Brian Sykes’ rude awakening came on an playground, when at 8 years old he asked a classmate to be his girlfriend. Yes, she said, but it would have to be a secret. “She told me that her parents wouldn’t let her date a black guy and at the age of, you know, 7 or 8 when somebody tells you that you have to be kept a secret because of the color of your skin, it’s – it’s confusing…I was hurt, I was angry all at the same time.”
For Laura McCarty, the daughter of a Methodist minister, the first time she knew there was a difference between the races was when the blacks she knew went to a different church than her family.”We had at that time a lady – she wasn’t really a full-time maid, but she would come and help my mother once a week and she was also Methodist, but she was AME and I remember she was in another church. So I sort of remember this thing of there are all these churches and they’re Methodist but they’re not all together …”
We are all products of our life experiences. They shape our views on everything from how we worship to how we relate to people whose race or ethnicity is different from ours. We asked a group of metro Atlantans their view on race relations in a week where the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the controversy over Paula Deen’s use of the N-word raged on.
Moderator Reed Kimbrough: Describe the first time you felt or learned that you were different.
Jason Esteves: I remember in elementary school having white friends, having black friends, and each one of those groups asking me where I was from and what was I. And I remember growing up, my parents always telling me, “You’re Hispanic. You’re Latino… And I would tell (friends) that and they would be like “No, you’re black”…and I would go back and tell my parents well, “I’m black.” They were like, “No you’re not black. You’re Hispanic.” And for me it was very confusing because it was almost like I had to — at an early age — choose what I was and there was no clear answer.
Carleen Cumberbatch: I was an adult and we had moved into Springfield Gardens (in Queens), which was a culturally mixed area and my father said to me one day I want to show you where I wanted to move, which was in Rosedale. We rode down there to Rosedale and when we turned in the community after we passed the first three houses, I wanted my father to just turn around and leave because the people had come out on their steps with shotguns pointed at us because we were driving down the street.
Why is race still a problem…to talk about?
Bryan Tyson: It seems like the most difficult reason to discuss it is because we all tend to make assumptions about people based on our initial impressions, whether that’s race or class or dress or whatever – without even realizing it. And you can’t do that because obviously there’s more to people than just how they look.
Georgia Harrison: It’s underneath and it comes out in the form of what we see every day, the Voting Right Act being repealed and the Paula Deen situation and we can go on and on….I just think people feel uncomfortable because they don’t want to be true to themselves about how they actually feel about it.
Esteves: The effects of the racism from the past are still being felt today. There are still segments of the population that feel that they are being disenfranchised every day. When you look at incarceration rates, when you look at under-performing schools, when you look at economic equity, when you look at all the issues that are important to our time, it’s mostly along racial lines. Now there’s the added dynamic of socioeconomics.
Sykes: (The racial discussion) it’s a very touchy subject because it’s something that you have no control over. You know, no one asked to be black. No one asked to be white. You can’t change it. It’s just the way you are.
What’s the racial discussion in your social circles?
Anne Lewis: In my social circle, which is widely diverse, race is not a topic that we talk about a lot. It’s probably like any mother with high schoolers. Our activities are around our high school and things that go on there. I’m the general counsel of the State Republican party and so of course, there are a lot of discussions about race among the political parties.
Tyson: Most of mine centers around our church and one of the things we’ve been talking about as a church body and as the community, is why are we still so segregated on Sunday mornings? Beyond that as far as social interactions go, I’m not sure it’s a huge topic of discussion. That may be in part because a friend of mine told me recently that when you’re the member of the majority race, you don’t think about your race all the time.
Esteves: Even with someone like me who has done pretty well professionally in an environment that is dominated by the majority, when I get with my friends who are people of color they all feel that they’re the subject of stereotypes and that gets to why racism is not as out there as it was in the past. Individuals aren’t discriminating necessarily because they’re just racists, they’re discriminating because they have these preconceived notions…
The Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act
Tyson: I view the role of government as not to fix individuals. That’s something that has to happen on a heart level individually with people and not so much anything the government can impose. I don’t think the Supreme Court made a mistake when it said you have to justify current problems – you have to use current problems to justify current intrusions because if there’s not government-sponsored discrimination happening, there’s nothing really for the government to stop…
Harrison: If they don’t have that watchdog, what is to say that it won’t go back to what it was?… …You don’t know what it was like when people marched the streets in the 60’s, when I marched the streets in the 60’s, to fight for all of this and to see that this is going down now.
Tyson: Does government imposing those kind of watchdog roles push that even farther into the background? Does that prevent us from actually addressing things …If it’s just continually outside pressure are you really ever changing anything inside the people? That would be one of my concerns …I think there’s plenty of law that still exists over attached voting rights.
Lewis: The media presented the issue as a repeal of the Voting Rights Act which it clearly was not. It was the decision whether or not to extend Section 5 which only covered some states. Every state’s covered by Section 2 from preventing discrimination in voting but at the time the act was passed in ’65 there was a feeling that okay, for these guys, they need more watching than the other ones and so we’re gonna impose this for five years. Well, you know, when it comes time to vote on the extension in 2006, you have the media saying oh, this is gonna repeal the Voting Rights Act, you know. Some people saying oh, my gosh, we’re not gonna be able to vote anywhere which – which did a terrible disservice. But that – that’s what Congress hears out there, (that) people think this is a repeal of the Voting Rights Act. Well, nobody wants to be against the Voting Rights Act.
Paula Deen and racism
Lewis: I have teenage boys. I’ll admit that I was stunned the first time that I heard the n-word in a song because I guess I just never thought I’d hear that again and I don’t particularly understand the distinction that well, if it’s used by African-Americans it’s okay but if it’s used by white people it’s not, especially when white kids are singing the songs and so, I guess I never thought I would have to have the discussion with my children not to use that word because nobody used it anymore. Now it’s sort of come back full circle and it seems to be okay as long as it’s not used in a derogatory manner. I don’t know what that means other than it’s in the song or you’re referring to a friend that way. It seems like we’ve gone in the wrong direction on that because I don’t know when we decided that there was a nice way to use that word.
Sykes: Well, there’s a very fine line between using the n-word in a derogatory manner and in a, as you said, nice way. I’m not a fan of the word. But if someone is going to use it, don’t use it against somebody.
Cumberbatch: If a person cannot call me Carleen but instead calls me the n-word, that’s the derogatory use of the word. Those children, as I call them, have no sensitivity to the word because they were not here when the word was used instead of my name. So they don’t see it that way. It’s just another word to them, but to me that’s the derogatory sense of it…when I no longer have a name.
Harrison: Well, I take an affront to it because I had an incident. In 2011, my daughter and two of her friends, we were invited to a wedding in Panama City for one of her Caucasian friends that was in the doctoral program with her at UGA. We were all at a restaurant and we were walking back to the condo. A group of her white friends walked ahead of us and this truck passed by…and these young white kids, like 18, 19, (called me the n-word). Now at that point, I had to be 62 years old. That really hurt me because never in my entire life had I been called (that) to my face…to come this far in my life, to have been called that and, you know, it frightens you.
So why the quick downward spiral for Deen?
McCarty: I think she was already starting to get in trouble and lose favor because of the amount of butter that she puts in her food and how bad (her cooking style) is for all of us, you know. I think she had already begun to have to kinda change a little bit and say well, I’m now diabetic and I’m gonna, you know, cook – cook healthy. So it may have been she was already on the downhill slide.
Sykes: Honestly, I just think it’s because she’s not important enough. She’s expendable and nobody’s gonna be heartbroken over a Southern cook going off the air.
What’s happened in the recent years that may have changed your view on race relations?
Esteves: I think that the fact that we’re talking about it more and more like this is helpful. All these conversations are happening more. So people are becoming more conscious about these issues and as we tackle those issues, a lot of these stereotypes and barriers will continue to break down.
Tyson: My wife and I have two children and we’re looking to adopt a child. One of the questions we got in going through that process was would we be open to adopting a child of a different race… It prompted us to do a lot of serious soul searching. We’ve been taught our whole lives that everybody’s the same, but are we willing to welcome somebody who is different into our family? We ultimately reached the decision yes. But then we realized there’s things we may not realize about what it means to be African-American or to be Hispanic or to be any other race of a child coming into our family that we don’t understand because of our history and background. So we started trying to learn and grow in that area.
Harrison: It excites me to see my grandchildren…completely different from what I grew up with. My grand-kids are in a private Christian school and they are the minority there. They go to their friends’ homes, no problem. Their friends come to my home, no problem…If you leave it to them and don’t influence them, they do come together. It’s when the outside starts pushing on them.
Carleen Cumberbatch, 81, is a retired New York City school teacher and administrator who lives near Lithonia. She has lived in Georgia since 1989.
Jason F. Esteves, 29, is native of Columbus, Ga. who graduated from the University of Miami and Emory School of Law. He taught for Teach for America in a Houston middle school. A business and commercial litigation for McKenna Long & Aldridge.
Georgia Harrison, 65, South Carolina native and graduate of Bennett College in North Carolina. Former assistant superintendent of schools in New York City. She lives in Powder Springs.
Anne Lewis, 50, Savannah native who lives in Tucker. She is a partner in Atlanta law firm Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP. The practice includes election law., including redistricting under the Voting Rights Act. General counsel for the Republican Party of Georgia.
Laura T. McCarty, 47, South Carolina native is a Decatur resident and vice president of the nonprofit Georgia Humanities Counci. A graduate of Wofford College and the University of Georgia. Author of Coretta Scott King: a Biography.
Brian Sykes, 18, Johns Creek resident is 2013 graduate of Chattahoochee High School headed to Yale University where he will major in econimics and will play football.
Bryan Tyson, 32, grew up in Cobb County where he was home schooled. He spent two years in Washington D.C. as a congressional staffer and is currently an attorney at Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP specializing in business litigation and election law.
Our moderator was Reed D. Kimbrough, who as worked in operational, human resources and diversity and inclusing roles for major corporation. Reed joined the United States Steel Corporation in Pittsburgh in 2006, where he served as director of corporate diversity programs and training. He previously worked for the AJC.
How the panelists were selected: AJC reporters and editors put the word out to readers and sources this week that we were looking for people willing to have an honest conversation about race. Our goal was to assemble a diverse panel of metro Atlantans with a variety of viewpoints.