Bakari Sellers: “We Need to Leave Our Silos”

Bakari Sellers / SUNY Oswego

In a general session during the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s virtual fall meeting, Bakari Sellers, author of the memoir My Vanishing County and commentator on CNN, called for Americans to get out of their bubbles and become more empathetic towards others with different identities and beliefs. He challenged everyone to spend a week watching Fox & Friends, then a week watching Morning Joe, and then a third week watching New Day. “It may be difficult for some, but afterward sit back and have some conversations.”

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, possibly the largest protest movement in U.S. history, Sellers said we need to ask ourselves: “Where do we go from here?” But before we can answer that, we must also ask: “How far have we come?”

Sellers then spent the early part of his talk walking the online audience through the life story of his father Cleveland Sellers, a professor and civil rights activist.

His father grew up in rural Denmark, South Carolina, a predominantly Black town. After enrolling at Howard University, Sellers met Stokely Carmichael and joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). In the mid-1960s, he became one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was sent to Mississippi to register voters, where he was met with intense racism.

In 1968, while in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Sellers was arrested during campus protests against the segregation of a local bowling alley. The protest became known as the Orangeburg Massacre because police shot and killed three Black protesters. Sellers and others were accused of being “outside Black Power agitators.” While the nine policemen accused of using excessive force were acquitted, Sellers was convicted and sentenced to year in jail for inciting a riot. Sellers went on to receive a degree from Harvard University and became the director of African American studies at the University of South Carolina; twenty-five years after Orangesburg he received a full pardon.

Sellers explained his father’s history in detail to remind the audience of “difficult times in the past” and relay the importance of “leaving our silos” and seeing history from another perspective.

Back in the present day, Sellers returned to discussing Denmark, South Carolina, and other rural Black communities in the South that have been left behind. There, local businesses and the hospital have shut down. The schools are in the “‘corridor of shame,’ and students walk through mud to get to classes held in trailers.”

With the pandemic, the lack of access and opportunity has only gotten worse. “People feel anxious and suffocated.” Many in the community feel like they are “on the floor,” and there is no further they can drop. Their ability to “emerge from that soil and become an example has gotten so much tougher.”

Sellers brought up Denmark to explain that there is an “empathy deficit in America.” He said “Black people are in a constant state of grieving.” To help, “we can all do our part, take the time, do the introspection. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still so much farther to go. We need to dream with our eyes open and re-imagine the possibilities.”

Those who are developers, planners, and designers of the built environment have an important role to play in re-imagining the country. One of the first major pieces of civil rights legislation — the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — was about “real estate development.”

Before the legislation, redlining, which significantly reduced home ownership in Black and Latinx communities, was pervasive. Redlining also hampered equitable education reform. Equal access to purchasing of a home is essential to growing local tax bases, which play a large role in funding schools.

Today, much of local property taxes come from commercial properties and new development. Here lies the Catch-22: “you can’t improve schools without bringing in business and development, and you can’t bring in business and new development without better schools.”

Sellers applauded the legislation signed into law by President Trump to create opportunity zones. There are now more than 8,700 zones in the U.S. where low-income communities are seeing an influx of direct investment. In return, developers receive significant tax benefits.

But Sellers also called for a greater focus on “race-based policies to address race-specific issues.” These policies can help undo inequities in access to education, health care, transportation, and other areas.

He said even with all the new investment in opportunity zones, Black people in the U.S. are still far behind whites and other groups in wealth accumulation, in large part because of the legacy of redlining, which denied prospective Black homeowners the ability to take out a mortgage. “If white people stopped making any money now, it would still take Black folks 228 years to catch up.”

When asked by an audience member what white and other allies can do to help, Sellers said: “bringing humility and honesty, and really listening is more important than speaking out.” But then he added that “Black people aren’t the ones who are going to cure racism in this country.”

And then when asked what is holding up further change — a lack of knowledge about racism or denial? — Sellers responded: “it’s partly due to willful ignorance, and partly due to a piss-poor educational system.”

Returning to his theme of breaking down racial and partisan silos, he offered a message of solace and determination: “it’s a courageous thing to love your neighbor, even when they don’t love you back. You have to re-dedicate yourself, even when they don’t love you. For some of us, that’s an awesome responsibility.”

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