September 23, 2020 11:12:13 AM
Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton said there have been times in his 30-plus year career as a police officer when he's responded to a call and had the complainant say, "I didn't want a Black police officer."
"What gets lost is, I'm doing my job," he said. "... (The complainant will ask), 'Why are you here?' Because you called me. We're doing our job. We just overlook it."
He's not alone. Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat said she's had people refuse to shake her hand, and Glenda Buckhalter said when she worked retail, customers wouldn't place money directly into her hand, instead leaving it on the counter so that they didn't have to touch her. Sometimes they call those instances out, and sometimes they ignore them, they said.
Shelton, Labat, Buckhalter and several other community members shared those and other stories at the second meeting of "Let's Talk Columbus" -- a series of meetings for community leaders to talk about race relations in the Columbus area -- at the Municipal Complex Tuesday evening. The city plans to host a meeting once a month, and this month's topic was on racial discrimination in the workplace.
The discussion ranged from personal stories like the one Shelton shared and how easy it can be to overlook instances of racism in the workplace -- both conscious and unconscious -- to how employers must communicate with their workers to make sure everyone feels comfortable where they're working and even why they felt it's important to have those conversations.
"We are given a certain amount of people to do our mission with, and when you marginalize somebody, they're no longer a part of the team," said Col. Seth Graham, commander of Columbus Air Force Base. "And it makes the whole team have to work harder when you make people feel like they're no longer part of the team or they don't feel like they are able to contribute to the team. So for me, it's about our mission, and we can't do our mission when we are marginalizing teammates. ... It degrades our entire ability to do what we do."
He went on to say he thought the conversations the city is having and that other organizations are having will help solve the problems of systematic racism and racism in the workplace, provided the people having those conversations approach them in a calm, non-adversarial and non-emotional way.
While Germain McConnell, executive director for the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, agreed with Graham that it was best not to take an adversarial approach, he pointed out racism is a very emotional topic for people like him. As an African American, he said, he's chosen to ignore instances of people refusing to shake his hands or otherwise behaving unprofessionally, echoing Shelton, Labat and Buckhalter. He thinks it's time society put a stop to that by calling out instances of racism, both unconscious and conscious.
"I don't think talking about it can make it worse," he said. "It doesn't matter what the passions are or how vigorously we talk about it, because it is a passionate issue, especially for those who experience racism. ... What it's going to do is make people uncomfortable, but just because it makes us uncomfortable does not mean it makes it worse. In fact, how do we get better if we don't address it?"
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