Former executive director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP Heaster Wheeler told students to confront racism head-on during the third installment of the 90 Minutes Series Wednesday night.
Wheeler, who has fought for civil rights in Detroit throughout his life, said that the key to improving what he called an “epidemic in America” is open conversation from all sides. He advised all college students to get the best education possible and focus on improving the community.
“There are some easy solutions here. A lot of them start with respect, a lot of them start with training, a lot of them start with basic awareness and knowledge of the facts,” Wheeler said.
Ultimately, Wheeler said if people cannot listen to each other, they cannot learn. Even though ideological differences may arise, he said these are valuable opportunities to strengthen arguments and reasoning.
“We have the right to disagree, but I think sometimes we’re petty in our differences. I don’t think it’s okay to hurt people you disagree with,” Wheeler said. “There’s too much disparity in too many different communities to say that the American Dream works for everyone. That’s the big ideal on which we built this country and the fact is, the things that connect us are far greater than the things that divide us. If we don’t find a way to embrace and celebrate our diversity, shame on us.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has sprung up in response to many current racial issues, specifically police brutality against black people. In response to criticism of the lack of organization in the BLM movement, Wheeler said the movement is unique because it started online with just a hashtag.
“It really reflects a consciousness, a spirit, a moment in American history,” Wheeler said. “It’s a statement that reaffirms that we’re all Americans.”
He named the racialization of poverty as another main issue in race relations today. Even though there are far more white people than black people in poverty, Wheeler said most white poverty is hidden, and it is painted as a black problem.
“We allow other people to perpetuate some foolish and false divide. So we have some race challenges, but more importantly we’ve got a bunch of good people who are committed to working through that,” Wheeler said.
The popular “All Lives Matter” slogan that is often used to oppose BLM does not address the real concern, according to Wheeler. He used the analogy of his house catching on fire, and firefighters refusing to acknowledge the specific problem.
“If my house is on fire, the correct answer is not ‘all houses matter,’” Wheeler said.
Wheeler also addressed the belief that the high amount of black-on-black crime detracts from the prevalence of police brutality, saying other races have equal rates of intraracial violence.
“That isn’t the issue as it relates to police on black crime,” Wheeler said. “In this political moment, there are a whole bunch of issues we’re not talking about. At the end of the day, most people want the same things.”
Wheeler was interviewed by Joe Cooke, a junior journalism major. Cooke said that he thought Wheeler’s insights about the election were especially relevant for students.
“The fact that we don’t talk about racism doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist,” Wheeler said. “You’re not going to solve the race divide unless we’re all at the conversation. Conversation without action leads to frustration.”