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The Real Sickness in this Country: Closed Hearts and Minds

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tom Barth
July 7, 2020

Like many people (I hope) have been doing over the past several weeks amidst the social protest over the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police, I have been trying to have hard conversations with myself and those around me about racism in America, including my summer class on Professionalism and Professional Development in Public Administration. I want to first share some of these hard conversations to demonstrate the deep divides in our country and then share the spot-on important work being done in the Charlotte community by the Community Building Initiative (CBI), which is the recipient this year of ASPA’s 2020 Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Exemplary Practice Award.

Here are some examples of the deep divides in our country:

I see scores of yachts with Trump flags not far from my home in Wilmington, NC and I seethe with anger because there is not a Biden flag in sight…I have disdain for THOSE PEOPLE in the yachts who I assume are white elitists and I have NO DESIRE TO INTERACT WIITH THEM.

A retired white NFL football player I know is furious because Drew Brees is lambasted by black teammates and spokespersons for the left for daring to express his opinion against kneeling during the National Anthem at NFL games. He has disdain for THOSE PEOPLE who not only disrespect our flag but deny Drew Brees his right to freedom of expression and he has NO DESIRE TO INTERACT WITH THEM.

I asked an old Black American friend how he is doing with all the protests, and he shares that he has been dealing with racism his entire life and describes how the white people in his neighborhood avoid him and look the other way when he attempts to greet them. He has given up on THOSE PEOPLE and does not understand why they have NO DESIRE TO INTERACT WITH HIM.

Three white Wilmington police officers are caught on tape making horrible racist remarks and slurs; one officer saying he “can’t wait” to start “slaughtering” black people. The community and nation are justifiably enraged, and the officers are immediately fired. We can’t imagine the likes of THOSE PEOPLE and have NO DESIRE TO INTERACT WITH THEM.

I could go on with other examples, but the underlying theme is the lack of interest and ability to have hard conversations with people who have different views. Oh, both sides want to pontificate, lecture and make statements about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors, but where is the desire to sit down with someone who is truly different from you and understand them in the hopes of a better path forward (as opposed to writing them off as just part of the problem)? As horrifying as these police officers appear to be, where will they go now with their views of the world, and what about the other officers in that department who may have been infected by these beliefs? We can’t wish it away by firing them and then saying the issue is addressed.

This is where organizations like CBI are so critical and deserving of recognition from ASPA. As stated on their website, “Throughout its history, CBI has collaborated with community partners to offer dialogues and facilitated conversations around issues of equity and inclusion. We believe that being able to make connections and build relationships across difference is a key element in helping people wake up to discrimination and injustice, interrupt inequitable systems and structures and step up to champion equal rights, access and opportunity.” When interviewing Diane English, the Executive Director of CBI, for a writing project on leaders as bridge builders, she talked about the fundamental importance of allowing people to be themselves, for that is the only way you are going to get at what is “in the ground” or the roots of peoples’ beliefs.

A close friend of mine recently shared how she was tired of talking about race in her circles, especially with other white people who really don’t understand the roots of racism and the lives of Black Americans, and who really aren’t the problem anyway. I would agree on the first point, but I would suggest that we are all part of the problem with racism in this country as we live in our comfortable bubbles, whether they be on the left or the right. As an example of one uncomfortable proposal, instead of firing those three Wilmington police officers, how about taking them off the streets and putting them in a room with a trained facilitator and other police officers to talk about the roots of their racism, and open up a dialogue with officers in other departments across the country. Would our communities stand for this? We certainly should be tired of the endless cycle of police brutality, outrage, protests and then the beat going on till the next incident.

We are not going to get at the disease of racism in this county and thereby raise everyone up if we don’t get at the root cause: our closed hearts and minds. If our current and future public administrators in this country understand this, they will be much better equipped to build up the diverse communities they represent.


Author: Tom Barth is a Professor and MPA Director at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of organizational behavior, strategic planning, human resource management and ethics. He is a member of the National Council of ASPA, representing District III.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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