Let’s talk

Published 10:02 pm Thursday, April 12, 2012

Suffolk Vice Mayor Charles Brown, right, and A Better Society Director Joe Bass were among the panelists during a discussion about race relations, held Wednesday at Christian Home Baptist Church near Chuckatuck.

Group discusses race relations in Suffolk

Their anger may have cooled a measure with the second-degree murder charge filed against George Zimmerman only an hour before it started, but participants in a forum Wednesday expressed concern with race relations in Suffolk and wider America, recounting personal experiences and offering up solutions.

Let’s Talk: Race Relations in America was held at Christian Home Baptist Church near Chuckatuck in the wake of Zimmerman’s recent killing of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

The forum organized by community leader Therbia Parker Sr. was open to all, but only three whites were in the about 60-member audience, and two in the six-member panel, with one of those of Native American extraction. Christian Home has a predominantly black congregation.

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Moderator Don Roberts of WAVY-TV cited the long-awaited charge against Trayvon Martin’s killer while introducing the forum topic, eliciting an eruption of applause and the comment from at least one audience member, “It’s about time.”

The panelists were Community Action Coalition Board Member Robert Stephens, Christian Home Baptist Church Pastor Wendell M. Waller, Suffolk School Board member Enoch Copeland, A Better Society Director Joe Bass, Suffolk Councilman Charles Brown, and Res Spears, editor of the Suffolk News-Herald.

Prompted by Roberts, a local television news anchor, they recounted personal experiences, discussed racism’s causes, alleged lingering race issues in Suffolk (as well as nationally), and offered up some solutions.

Opening panelist Spears remarked, “I don’t read in scripture about there being a white heaven and a black heaven. God treats everyone equally.”

A hush fell when Roberts inquired of Spears whether he had experienced racism.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Spears replied. “Clearly I’m not a black man, so I haven’t experienced what I know a lot of people in this room have.”

Brown, a former civil rights walker, said for 14 years he was a school’s sole black teacher. “I concentrated on doing my job, doing it well, and at the same time building relationships,” he said.

Stephens said 1,185 people, 60 percent non-black, received invitations to the forum. “We should have reflection of the community in this room. … that’s (the lack of reflection) testament to how hard it is to talk about the issue of race,” he added.

Bass, whose grandparents were Native American, said building prosperity is one solution. “For me, if we make it so that people have jobs, create wealth on their own … a lot of those issues that we have will go away,” he said. “Wealth and dignity, I think, are the equalizers.”

Waller disagreed. “I used to think that if you have enough money, somehow or other it will level the playing field,” he said. “I have been able to do fairly well, but discovered it does not level the playing field.”

The pastor recounted enduring a racial slur while stuck in a traffic jam the day he graduated from law school.

“At that point it really doesn’t matter what you have accomplished in life. In the eyes of some people, they will only see you in a certain way,” Waller said.

Among the solutions, Copeland indicated that while he also experienced racism as he grew up under segregation — “as everybody else of my color” — children are our brightest hope.

“We were informed by our parents to not allow these conditions to disturb or stop us from doing the things that we wish to do in life,” he said.

Charles Gates, one of several audience members to offer insights, said reaching out to children is essential. “When we see these cats hanging out on the corner, we have to go to them,” he said.

Mingling white and black church congregations and making other efforts to reach across the racial divide were other solutions proffered.

The forum ended with Roberts calling to the front the 14 children present.

Almost all wore a hoodie, as did Roberts himself and as did Trayvon Martin the night he was gunned down.

None were able to recall having personally experienced racism.