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From a Water Crisis to Reparations, Plus Black Muppets—Racism and Anti-Racism in the News This Week

Stop explaining away Black people’s justified skepticism of vaccines

Security workers in front of the MedMen marijuana dispensary on March 23, 2021 in Evanston, Illinois. The City Council of Evanston voted to approve a plan to make reparations available to Black residents due to past discrimination. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Here are the racist (and anti-racist) news headlines you might have missed in the past week. We’ll start with the ongoing water crisis that might have escaped your attention because it’s not in Flint, Michigan, and finish with anti-racist muppets. How’s that for a contrast?

One of America’s Blackest cities doesn’t have safe water: A few weeks ago, I mentioned the thousands of folks in the overwhelmingly Black city of Jackson, Mississippi, who were still without drinking water weeks after back-to-back winter storms knocked out their service. But like a pimple that lies painfully under the skin before erupting, Jackson’s water problems are both ongoing and acute. Many people living there had unsafe drinking water long before the storms and still do, as a Mississippi Today article explains. For the last five years, city officials have advised pregnant women and children under five to avoid drinking tap water — a fact many residents aren’t even aware of. In a Slate interview, environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers explains how Jackson’s water problems are rooted in racist infrastructure.

Bumpy road for lowriders in Austin, Texas: Since the early ’90s, Black and Latino members of Austin’s car clubs have gathered in certain neighborhood parks to barbecue, hang out, and show off their handiwork. But now, the mostly White residents of a new luxury high-rise near one such park are calling police and complaining about noise and what they perceive as “dangerous” people and practices. The same thing is happening at a car meetup at a square named for the city’s most famous Black civil rights activists. “A lot of us grew up here and were pushed out, and this is how we come home to spend time with family and old friends,” says one car club member quoted in a Texas Monthly story.

Stop citing the Tuskegee syphilis study as the only reason for vaccine hesitancy: A story from public radio station KQED explains how blaming Black people’s skepticism or (very justifiable) fears about medical racism on the Tuskegee study downplays the ongoing discrimination we face from doctors and health institutions. “It’s an excuse. If you continue to use it as a way of explaining why many African Americans are hesitant, it almost absolves you of having to learn more, do more, involve other people — admit that racism is actually a thing today,” says one advocate for African American elders.

What’s the modern equivalent of 40 acres and a mule? The Chicago suburb Evanston just became the first community in the country to approve reparations for Black residents affected by housing discrimination. The $10 million plan is funded by a tax on marijuana sales. CNN gives a good description of how this will be carried out and what it means for other reparations efforts around the country. I don’t know if the unpaid and brutal labor wrung out of our enslaved ancestors can ever truly be paid back, but perhaps this could be a start.

Are college athletics a plantation system? As much of the country delves into NCAA March Madness, there’s a renewed conversation about whether college athletes who earn huge amounts of money for their schools should be financially compensated. Many of those athletes are Black, and the coaches, university administrators, donors, and fans are White. In an essay, Forty Million Dollar Slaves author William C. Rhoden argues that college players shouldn’t be forced to settle for life on the sports “plantation.” A counterpoint is provided by former Division I player Cody McDavis, who says that paying college athletes could force schools to defund sports that are considered unprofitable and that the resulting cuts to athletic scholarships would disproportionately affect students of color.

Shade from the East: China, which has its own problems with allowing civil liberties for its ethnic minorities, opened its most recent counter-response to allegations of human rights abuses by citing some of George Floyd’s last words and criticizing U.S. racism and inequality. The report describes the U.S. as having a year in which the Covid-19 epidemic went “out of control, accompanied by political disorder, inter-ethnic conflicts, and social division.”

And in good news, our muppets are Black: Sesame Street is introducing a Black father and son character duo to facilitate discussions on racism, racial justice, and racial literacy. Dad Wes and his son, Elijah, were introduced this week in a short video, “Explaining Race.” It’s part of a larger Sesame Workshop effort to provide resources for parents and children to discuss race. My younger siblings and I had a daily ritual of watching Sesame Street as small children, and this video made me kind of warmly emotional. What do you folks think?

Stephanie Siek is a writer and editor who loves cats, cookie dough and aborted alliteration.

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