by Clottee Hammons
During a recent interview I was asked to reflect on my initial impression to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have A Dream Speech” when he delivered it in August of 1963. To say that it was powerful to a Black child raised under the pervasive toxic cloud of John Birch Society adults and offspring is an understatement, but it is the closest verbiage to the emotional and intellectual description possible. To confine the speech to a singular impression is like attempting to reduce a complex concept to baby-talk.
The impact of the speech cannot be separated from the enormity of the occasion during which it was given, nor separated from the unceasing, ubiquitous dangers and injustices Black people in America have always faced. At the time of Dr. King’s speech, it was well known that Scottsdale Arizona was a “Sundown Town” (among many others in the state). Despite the very recent focus on equity, the specter of Jim Crowe segregation is still present in the Valley of the Sun. Just because the term seems antiquated does not mean that the fundamental practices of discrimination in housing, employment, education and health care have subsided for Black Arizonans.
Whether it is Park Central, downtown Phoenix or the multitude of other multi-story buildings and street construction projects occurring, a consistent empirical survey will demonstrate how rare it is to see Blacks employed in local building trades. There is no programming on television or radio focused on Black issues in Arizona, even though there are a handful of Black people sprinkled throughout local media.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought regular reporting for some groups in the state while statistics for Blacks diagnosed, treated or that have died in Arizona goes unreported. In response to this writer’s inquiries, a convoluted explanation from Courtney Kreuzwisner, Office of Communications and Marketing Project Manager at Maricopa County Health Department (04/23/2020):
“We receive data through electronic lab reporting, hospitalization admissions, emergency room admissions, and death certificate data. All of these have different data collection systems. Race and ethnicity data are generally self-reported and optional to disclose. So, for example, when a patient or their authorized representative, fills out admission forms at a health care provider or a hospital, etc. they can choose to include race/ethnicity information if asked on the form. Those forms are what are put into the health record for that patient and conveyed through reporting systems to public health. This would also be the case when a person seeks testing or care via a private provider. If a provider orders testing, they will report that race information as part of the patient’s electronic health record on file. However, the confirmed test result is actually reported to us by the lab, not the provider, so it varies if that patient’s health record is included as there are many commercial labs with different reporting mechanisms. For these reasons, the data captured for race/ethnicity for COVID-19 (and for other disease surveillance like flu) is incomplete, I think averages about 50-60%. ADHS is addressing some of this gap by looking at opportunities to utilize the Health Information Exchange to share data that a patient might have reported through their primary care doctor but may not have included in other places like emergency room care or hospital (in emergency cases, those forms are often filled out by a family member). Another avenue for data is through death certificates, which when finalized generally do have race/ethnicity included.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a predictable dismissiveness from local press and news citing the low hanging Tuskegee syphilis experiments as the reason for Black Arizonans reluctance to be vaccinated (Arizona Republic, Mistrust Lingers in Black Community April 13, 2021), scarcely acknowledging the breadth and depth of health care disparities and the very real prospect that those providers that local Blacks depend on have deep implicit biases.
Likewise, the prospects for Blacks in Arizona battling cognitive issues, behavioral health crises, addictions, age-related complications and co-occurring morbidities are just as likely to result in incarceration or lingering suffering because mental health professionals are satisfied with taking the required “cultural competency” hours and believe they are fully informed about race-based trauma.
It is especially important to scrutinize daily news and the narratives that local historians put forth throughout all the specialized historical repositories and museums. Historical discrimination through omission is rampant. African American histories in Arizona are, at best, tangential to the one dimensional “settlers’ stories”. Even the Arizona State University’s Community-Driven Archives Initiative Project which purports to: “Build relationships with historically marginalized communities (Latinx, Black, Asian & Pacific Islander, Indigenous, and LGBTQ).” is little more than superficial in the commitment to archiving Black Arizona history beyond individual, discreet genealogies in favor of Latinx archives. Family genealogies contribute to the bigger picture; but are not adequate to the task of telling the fuller truth and setting those truths in proper historical contexts.
Routine exclusion or limiting participation of Blacks in leveraged, decision-making positions in politics, on board of directors, corporations, in human resources, non-profits, arts organizations and schools is a signature of the subtle type of racism that many Black people in Phoenix have long understood in contrast to the more blatant, physically forceful Southern form.
While there is some movement in place to introduce the history of Blacks in Arizona to youth, beyond one or two prominent figures, the momentum and will to correct long-standing omissions is minimal. One or two weeks in a semester do little of significance administered by teachers that are not well-versed or are apathetic to the topic.
Much credit must be given to organizations such as Heritage Square Foundation, AZ Commission on the Arts, Scottsdale Center for the Arts and Mesa Center for the Arts for doing the uncomfortable work of self-examination and actively pursuing correction. Just as these organizations have done, white Arizona needs to take stock of the benefits derived from the Five Cs and acknowledge the roles that Black migrants and refugees have had in the financial success and growth of the 5th largest city in the United States and ask themselves how “business as usual” has been and continues to be discriminatory.
May 14, 2021