Panel discusses ‘State of Black America’

Published 11:07 am Wednesday, January 23, 2019

On Monday, the Franklin-Southampton alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., the Lambda Psi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and the Hope Focus Center Young Lions Mentoring Program presented Franklin’s first “State of Black America” town hall meeting and panel discussion at J.P. King Jr. Middle School.

The topic, held in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was King’s book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community.” Panelists included Anthony Hoskins, manager of substance use treatment services with the Western Tidewater Community Services Board; Ronald White, an instructor in the department of teacher education at Hampton University; the Rev. Domenick Epps, a licensed minister, Realtor and president of the real estate investment firm MIBI International LLC; retired Judge Esther Wiggins, who was appointed to the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court for the 17th District of Virginia; Dr. Alvin Harris, M.D.; and the Rev. Dr. William Marcus Small, senior pastor of New Calvary Baptist Church of Norfolk. Harris’s wife, retired Judge Alfreda Talton Harris, moderated the discussion.

Women and men, white and black attended the forum to discuss the condition of black Americans in Western Tidewater and beyond. — Stephen Faleski | Tidewater News

Hoskins, a licensed clinical social worker, spoke on how the perceived absence of a father figure in black families has persisted for generations. He argued that when black men were taken from their families during times of slavery, this created an “intergenerational trauma” that resulted in matriarchal households becoming “the new norm.” He then referenced arguments that blamed poverty and crime in black communities on the fact that there was no father figure in the home.

“The elephant in the room is, ‘Where are we?’ The black men,” Hoskins said. “We are right here, but everyone has been told that we’re not.”

He added that some instances of black men being removed from their families persist today, in the form of repeated involvement in America’s criminal justice system. One solution to reduce the likelihood of re-arrest and to keep men with their families upon release, he suggested, was programs that begin in jail to help inmates readjust to society, find work, and address the transportation needs of those who would otherwise not be able to travel to work or to any mandatory rehabilitation.

Next to speak was White, who discussed the state of education for black Americans. Following the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated the American public school system during the 1950s, many black teachers who had taught at segregated schools were not allowed to teach at the newly integrated schools, he said, resulting in a lack of black teachers that has spanned the decades following the ruling. Even today, he added, only 20 percent of teachers are people of color,  despite a much larger percentage of black students.

He then discussed test scores that claim black children can’t read and studies that say black children get suspended two to three times as often as other children.

“However, I want to offer a counter-narrative, and tell you it’s not all bad,” White said. “One of the reasons we think it’s all bad is we let numbers tell the story instead of letting people tell the story about the numbers.”

To support his counter-narrative, White offered the story of Dr. Jedidah Isler, the first black person to graduate from Yale with a degree in astrophysics, and suggested reading “No BS (Bad Stats,) Black People Need People Who Believe in Black People Enough Not to Believe Every Bad Thing They Hear about Black People” by Ivory A. Toldson, which will be published in February of this year. As a solution to the disparity in teachers versus students of color, White suggested scholarships to encourage black males to go into teaching.

Epps spoke on finances, explaining that contrary to widespread belief, there is not a lack of money in black communities.

“We have $1.2 trillion in the black community; that’s a lot of zeros,” he said.

The difference, he said, is how long each dollar earned by a black person stays in the black community. In Asian communities, a dollar circulates within the community for about one month before being spent outside. In Jewish communities, that figure is 20 days. In white communities, 17 days. In black communities, that figure is six hours. One reason for this, he suggested, was a lack of financial literacy among black people.

“I grew up in a three-bedroom, roach-infested apartment,” Epps said. “My mother worked two jobs … As I got into the business of real estate, I wondered why didn’t anyone educate my mom on home ownership… . If you can pay rent, you can pay a mortgage. If you pay a rent, you’re just paying someone else’s mortgage, so you might as well pay your own.”

Wiggins spoke on crime, citing that 34 percent of America’s prison population is black, while blacks make up only around 12 percent of the total U.S. population.

“It really does take a village to solve this issue of violent crime,” Wiggins said. “Juvenile crimes peak after school.”

As such, one solution she suggested was simply to keep children busy after school.

Poverty, untreated mental health issues and exposure to domestic violence as a child were three other factors Wiggins cited that may lead to the disproportionate incarceration rate.

Harris spoke on health and healthcare, pointing out that all people, black, white or of other races, are equally susceptible to the same illnesses. He added that education was a factor in staying healthy.

Small concluded by speaking on social justice. The key to understanding social justice, he said, was to first understand what justice means and to recognize injustice.

“We are perpetually working with charity and not justice,” Small said. “Charity speaks to the need. Somebody’s got no bread, everybody’s going to rally around and get some bread. Justice asks why the need is even there. Why don’t they have a job? Why can’t they feed themselves?”

He then suggested reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.

During the question-and-answer period that followed, Lenora Sumblin asked what could be done to combat the criminalization of being mentally ill. Wiggins replied that if police see a person in a mental health crisis, that person is supposed to be given a detention hearing where he or she is evaluated for commitment.

Those who do not meet the standard for commitment are taken to jail, but jails are supposed to assess inmates for mental health issues as well.

“That’s not saying people don’t slip through the cracks,” Wiggins said. “My sister works at a correctional facility doing mental health. It’s a serious issue, and a lot of communities do not have money [for mental health services.]”

Hoskins added that the WTCSB has trained crisis intervention team officers to recognize the signs and symptoms of serious mental illnesses. A CIT officer can accompany a regular officer to a call that may involve a mentally ill person. The issue, he said, is that when someone who is committed gets discharged and given medication to take home.

“You give them a plan and you hope all that follow-through happens,” Hoskins said. “[If it doesn’t] there’s a spike, and that causes symptoms to get worse.”

Victoria Blow, a senior at Hampton University, then asked about the benefits versus drawbacks of attending a historically black college versus a more integrated school.

Wiggins replied that attending a historically black college shouldn’t have any negative impacts. Small added that attending a historically black college himself was “one of the most significant things that ever happened to be.”

“You recognize that there is a village that believes in you,” he said. “The majority of black PhDs, physicians, lawyers, dentists, come out of HBCs.”

Congressman Bobby Scott, who was in the audience for the presentation, also gave remarks, during which he apologized on behalf of the federal government for the shutdown.

“The House is led by a grandmother, and she has publicly said she can see a temper tantrum,” Scott said. “The last thing a grandmother is going to do is give the little boy having the tantrum [what he wants.] The louder he gets, the more important it is not to give him what he wants.”

Franklin Councilman Greg McLemore also made remarks encouraging young people to run for political office.