Seeking a meaningful discussion on race

Ray Hull

When Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was recently quoted in the Providence Journal’s excellent “Race in Rhode Island” series as saying, “I don’t think there is white privilege,” I needed to take some time to cool off and reflect on his words before offering my reaction.

 I’m glad I did. In subsequent days, we saw a rather remarkable situation unfold on the campus of the University of Missouri. Within a matter of days, a student protest that won the support of the school’s football team led to the resignation of Mizzou President Timothy Wolfe. He was soon followed out the door by the system’s chancellor, who apparently paid a price for encouraging the school administration to ignore several incidents of racial harassment on campus.

 What happened at Mizzou showed us that protests can generate change and talking about problems can lead to positive outcomes. It is also a compelling reminder that those in power who choose to ignore the experiences of under-represented populations in their community do so at their own peril.

 I say that because I was initially shocked by what the speaker said, as it seemed to suggest a lack of awareness or an inability to understand that there is often a profound experiential difference between white people and non-white people. For example, there is a Black Lives Matter movement, not as a means of suggesting that other lives don’t, but to raise the alarm about the insensitive manner in which black Americans have been treated by law enforcement in many cities and towns across this country.

 We’re at a place where offering tired old bromides about pulling yourselves up by the bootstraps or hoping that a rising tide will raise all boats are not adequate answers to ongoing racial disparities in our state and our country. Whether it is higher incarceration rates for certain minority groups or continuing gaps between whites and non-whites in terms of education and housing, focusing on growing the economy alone will not make those problems go away.

 What we need is a strong commitment to address these issues, and I was pleased to hear Speaker Mattiello offer some more enlightened commentary in that regard. He reiterated his commitment to fix our state’s criminal justice system, offering plans for sentencing and probation reform. He admitted he needs to defer to others in terms of identifying why home ownership continues to elude many black Rhode Islanders. And he expressed a willingness to listen to ideas about closing the performance gap in education.

 Those are all promising indications that the speaker’s commendable willingness to take part in The Providence Journal’s discussion of race were just the beginning of a process of continuing engagement on these issues. I hope that he will remain engaged by making an effort to reach out to groups representing minority communities in our state to further his understanding of the challenges they face every day.

 Well-intentioned people want to believe that because they don’t see racism or feel it in their own hearts, things must be getting better. They may look at protests from minority communities as over-reactions to stand-alone events that are not indicators of broader problems, because they don’t fully grasp that some groups experience life in a very different manner than they and their friends do.

 Elected officials need to listen, not only to those closest to them or to those who share their interests and background, but to all of the voices in their community. That is what separates effective leaders from those who simply exercise power. I think the speaker has an opportunity to dig deeper into some of the issues and concerns raised in his discussion with The Providence Journal. I look forward to working with him in that regard so that we can generate meaningful public policy to break down divides and improve the quality of life for all Rhode Islanders.

 Ray Hull is a state representative in District 6 (Providence/North Providence) and a sergeant with the Providence Police Department.