On the south side of Rock Hill on Wednesday, cousins Dareese Barnette, Marcus Barnette and Robert Hyman sweated and worked to repair a retaining wall.
The working men, all black, were told that they are smack in the middle of what the city of Rock Hill is calling Race Equality Week.
“What about the other weeks of the year?” asked Marcus Barnettte.
Great question. There is no answer.
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The cousins turned back to the work at hand. They mentioned how unemployment for blacks, in Rock Hill and everywhere, is far higher than for whites.
In Rock Hill, the percentage of people living in poverty is three times higher for blacks than for whites.
“That sure doesn’t sound like equality,” Marcus Barnette said.
The men talked about the things that black people and Hispanics talk about every day of their lives. Not using statistics thrown around by politicians who schedule “weeks” about race, but people who live race because they are born black or brown.
The chances that a black or Hispanic person, especially a man, will be arrested in his lifetime is far higher than for whites. Blacks are incarcerated six times more, by percentage, than whites.
The question was asked of these three men if there was equality in Rock Hill.
“If there was equality, there wouldn’t be any need to have a week to say so,” said Marcus Barnette.
If there was true equality, Dareese Barnette added, then nobody would have to remind anyone about it.
The men did not dispute that having a week set aside to promote equality is a good thing. But they know that equality does not come from the proclamations of bureaucrats. Racial equality – in a city, state and country where blacks are poorer than whites – is not reality, but a slogan.
A team from London, England, came to Rock Hill in the last few days to interview many members of Rock Hill’s Friendship Nine. The Friendship Nine is a group of black men who in 1961 went to jail for 30 days for protesting segregation at Rock Hill lunch counters. Their “Jail, No Bail” strategy re-energized the American civil rights movement and turned the men into national heroes fighting for equality.
David Williamson Jr. was asked by the team from London what he has been asked hundreds of times: Is there now race equality? Williamson said again Wednesday what he told the visitors: “It is better, but it is not equal.”
On the north side of Rock Hill, off Celanese and Cherry roads, the word was not too widely known about Race Equality Week. It is a stretch just west of Interstate 77 populated heavily by Hispanic immigrants who spend a good part of their lives looking over their shoulders when not working 60-hour weeks in manual labor and service industry jobs that many employers admit can’t be filled without them.
Their race signals to so many who are not Hispanic that they are less than someone else.
“Some people look at me – the brown skin – and they say illegal,” said Juan Feliciano, who was born in Mexico but has lived in the United States for more than 40 years. “Most people who are here come here legal, and they work and raise kids.”
Feliciano works construction, hands heavy with calluses. He knows nothing but work. He was eating lunch at a food truck with dozens of other Latino men. All are construction workers. They were asked if Race Equality Week is a slogan, or reality.
“I am equal to any man,” Feliciano said, “but not all here see me as equal”
Jose Espinosa, an immigrant from Costa Rica, said he is treated fairly and well, just like any other person – but that doesn’t mean all races are considered equal by everybody.
“Too many people look at anybody brown, Latino and say we are Mexicans,” Espinosa said.
What these people are, is Americans.
Brother David Boone, of Rock Hill’s Catholic Oratory community, has crusaded for the rights of blacks for more than 55 years. He protested racial segregation and fought for education, housing, employment and other rights for the blacks of his adopted city. At 81, he still fights for their rights.
“You quit fighting, somebody might try and sneak something back in,” Boone said Wednesday.
Boone remains on the board of directors of Carolina Community Actions, which administers York County Head Start programs for pre-school children. To be eligible for Head Start, a family must, to put it bluntly, be poor enough. It is a program that Boone and others say is vital for children to succeed.
There cannot be race equality in Rock Hill when the vast majority of those Head Start children come from black families.
Boone was asked Wednesday the only question that matters: Is there race equality in Rock Hill in 2014?
“No, there is not,” Boone said. “It is not what it used to be, but it is not what it could be.
“It is not yet truly equal.”