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Racism Is Always Here, So How Do We Break Through?

(Editor's note: This discussion originally aired Oct. 1, 2020.)

Over the last eight weeks, the series has tackled some of the most challenging race questions facing Las Vegas and much of Nevada.

We’ve talked about workplace and lending practices that made it impossible for African Americans to work on the Strip until the 1960s, or to live where they wanted until later than that. We also explored how some of the structural remnants of that discrimination remain today.

Asian Americans have been victimized by racist comments throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But as one of the fastest-growing populations in Las Vegas, newer generations are becoming more politically active.

And members of the LatinX and Native American communities have shared similar stories about cultural, economic and political challenges.

On this final episode of the Race and Racism series, we ask: How do we make our community, our state—work in a way that benefits everyone? How can we learn to treat each other with respect and a greater sense of understanding?

We’ve brought back guests from previous shows. But we’ve also brought in Sam Sanders. Many know Sanders as the host of “It’s Been A Minute,” which is heard on NPR member stations across the country.


Will change happen?

Sam Sanders: I think there are two conversations that we can have. There’s a conversation about everyone getting along, which might not ever happen in a place like America. There’s a lot of different kinds of folks here.

Another conversation about justice and equity and a fair allocation of resources and a more fair justice system and those things we can hold our systems and structures accountable for that even if you never convince someone’s racist uncle that we shouldn’t be seeing color so much.

I’m more concerned with the conversations that unpack the structural impediments to real justice. I think that those heart-to-heart conversations between friends and neighbors about race where you hug afterwards are great, and they should happen and I would love that. But I’m more concerned with a current system that allows for these types of killings that we see over and over to happen and for people who most Americans say should face some kind of punishment for their behavior to not be punished.

So, there’s two conversations.

On addressing racist comments:

Sonny Vinuya: You could do it in a way that doesn’t incite violence. It’s more like getting your point across clearly, nicely and respectfully but making a point.

Sanders: I think there is always a mental calculus a play here. Do I have time to address this and correct this? Do I have the energy to do it? Am I emotionally prepared to do it? And if now not, I can’t be guilty or feel guilty about just saying, ‘I’m going to walk away from this.’ Your reserve the right to walk away from situations as well.

I think especially for people of color there is often this pressure on us to be the ones that correct that, to be the ones that address that. I think, in this moment, I've been encouraged to see a lot more white people step up and say, 'Let me take that on.'

Nicole Jenkins: Racism is extremely taxing on people of color. Not only is it mentally and emotionally straining, but it's something we encounter in every aspect of our lives - daily.

So, I always tell my friends and my family that whatever response you have, in the moment, is allowed. You have to allow yourself whatever response as a person of color to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself in dealing with racism.

So, if that's silence -- I don't even know what to say to this person right now. If that's shutting that person down - Hey, that was very disrespectful. All emotions are okay - it's an emotional thing.

Paloma Guerrero: It is immensely important, especially in this moment, not just to be 'non-racist' but to be anti-racist. So when we hear something like [ President Trump's comment to the Proud Boys to 'stand back and stand by' during the first presidential debate] somebody in that conversation should have called it out.

And, if we're hearing that in our circles, we need to be the ones to call it out. We need to get in the fight because people that are in power won't relinquish that power willingly. We need to fight for it.  

COVID-19 impacts on Latinx community:

Paloma Guerrero: When we talk about the economic crisis specifically, it is leaving vulnerable and essential workers at a dire risk for COVID-19 and when we think about how the economic crisis is affecting people’s ability to go to the hospital or we think about how a person’s immigration status also affects a person’s ability to go to the hospital.

The questions people ask: ‘Oh, I’m sick. Do I have enough money to go to the hospital? Am I at risk for ICE to pick me up at a hospital? And these questions and these discussions people are having in the Latino community are exactly why their medical issues go untreated. They have pre-existing conditions, poverty and all of this compounds and results in this disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Latinos.

On systemic racism in the immigration system:

Guerrero: It’s an overt system. It’s the American immigration system, which is rooted in racism. It’s rooted in xenophobia and foreigners being less than. And foreigners having to prove their worth to be in this country.

On the lack of response to COVID-19 in tribal communities and what it says about the treatment of Native Americans as a whole:

Myrton Running Wolf:  There is a huge amount of distrust [between Native communities and non-Native entities] that goes back generations that has become just the way things are. And sadly, I think that we’ve accepted that as being the status quo.

If you look at reports coming out now, about demographics and things like that, Native American is becoming more and more folded into an ‘other’ category. Native Americans are being erased before our very eyes. And this does nothing to generate any desire to have trust from our tribal communities.

On addressing system racism:

Running Wolf:  I think we’re looking for spa treatments. And what I mean by that is – if you’re diagnosed with cancer and you go to get a massage and you’ll feel better for the morning. That is not really a way of dealing with the cancer, dealing with the thing that is at the root of the cause of it, but we’re willing to do listening tours, we’re willing to do panel discussions, we’re willing to do conversations with police officers that will take an hour or two.

And we think that these kind of ‘spa treatments’ approaches are going to resolve in any kind of permanent change and it just doesn’t.

On people now days discriminate more based on class than race:

Jenkins: I would have to disagree.

But, as a sociologist, I always do emphasize that context is really important. Based on context, there may be certain situations where a person’s class is emphasized over their race; however, we also have to be intersectional and realizing that folks who are of a lower socioeconomic status and who are also racial minorities also have that intersection where they’re experiencing that classism in a different way than for example a white person would.

On the American Dream:

Sanders: This is what I think is uncomfortable for a lot of people in this so-called reckoning on race this year. It’s not just asking folks to stop being racist. It’s not just asking folks to fix systems. It’s asking people to reconsider what they think this country is, what they think the notions of this country is and what they think their dreams are. And that’s hard for a lot of people. But, I think that is the work that needs to be done.

We can’t fix these systems that hurt people of color until we understand that these systems have been built that way since this country’s start. That requires a reconciliation with what our idea of the American Dream is.

Running Wolf: For tribal people, the American Dream has never been a dream but it’s been an imposition of a set of rules and standards that they can never match up to, but they want to see, is there somebody there that has navigated this successfully and can I talk to them about how I can move forward.

Hope for the future:

Sanders: I think one of the bright spots in this moment of a lot of Americans seeking more racial justice is that these causes that you see folks marching over, they’re actually much more popular than previous movements have been.

There have been several polls over the past few months that have shown that a majority of Americans – white people included – agree with the statement: Black Lives Matter and find the cause favorable.

When you look back to, literally, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, when the Freedom Riders were riding, when the sit-ins were happening those movements were disapproved of by a majority of the country.

I think for me I’ve been finding hope in that small progress. The struggle is the same struggle, different words and names and faces but we as a nation are more comfortable with the struggle now. And we’re more comfortable seeing it happen and we realize that it has a place and it’s doing something good and that’s given me hope.

Guerrero: Mine is going to sound weird at first, but what gives me hope actually comes from one of the biggest stories in immigration right now, which is the story of the forced hysterectomies coming out of Irwin Immigration Prison in Georgia.

And that is all thanks to the whistleblower, who was Dawn Wooten, who was a Black woman, who came out, who risked her job, who risked everything in order to speak out against this injustice.

What inspires me about that is that we still have people that are not complacent with injustice even though they benefit from it.

Vinuya: Mine is the Las Vegas area. I say that because for one we’re so diverse and the relationships that we make through the different entities even the ones that we question, even Metro has been great to us. They have got a great community reach out and you can see it works pretty much.

Jenkins: I really like the idea of what Sam was saying about the popularity of racial equity and racism. And really everyone seeing it as everyone’s problem. We all participate in these systems, policies, laws and practices that make the social construction of racism real and its consequences for people of color.

I think us paying attention, and also for allies, recognizing guilt and indifference as barriers, those few things give me hope towards progress.

Running Wolf: My students and my colleagues here at the University of Nevada, Reno. I just have to light a little bit of a curiosity fire beneath my students. I am one of those professors that I think that our current administration doesn’t like. I teach critical race studies. I embrace it and I say: Please start leaning into these in a more thoughtful way, and if I light that spark, these students are amazing. They start running with it. They go into a deep critical analysis but also a creative outlet because we do media production as well. How they embrace that as scholars but also as media producers is so heartwarming – every single day that I go to work.


Sam Sanders, host, "It's Been A Minute"; Paloma Guerrero, Fellow, UNLV Boyd School of Law Immigration Clinic; Nicole Jenkins, adjunct professor, Howard University; Myrton Running Wolf, Assistant Professor of Race and Media, University of Nevada, Reno; Sonny Vinuya, President, Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce


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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.