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A matter of race

Steve Kerins | Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Today is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. I imagine the emergent social problem of AIDS in the African American community may lie far from the minds of most Notre Dame students, but it does not, on this day, lie far from mine.

I have lived in Wilmington, Delaware, since I was 10 years old. Although Delaware is bland in many ways, it has a particularly long, regrettable history of poor race relations. Disparities in HIV rates are just the latest in a long line of problems to divide ethnic and racial enclaves in my city.

More than 20 percent of Delaware residents categorized themselves as “black” in the last census. African American history runs richly through the state. Wilmington is home to the oldest black church in the country. As the East Coast’s northernmost outpost of segregation, crossing Delaware’s northern border marked a vast improvement in conditions for thousands of African Americans in the early 20th century.

As in many states, race relations did not quickly improve following desegregation. Riots in Wilmington following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 prompted the governor to deploy the National Guard, which remained in place until the following year.

Although public schools were eventually legally integrated, de facto segregation remains the norm throughout much of the state.

In response to desegregation, many white families chose to withdraw their children from the public school system. In my county today, about a third of school-age kids are enrolled in private or parochial schools. Public education is grossly underfunded in Delaware compared with neighboring states.

Race relations also remain exceptionally poor in Delaware. The Wilmington Police Department engages in “jump-outs,” in which officers spring from unmarked vans and detain individuals loitering on the street. The detainees are then typically photographed, searched, and fingerprinted. The program has drawn heavy criticism for civil rights violations and possible racial profiling.

Wilmington has one of the highest per capita HIV infection rates in the country, especially among African American men. Delaware was one of the last states to implement a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users, thanks to stalling on the part of legislators from rural, largely white areas of the state. HIV infection, of course entirely preventable, may be reaching epidemic proportions just miles from my home.

In my otherwise commendable (and almost entirely white) private high school, the effects of racism were rarely discussed. This seemed unusual to me given that its leafy property sat mere blocks from some of the poorest black neighborhoods in the United States. I wondered whether we might have heard more about local social issues if the neighborhood residents had been white.

At Notre Dame, another place where uncomfortable issues of race can sometimes be pushed under the rug, I hope we can take a moment today to ask ourselves what we can do to combat this latest manifestation of racial antipathy. I don’t have the answers, but maybe together we can think of some.