My college roommate recently commented on an old photo I posted on social media of my dad, J.L. McCormick, as fire chief, standing on the running board of a fire engine in full firefighting helmet and uniform. His uncle, T.R. McCormick, similarly equipped, stood smiling on the back bumper.
It was a blessing, my roommate said, to have such a record of my roots. The photo was taken in my parents’ historic hometown of Boley, Oklahoma, in the 1970s. He added that he’d only recently learned why Black men of that era often used their initials. Intrigued, I asked why.
The use of initials, he said, prevented white people, who generally refused to use courtesy titles such as Mr. or Mrs. to refer to Black people, from calling them by their first names. It offered a skillful, subtle way of demanding respect.
My roommate’s insight and my “aha” moment returned me to my September address at Wichita State University in which I challenged the institution to create a degree program aimed at dismantling systemic racism.
As our society again attempts to reckon with its racial past, WSU is exploring this idea and hoping to begin deconstructing age-old barriers that many in our nation have not seen and that others frankly refuse to acknowledge.
I emphasized the systemic/structural rather than the interpersonal in my speech, arguing that systems produce the results they were designed to produce. The more we understand this, the more likely we are to dismantle the system.
I referenced educator Jane Elliott’s now famous “blue eyes, brown eyes” classroom experiment in which she gave each group elevated status based on eye color and watched as ordinarily sweet and thoughtful children seized on their new privilege and turned it cruelly against their classmates.
“What frightened Jane Elliott was how the children temporarily in the out-group … performed worse on their tests that day,” I said. “If a few hours could do that to a child, Elliott asked in horror, what would a lifetime of that do to a person?”
I pointed out that race and racism are studied now in various disciplines such as economics, sociology, psychology, history and anthropology, but what I was proposing was a merger of multiple disciplines.
Imagine, for example, students majoring in business and in structural racism and then rebuilding urban areas long cut out of economic opportunities.
Imagine students majoring in nursing and in structural racism and then addressing the skyrocketing Black infant mortality rates and health disparities in Wichita’s 67214 ZIP code, a historically Black area that is among the most disadvantaged in the nation.
Imagine students from all degree programs applying this knowledge to create healthier, more prosperous and more just communities.
Wichita State was intrigued enough to engage in further discussions about this idea, which will hopefully be shared in early 2021.
The scope of this challenge isn’t lost on us.
It is as broad as society, but also as narrow as the experiences of my dad, Joseph Langston McCormick; my dad’s uncle, Theodore Roosevelt McCormick; and the Black men of their era who cleverly used their initials to change their world for the better.
Mark McCormick previously served as editor of The Journal.
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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