POCATELLO — Fifty years ago this month, Robbie Robertson became the first Black man to join the local Idaho’s Plumbers and Pipefitters Union No. 648.
It took filing a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Seattle, encountering disgruntled white counterparts upset that his spot wasn’t reserved for their nephew or brother and having to literally fight for his job to actually become a member.
“For that first year, I caught hell,” said the 73-year-old Robertson, who is now retired and serves as a deacon at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on North Fifth Avenue in Pocatello. “The second year it smoothed out and finally two or three of them took me under their wing and started teaching me. But I always got the worst jobs and they always tried my patience. It was five years before I was actually accepted as one of them. I even had to fight for one job in Idaho Falls. I got jumped and beaten. They broke my breastbone but I hung in there. Now 50 years later and I’m still hanging in there.”
Only six years removed from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the discrimination Robertson experienced when applying to become a welder and pipefitter was not too uncommon. But at the time, Robertson was saying that as a Black man his life and his right to provide for his family mattered.
Over the last several weeks, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest in the wake of the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and to demand an end to police brutality and racism in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
To better understand what Black Lives Matter really means, The Idaho State Journal recently sat down with several Black community leaders in Pocatello to discuss systemic racism, how it affects people of color and how to effectuate real change when the protests die down and the topic is trending no longer.
“When African American citizens were brought to this country they were brought as property, as individuals who were to deliver a service who had no rights, no emotions and no feelings,” says the associate director of Idaho State University’s Student Success Center, James Yizar. “They were just a tool and what people do with tools is use them for as long as you think it is useful and then you throw it away. You’re not emotionally attached. So when we start talking about Black Lives Matter, what it's about is confronting a power structure.”
Yizar defined systemic racism, also referred to as structural or institutional racism, as “the way in which our system disadvantages African American citizens.”
In a June USA Today article about systemic racism, Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines, defined it as "the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives."
In the eyes of the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racism is public enemy No. 1, and much of the division in America in light of the many Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks can be associated with the stark confrontation of the power structure that has disadvantaged Black Americans for centuries, according to Kenneth Monroe, president of the Pocatello NAACP chapter.
“Black Lives Matter to me is a general term and what’s important about the movement is to understand the injustices around a number of topics — wealth, employment, health care, education, housing and the criminal justice system. All of that to me is wrapped up into Black Lives Matter.”
If the hateful and violent interactions on social media and within a copious number of communities across the country aren’t enough, such as the confrontations in Boise last week, statistics evidence an American life that’s different for people of color in this country.
The Federal Reserve's 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances found the net worth of a typical white family — $171,000 — is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family at $17,150.
In terms of housing, Black people make up nearly half of the homeless population, despite making up only 13% of the population, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development report presented to Congress in January.
The USA Today article published last month references a process of the 20th century called redlining that banks and the real estate industry used to determine which neighborhoods would get loans to buy homes. Neighborhoods where people of color lived — outlined in red ink — were deemed the riskiest to invest in.
This practice prevented Black families from amassing and maintaining wealth in the same way that white families could, resulting in the growth of the racial wealth gap and housing insecurity which persists today, Harris told USA Today.
Cigna, a global health services company, released a report in April 2016 that said the “Black population experiences significant disparities with chronic conditions, access to care, preventive screenings and mental health.” The Cigna report says in comparison with white Americans, Blacks are 80% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, Black men are 30% and Black women are 60% more likely to have high blood pressure and Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer.
In April 2019, The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center working for decarceration and to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, presented a report to the United Nations that found “African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences. As of 2001, one of every three Black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime, the report said.
It almost feels as if right after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves that were brought to this country, new laws, rules, codes and regulations handcuffed them again, Yizar said.
“People who are at the top of our systematic, discriminatory and racist power structure that we call America want to see things through the lens that makes them feel comfortable,” Yizar said. “It’s like when Colin Kaepernick was kneeling for the national anthem. That automatically means he is being disrespectful, anti-American and that he hates us. But what he was saying was, 'I am doing this because everybody is going to look at me.' What he was saying is that right now we have a problem in America — that Black men are being murdered and brutalized by the power structure that is supposed to protect and serve. When you start talking about systemic racism, you have to look at the powers that be and how they manipulate the things that people see.”
What Black Lives Matter is fighting for, however, is beyond equal opportunities for education, health care and housing. It's for the basic right for Black Americans to live, catalyzed by the last decade's worth of Black deaths at the hands of police, of which the last nine minutes of Floyd's life serves as a sterling example.
“Think about the message and how messed up our kids are when the symbol of a policeman is one that evokes fear,” Yizar said. “It doesn’t matter what state you go to in America, you can always identify a police car. And the message is right there — to protect and serve. If you have a problem, the police are where you go. But what kind of message are we sending our kids when we tell them, ‘Unless you are in dire straits, don’t go to the police. Unless something is out of control crazy, don’t involve the police because you will be the one who will probably be blamed for whatever situation you are in or encountering.”
In speaking about instances in Pocatello in 2020 in which Black families caution their children to not wear hooded sweatshirts or to be home before dark, Yizar continued, “What you see across America is two separate classes operating. Everyone else can wear a hoodie at midnight in the middle of the street, but a Black man walking down the street at night is going to take that hoodie off and fold it up and carry it underneath his arm. When we say ‘We are all in this together; can’t we just get along?’ The answer is no we can’t because the system is so messed up that I have to tell my kids something that is directly opposed to what they naturally should do.”
That’s why it’s not so difficult for calls to defund police departments to get so much traction, says Robertson, adding that it’s not hard to withhold support from a group that many people like himself mostly live in fear of.
Systemic racism is woven into the underlying fabric of America if you were to ask Alfreda Vann, a 73-year-old Pocatello resident and a member of Robertson’s church. On an individual level, Vann believes true change can come from the reckoning of past transgressions. To her, generations and generations of the guilt and fear associated with the historical treatment of people of color in America has psychologically conditioned many Americans to, if not support, at least turn a blind eye to racism.
“How do you change it?” Vann asks. “You acknowledge it and ask for forgiveness, repent. Once it’s acknowledged and you understand the wrongs that have been done then you can begin to move forward.”
Every Black community member or leader the Idaho State Journal interviewed was alive for the civil rights movement, the protests following the treatment of Rodney King and the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013.
Not one person was ready to predict current events will lead to actual change on the national scale, yet they still feel hopeful and have confidence that the young generation before them are paving a way for a better, unified future for every American.
“That is what is different with this generation that didn’t grow up with the racism and hatred of the South like where I’m from,” said Robertson, who left a coal camp in Algoma, West Virginia, to serve in the Vietnam War before moving to Idaho. “This generation of young people intermingle, they’re friends. They help one another and that type of environment has moved into the spotlight where you see these groups like here in Pocatello marching together.”
True change in the eyes of Monroe happens if we continue doing what’s happening right now — creating a dialogue, incentivizing Black voters to hit the polls and passing legislation that equalizes opportunity in this country.
“I can speak for the NAACP and say that it got off the ground 100-something years ago because white people supported these black people putting something together to address lynching that was going on,” Monroe said. “I think that all of these movements, much like that of the civil rights movement, need the support of the entire community. To effect change, you can have your march and protest, but the actual change will come with policymakers and federal and state legislation. That support is getting stronger, but at different times it ebbs and flows."
Or as one half of the rap group Run The Jewels and the son of an Atlanta police officer, Killer Mike, put it following Floyd’s death, “plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize.”
For Yizar, true change in America has started and the necessary conversations are happening, but they must continue. An end to systemic racism isn’t enough in his world, what’s needed is the inclusion of everyone in this country regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or background.
“I am not ready to say this is making a difference and that we’re going to be all good,” Yizar said. “For me, we are having this conversation and that’s what needs to happen. It’s a hard conversation when you talk about race. It’s a hard conversation when you talk about structural, organizational racism. But it needs to happen. But I’m going to hold my vote on whether this iteration is any different until I start seeing some systematic inclusion.”