This is a longer version of a letter to the editor, written by our Board Chair, Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, that was submitted to the Topeka Capital-Journal.
This weekend my family visited a local area farm to enjoy their many fall activities. While the activities were fun, we noted a moment that disturbed and underscored the challenges we have in addressing systemic racism and its consequences for people of color in our state. Most of the families that day were white, and we noticed that when volunteer kids were asked for to help with the pig races, a black family in front of us was initially overlooked and then the young man leading this activity chose to not even acknowledge the area that family was in -- he actually had to intentionally choose not to look our way so as to not “notice” the children in this family who wanted to be picked.
This is an example of a micro-aggression, and while it seems innocuous, imagine that this family experiences these many times a day, from many different kinds of people. While the kids might not know the term for this, they know it doesn’t feel good to have people ignore you, or serve someone else first despite the order of the line, to have people make rude comments about your appearance or racial/ethnic/cultural heritage. It is exhausting, and frankly, it keeps us as a society from addressing the much larger and destructive issues we need to deal with.
This brings me to the death of Dominique White, who was killed in Topeka by police officers over a month ago. We have heard almost nothing about the case since -- body cam footage has not been released, names of the officers have not been released, and the investigation has not been completed. I am not surprised because the truth is there was no reason to kill Dominique -- he was not a threat, he had not committed a crime, and officers on the scene didn’t even know his name. His family has had to watch his character assassinated in the media while waiting to learn the names of the officers and whether charges will be brought.
People of color face a range of racist realities every day -- higher unemployment even with college degrees, a huge difference in accumulated wealth, higher levels of arrest and incarceration for similar crimes to white folks, racial profiling that leads to harassment and detainment of people who have no reason to be so treated; micro-aggressions that affect their sense of safety and well-being in white dominated spaces (most work and school spaces, many restaurants, places like this farm). How will we ever address the most egregious and life-threatening issues -- killing young men like Dominique -- if some of us can’t even acknowledge a family where there is clearly no threat?
The Topeka community has been pretending that we are somehow different than the rest of America,and especially from a place like Ferguson, MO. I don’t believe it. Let’s hold our officers and police department leadership accountable; let’s make sure this doesn’t disappear in a grand jury or get swept under the rug. Let’s put systems in place to make sure we do a better job: a citizen’s review board, better training and education for officers that includes in-person interactions dealing with race and equity, better methods for dealing with the public than deadly weapons, and a true commitment to building relationships with the community. This needs to be more substantive than “coffee with a cop” and social interactions -- a commitment to listen to, document, and respond to community concerns about racial profiling and police brutality is where we should start. We need a police chief that will do this.
Until these changes happen, I am going to #takeaknee4Nique.
With deep concern for our community and country,
Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka
Board Chair, Kansas Interfaith Action