Many people were surprised, “aghast” even, yet those of us in this city and county who have been subjected to overt and covert racism in the form of hostile taunts, physical threats, or microaggressions, nodded our heads in confirmation that it was just another day in the neighborhood.
First, I must applaud Jose Martin and his brother for the restraint they demonstrated. It was reflective of their professionalism, integrity, and grace. But they should have never had to deal with racist trash talk of any kind.
In a statement on Facebook, Mayor Benjamin Florsheim said Middletown was “a work in progress.” We can’t respond to incidents like this with performative actions. The mayor was right to contact police. This should be considered a hate crime.
What we saw was a wakeup call if you claim “woke” or not. Racism isn’t always as obvious as we witnessed. It sneaks up and lingers in systems that were built years ago in our city. We recognize it. We even talk about it in its many forms but the work to change hearts and minds of people in Middletown is not a “one-off.” It takes commitment from our leaders and all of us who call this city and county home.
When our neighbors, co-workers, employees, or students share their stories, believe them. They are struggling to stand strong in their truth and work within the system but there is trauma associated with walking into hostile situations daily and realizing that no one cares enough to do anything about it.
There is a cost to indifference. People come here because they say Middletown is “so diverse.” People leave our city because diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are not fully embraced within our systems.
Presently those systems are designed to let people slide when they exhibit racist behavior. They promise to do better, but they don’t. Performative rhetoric and behavior are tolerated.
We can’t continue to merely “reprimand” people or admit to our collective shame when we don’t know what to say or more importantly, don’t have the courage to do something. We need to hold people accountable, immediately and lead by example.
When systemic racism rears its ugly head, our community and our leaders should act as quickly as we did in Martin’s situation.
To say Middletown is a “work in progress” is an understatement. Middletown could be that shining star of social justice if we could just get out of our own way.
Anita Ford Saunders is President of the Middlesex County CT NAACP.