The concept of cultural competency comes up often when referring to an educational process of informing people how to function in their profession with a higher level of compassion for all people, mainly people of color, and those with diverse religious backgrounds. Essentially, this programming is one of countless approaches designed to educate and inform on the penetrating subject of systemic racism and inherent biases within our systems that were established on a historic foundation of white supremacy. Cultural competency education matters. Its intention is to empower and encourage positive ripple effects toward change that embraces a multicultural inclusive society.
New knowledge brings new responsibility. Although we did not create the circumstances we inherited, eradicating racism falls on all our shoulders. We must push our elected officials to do more to redesign 21st century systems based on obsolete segregationist policies and practices. We must encourage and support equality where it doesn’t exist and remember: Sometimes systems need to be dismantled before they can be rebuilt.
With a hopelessly divided Congress, bipartisanship seems improbable. This wasn’t always the case. One of the most profound periods of a capable and active Congress was immediately after the Civil War. Far from civil, the era was epic for a number of reasons.
The passage in 1865 of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery (except in cases of incarceration) was the first of three Reconstruction Constitutional Amendments. The 13th Amendment was proposed by U.S. Rep. James Mitchell Ashley, a Republican from Ohio who ran away from home at age 14 and was an active member of the Underground Railroad.
In 1865, there were 36 states, and the country was divided on many issues, not the least was how to integrate the millions of recently freed Black people emerging from 246 years of chattel slavery. A group of Radical Republicans led by Rep. Ashley, Sen. John C. Fremont (Calif.), Sen. Charles Sumner (Mass.), Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Penn.), and Rep. Ulysses S. Grant (Ill.) led legislative efforts to create conditions of equality for all under the Constitution. They were heavily influenced by religious ideology. The white radicals were opposed by white liberals, white pro-slavery Democrats, and white moderate Republicans, led by President Abraham Lincoln. The issue of race was a prominent national debate in a whites-only national citizenry after a bitter and bloody Civil War.
*The group prioritizing the political and economic empowerment of Black people called themselves “radicals” because of their goal: “immediate, complete, permanent eradication of slavery, without compromise.” This collective of Radicals passed the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts. When President Andrew Johnson vetoed all of these, Rep. Ashley initiated impeachment proceedings against Johnson, who was a former slave owner from Tennessee.
Ashley and the Radicals also supported equality in public education, including Chinese immigrants in the West. When Ulysses S. Grant became president in 1869, he stabilized the economy, protected civil rights for people of color and heavily prosecuted the Klan. The close of Grant’s presidency in 1877 ended the dominant reign of the radicals. What this group accomplished was a start, but because of generations of violent backlash that destroyed much of the progress, the radicals’ full intended vision is still yet to be realized.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, the first Civil Rights Bill (1866) and the constitutional amendments were all important and necessary in moving toward a more equitable foundation of the fledgling U.S., which was less than 100 years old at this time and founded on a constitution modeled after white European doctrines. The term “systemic racism” quite accurately implies that racism exists in all our systems and policies in the United States. This is a broad sweeping statement that sadly, holds true. To eradicate racism, one essential step is to redesign new, inclusive and equitable policies across our democracy.
We need white radicals today to see this effort come to pass. In speaking with cultural economist Mike Green, he says the issues today are the same since the 1960s, which are a continuation of the initial concerns expressed nearly 100 years earlier.
“Our challenge, as a nation, is whether or not we’re going to maintain the status quo of white supremacy, or we’re going to move our identity of America into the future as a multicultural society, that is inclusive of all,” said Green, chief strategist for the National Institute for Inclusive Competitiveness (NIIC) and co-founder of Common Ground Conversations on Race in America. “This is really what we’re talking about.”
Green agrees it is possible to move toward positive, equitable change. We all must keep up the momentum. This is a continuation of the equity (and reparations) debate from 1865. Today, we must continue the heavy lifting until America reaches a collective goal of equity and inclusivity of all. Cultural competency illuminates a pathway forward and inspires and motivates strong, supportive grassroots radicals to achieve a historic vision.