Written by the Rt. Rev. J. Scott Barker, Class of 1981; Central High School Hall of Fame Inductee
In “Look Backward at History to Move Forward in Progress,” Dr. Rodney Wead recounts the tragic story of the shooting of Vivian Strong in the summer of 1969, the heartbreak and anger her death touched off in Omaha’s black community, and the aftermath of living in the shadow of the systemic racism and police violence that was and is the lived reality of People of Color in this country. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police office this summer (noteworthy not only because a Black man was killed by a white police officer, but because the whole event was captured on video and broadcast to the world) has served as a sobering reminder that the more things change in our United States, the more they stay the same.
It has been a focus of my adult life and ministry to fight racism and work towards racial reconciliation both inside and outside my faith community. And a big part of that is acknowledging the privilege that has surrounded me for my entire life as a white man. Privilege that has tamped down trouble and opened doors all along the way, not because of any special talent or particularly hard work on my part, but simply because of the color of my skin, and the structural racism that invisibly bounds almost every aspect of American life.
In the same summer Vivian Strong was shot to death, I lived just a few miles southwest of the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects, in the same Dundee home where I would spend my entire childhood. My parents were determined proponents of equality between races. They volunteered for local organizations that promoted civil rights and served People of Color. I was taught from the first that the “N” word was never to be uttered. My earliest church memories include worshipping with children from the Church of Saint Phillip the Deacon, Omaha’s historically Black Episcopal Church.
But alongside those efforts to fight racism, I inhabited another powerful formative reality. North Omaha — and its proud association with the Black community — was understood to be a dangerous neighborhood, where it was only safe to venture during the day and in the company of others. I watched my parents treat the Black community leaders with whom they worked as distinctly “other,” adopting different patterns of speech when they spoke to their Black friends and shaking hands in a different way. The only Black people who actually came through the doors of the house in which I grew up were domestic helpers. Stella cleaned our house. Elvie mowed our lawn. Goldie cared for us when my parents were away.
In these and countless other ways, both at home and in the larger community, I came to understand that folks with Black skin and white skin were profoundly different from one another, and that fighting against racism was about learning to treat a different and probably lesser people with kindness and charity.
Over the three years I spent at Central High School, I began to have a dawning awareness of white supremacy and the power of white privilege. Of course I cheered on the Black athletes who lead our football and basketball teams, but I also quickly became aware of the parity — and often superiority — of African American classmates who studied alongside me in Honors English and AP Bio, who often proved to be the best singers and dancers in the extracurricular arts activities that I loved, and who were fellow student council reps and class officers during my senior year. Today I know that the trope of the “exceptional” Black citizen is just another aspect of the structural racism that so often invisibly runs our lives. But back then, all this was new, and it began to change how I saw my sisters and brothers of color, and myself.
I have come to understand myself as a recovering racist. And though it hurts to embrace that title, I believe it’s a fit not only for me but for most Americans of my cultural background and generation. As a recovering racist I am called to constant renouncing, or at least share as best I can, the power and privilege that is still a part of my cultural inheritance as a white American male.
- For those of us who would renounce white privilege, the work begins with learning Black history, and coming to a more honest understanding of the ways in which fair-skinned folks have been enriched from, and advantaged by, systemic racism in this country. Classwork and reading are good ways to begin, but I’d note that in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder I heard a smart friend say, “When black people die, white people form book groups.” The best initiation into learning Black history is to seek out mentors of color, to sit at their feet, and to listen without interrupting.
- For those of us who would renounce white privilege, it is not enough to refrain from using racist epithets, telling racist jokes, or avoiding singularly racist entertainment. Rather we’re invited to actively call out those who still traffic in the even subtle use of such language and story, and, in our Capitalist economy, to loudly and proudly boycott businesses that tolerate racist ideals.
- For those of us who would renounce white privilege, it is not enough to advocate for equal access and treatment at work, in our faith communities, or in the halls of government. Rather, we’re invited to lift up those who have had no place and no voice at the table, and then to step aside in order that someone else might lead for a change.
This is difficult work and very few have perfected its practice. For years I pastored a racially and culturally diverse church in North Omaha, and I learned more than you could imagine from Black church members who forgave my ignorance and insensitivity, and became my teachers and friends. I believe I did my part, as best I could. Yet for all that experience, just a week ago I participated in a training where a number of people were sharing ideas about race that demonstrated rather deep ignorance of these powerful issues. Even as I saw it happening, I failed to stand up and call them out, imaging that somehow that job belonged to someone else in the room. If we are serious about doing this work, we will be humbled again and again.
Central High is still a locus for extraordinary experience and formation.
My chief exposure to Central these days comes twice a year when the young women and men taking the school’s World Religions class walk two blocks to Trinity Cathedral where I work, to hear me talk about Christianity. Those classes have become an icon for me of all that has been accomplished in this area since the time I walked the halls of Central. The classes I see — and the youth to whom I speak — evidence a much greater diversity of race and ethnicity (not to mention sexuality, gender identities, and more) than ever was apparent in the Central of my day. They all seem smart to me. And proud. And confident in their own skin.
We have come a long way as a society since the summer of 1969, and to be fair, I have too. But the fact of more meaningfully integrated public schools, more financially successful role models who are People of Color, and even the election of a Black president, is not enough to dismantle the system of white privilege that has advantaged so many of us, and to accomplish the systemic change that’s required of us if we would be the country we dream of and the people God created us to be.
We’re on a journey together. We each have our part to play. And exceptional public schools like Central will continue to serve a critical role as communities of learning and formation as we seek to become better people and a healthier city.
Rt. Rev. J. Scott Barker is a 1981 graduate of Central High School. Following an active three years at Central, years that included, among other things, being elected Senior Class President and performing in Road Show, Scott enrolled at Yale, graduated in 1985, returned to enter Yale Divinity School and was ordained into the Episcopal Church in 1992. He returned to Omaha as an assistant at Trinity Cathedral, leaving Trinity to rejuvenate the Church of the Resurrection in north Omaha. Scott and his family then moved to New York state where he rejuvenated another struggling church into a vibrant community. He then returned to Omaha where he was consecrated as the 11th Bishop of the Diocese of Nebraska. As bishop, he cares for 53 churches, both large and small, providing encouragement and spiritual support wherever he goes. Scott is an outspoken advocate for people in need and volunteers on numerous boards at the local and national level. This compassionate cleric still finds time to support CHS activities, when possible.
The Central High School Foundation is a 501 c(3) and was established in 1996 to provide support for present and future Central High School students. To ensure that the tradition of excellence continues, the Foundation supports the school through a variety of activities including alumni relations, fundraising, grant writing, student scholarships, capital projects, and teacher and classroom grants. With your support, the foundation can continue to honor the past, live successfully in the present, and plan for the future. Click here: https://chsfomaha.org/support