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Thursday, September 24 News

‘It shows you the issue is systemic racism:’ Westporters talk lack of diversity

WESTPORT — As the country continues to grapple with its complicated racial past, a forum titled “Why is Westport so White?” highlighted the challenges people of color face in town.

The Monday evening outdoor event drew more than 60 people at MoCA Westport and laid out how the town’s racial history impacts present day existence.

“There have been Black residents in Westport almost since Westport’s beginnings,” Danielle Dobin, one of the event’s organizers, said. “Of course at that time, those Black residents were enslaved people and they were brought here without their consent.”

According to Dobin, who also chairs the Planning and Zoning commission, after slavery ended, more Black families moved to the town during the Great Migration of the 1920s. But in the 1950s, an act of arson destroyed a multifamily apartment building on Main Street and displaced many of these families, she said.

“Following those events, it became almost impossible for Black families to choose to live in Westport,” Dobin said.

While the American suburbs exploded in growth during the ‘60s, restrictive racial covenants blocked out nonwhites and Jewish people until the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Dobin said after the law was enacted, discrimination continued with real estate agents allegedly engaging in “gentlemen’s agreements” to not show homes to people of color.

“The impact of the restrictive covenants and the gentlemen’s agreements were intense,” she said.

As for consequences — the town’s Black population is just 1.2 percent of the whole, Asian population rests at 4 percent and the indigenous American population is at 0.1 percent, according to 2010 census numbers.

Several Westporters spoke to how the lack of diversity has affected their lives.

Ifeseyi Gale, a Black mother, said after moving to town a year ago she sometimes felt she was back in her hometown in Scotland.

“But I have encountered some incidents where it makes you remember that racism still does exist,” she said. “Maybe it’s not the same way of having a servant or slave, but it has turned its head in different aspects.”

Gale said once while driving and looking for an address, she passed a girl on a bicycle twice. The girl sped away into her driveway and shortly afterward, family members came outside and questioned her presence in the area, she said.

“This young lady thought that I wanted to kidnap her,” Gale said. “A black woman in a BMW SUV — which is just kind of strange because that doesn’t even fit the profile of a kidnapper.”

She said the fact the girl was 15 years old highlighted a more serious issue.

“It shows you the issue is systemic racism,” Gale said.

Harold Bailey, chairman of TEAM Westport and one of the event’s organizers, said while Gale’s story may be shocking to some, it’s unfortunately not surprising to people of color. He also illustrated how the town’s lack of diversity further impacted youth.

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Bailey said the school system had a higher percentage of white professionals than the town’s percentage of white population. This led to years of the schools pushing what he described as a philosophy of color-blindness.

“The fallacy to that is what that reinforces is the elephant in the room, which is whiteness and being white,” Bailey said. “What that says is everybody being normal — and then there’s the other over here.”

The student population at Staples High School was 85 percent white, drops to 80 percent at the middle schools and in the high 70s at the elementary schools, he said, data supported by information available from the state Department of Education.

“That says the town of Westport’s student body is getting more and more diverse the further out you go,” he said.

The racial shift in population has left many needed conversations unexamined in increasingly diverse classrooms, he said.

Former students also spoke to how the color-blind approach affected them.

“Schools cannot pretend to be color-blind in a world that is anything but,” Nicole Kiker, a white former Staples student, said. “This is especially true for schools that are only 1.2 percent Black.”

TEAM Westport has created a 10-point plan to address many of the issues, organizers said, and will presented it to the district’s administration.

But Bailey said there remains a reasonable doubt in a number of people’s minds on whether or not the town looks the way it does because that’s what residents want.

“The truth is, we have to reimagine and continue to deliver our own meaning of the town that gets rid of the hurdles of the schools, communities, employees, visitors, citizens, etc. so that is no longer a reasonable doubt,” he said.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com

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