality of opportunity and, in that manner, help reestablish the alliance that won the civil rights battles of the 20th century. Our aim is to finish the war against racism and inequality of opportunity, by addressing the civil rights issues of our time.

Working alone, or merely reacting to events as they occur, heightens the perception that even the smallest issues are beyond our ability to solve. However, if we work together, as people united by trust and an understanding that community concerns are not black, white or brown issues, but are everyone’s affair, there is no problem that cannot be faced or overcome. And once that occurs, perhaps we can fulfill the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., that we are “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” (Copyright 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Walter H. Rice is a Senior United States District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? CONTRIBUTE TO THE CONVERSATION

In his guest column, Judge Walter Rice has put forth a bold proposal — the creation of a new, overarching organization in the Dayton region that would tackle issues of racism and civil rights.

If anything is to come from his proposal, the next steps would involve the opinions and actions of people in the community.

So, what do you think? What is your response to Judge Rice’s proposal? Do you agree that such an organization is needed? How would it be organized and accomplished? What should the community do from here?

We want to hear your thoughts, and invite you to add your voice to the discussion that Judge Rice has begun. Please send your ideas and views Ron Rollins, the Dayton Daily News’ community impact editor, at ronald.rollins@coxinc.com.

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Walter H. Rice is a Senior United States District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

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