Congressman Jim Himes hosts panel to discuss race relations in Darien

The crowd on Monday night. Photo by Dan Arestia

As a black man waited on line at a Dunkin’ Donuts, a white person cut in front of him.

“I’m in a hurry,” the white man said. “I have a job, and I’m not sure if you do.”

Gasps from the crowd met that story, shared in a packed room at the Darien Library, by Tenisi Davis, an actor, director, and spoken-word artist who also works with the Alvin Ailey Foundation.

Davis was among members of a panel convened by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) to explore race relations amid tension across the country, and in Darien after a viral video of police questioning a black bicyclist. (See related story.).

The panel considered three questions:

  • Does white privilege exist?
  • Does institutional racism exist in Connecticut?
  • What can the average white person do regarding police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement?

“We are in here in Darien because some of you may have beliefs about Bridgeport, or other parts of this state, about other people,” said the Rev. Dr. Anthony L. Bennett, head pastor at Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport and president of CONECT, or Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut.

“It is my hope that you will be able to challenge yourself,” Bennett said, emphasizing that the discussion was taking place in a town such as Darien where it might have more impact than if it took place in a city like Bridgeport. “I hope at some point you are uncomfortable, and this makes you rethink some of those core beliefs.”

The Rev. Cass Shaw, president of the Council of Churches for Greater Bridgeport, recalled being raised in a gated, nearly all-white community.

“Being white means never having to think about it,” Shaw said.

Himes said the conversation being held Monday in Darien “doesn’t happen nearly enough.”  

“Every week we see astonishing and horrifying videos, and then to make things worse we divide into camps,” Himes said.

Dr. Khalilah Brown-Dean, a faculty member at Quinnipiac University who has worked with Himes on voting rights law in Connecticut and has contributed to NPR and The Washington Post, said there are practices in government that institutionalize racism in Connecticut.

“All the prisons are located in suburban areas, not in urban areas,” said Brown-Dean, “Cheshire gets to count inmates in the census. Then they can go to our government and say look at how many people we have below poverty line.”

This practice allows these areas to draw more money from the state for their schools and services, despite the fact that most of the inmates are from Bridgeport, New Haven and other urban areas.

Interactions, sometimes fatal, with police across the country have brought the race issue to a boiling point. Deputy Chief Ashley Gonzalez of the Norwalk Police Department said it’s up to everyone to address the atmosphere that has sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It’s not just the average white person, it’s everyone,” Gonzalez said. “We all have to listen and communicate, and I’m encouraged by the diversity in the room.”

Gonzalez, a police officer since 1988 who oversees professional standards, training, and community services for the department, went on to say that people have the right to speak up, and problems, whether with the police or otherwise, need to be brought up so they can be addressed, even if it is uncomfortable to do so.

All the panelists had similar sentiments. The theme of dealing with the issue that makes us uncomfortable by being open-minded and receptive to other people’s struggles was heard throughout.

“There has never been a point where whites institutionally value black lives the way we do our own, and that is why black lives matter,” Bennett said.

“There are fundamental misunderstandings in the way this dialogue is happening. In the face of an awful lot of violence directed at young black men, a movement arises called Black Lives Matter,” Himes said. “Then we hear all lives matter. And then Blue Lives Matter. Of course no one would disagree with any of these ideas. And yet, these phrases get used to attack each other.”

The audience included U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, State Sen. Carlo Leone, Darien Police Chief Duane Lovello and a number of retired Darien police officers.

A young white girl who was in the audience said she felt she was the image of white privilege, having gone to private school for all 12 years of her education. She asked the panel how she might use her advantages to try and be part of the solution. Davis told her, and others, to take her network and to share it with others, even to join the black student union.

A young black man spoke about how an “otherness” has been created and sides have been taken, and that we all have our own biases.

“You can’t think police aren’t human,” he said. “They have their issues they brought with them, just like everyone else does.”

One gentlemen certainly made the room uncomfortable as he cited the Roland Fryer study, which came to the conclusion that there are no racial biases in police shootings, and that white men are more likely to meet lethal force from police than black men. He said the black community needs to feel more pressure to change. The Roland Fryer study has been thrown into serious doubt at this point, as it is not peer reviewed, not an actual study at all, and drew from a very small sample that relied heavily and solely on police narratives to collect data.

“The Roland Fryer study has been debunked,” Brown-Dean said. “It is similar to how the CDC won’t fund studies on gun violence, because the results might not be favorable. How we define crime often determines the outcome and disparate rates that we see. We need to understand how these systems work together.”

As the event concluded, most of those in attendance stayed to express their gratitude to Himes and the panelists. When Bennett asked the audience if they were interested in having conversations like this one again, a resounding yes echoed through the room, to which Bennett said, “and next time, we’ll get a bigger room,” before he closed by saying, “none of us can do everything, but all of us can do something.”

A white man who was a freedom rider during the Civil Rights movement spoke about his experiences with police brutality, and remembered the death of his friend, Mickey, one of the Mississippi Three.

“Racism is just plain wrong,” he said. “it’s all about love.”

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