Group hopes 'getting to know each other' can help ease racial divides
Invited Wilcox County community members gathered on Thursday, July 9, to discuss their experiences with systemic racism and prejudice.
The meeting began by offering a group of community members called Friends, in addition to faith leaders and guests, the opportunity to speak about their opinions on racism in the county. Many told stories of their childhoods in Wilcox County and the changes they’ve now seen as adults. Many said they believe these changes aren’t enough.
Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews, creator of the Friends group and executive director of BAMA Kids, helped start the conversation during the meeting.
The idea for the meeting originated through BAMA Kids, a youth development program in Wilcox County designed to teach through a task-oriented approach.
“We serve youth and families, but we’ve always seen it as not enough to serve these children, but we have to get at the underlying issues and underlying needs of why things are like they are,” Threadgill-Matthews said.
Threadgill-Matthews said one driving factor that inspired the racial healing meeting was young community members’ comments at a rally following the death of George Floyd. The youth mentioned to her that one underlying cause of racial polarization in Wilcox County was that people don’t know each other.
Bringing a cross-section together for a conversation focused on healing racial divides was the first step, and future conversations are planned.
Threadgill-Matthews discussed the importance of acknowledging white privilege and what white people can do about their privilege. It can be unnoticed by white individuals but ultimately manifests as racism, making the conversation surrounding the topic that much more important.
She said that prejudice is just prejudice until there is a power element, meaning racism happens when those with prejudice have the power to bring some type of harm to a group of people. This power aspect highlights the importance of leadership.
Threadgill-Matthews spoke with the group about the history of institutionalized racism, especially in America.
“From slavery to sharecropping to Jim Crow, which wasn’t that many years ago, it’s been one institutionalized system after another that has caused a lot of racial disparities,” Threadgill-Matthews said.
Medicaid expansion and the push-back from some people was another topic discussed at the meeting. Some white people in the community do not advocate for Medicaid expansion simply because it was a program introduced by President Obama.
“Even though it would help our community, county and hospital, we’re so polarized in the issues that we would take on because of whose administration it came under or what group of people it’s going to help the most,” Threadgill-Matthews said.
Members also discussed the role of schools in Camden as one factor that keeps racial divisions going. Wilcox Academy is an almost entirely white private school while the public schools are almost entirely black. Although the schools are no longer officially segregated as they once were, a deep divide remains.
“I think it’s from just years of racial polarization. We’re just not getting to know each other,” Threadgill-Matthews said. “It might be the leadership as well, but it’s everybody’s responsibility.”
The group plans to hold another closed meeting in August to come up with goals and possibly subcommittees. Threadgill-Matthews said the group has hopes to open the meetings to the public through forums when COVID-19 restrictions allow.
“It needs to be ongoing, and we need to open the meetings up because there are so many layers and it’s so complex,” Threadgill-Matthews said. “We need to open it up and expand it to pull back some layers to talk about some hard truths.”