Conversation: Vernon M. Strickland

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Below is the second of our six-part Series entitled Conversation: Questions & Perspectives in 2020. Winters Media & Publishing Inc. asked six black community leaders to share their points of view in the worldwide #BlackLivesMatter debate and how it relates to Coweta County. Today, our Q&A is with Vernon M. Strickland.

Vernon M. Strickland is a proud husband, father of two, originally from Newnan, a graduate and former student-body president of Newnan High School, a childhood cancer survivor, former college football walk-on, former NFL linebacker, and former engineer.  He currently is a partner in the Atlanta office of the law firm of Wargo & French LLP where he specializes in business litigation, intellectual property and labor & employment law. These views are his own and do not represent the experiences or views of his law firm. 

1. When you walk into a grocery store and see “Aunt Jemima” pancake mix or “Uncle Ben’s” rice, what are your thoughts?

Seeing those brands reminds me of the unspoken ethos that defines the American culture.  A culture that has made the idea of subjugation and acts of inhumanity towards black people a socially accepted norm.  And this type of modern-day normalization of man’s inhumanity to man, in my experience, only exists in America and to the detriment of black Americans.  For example, there are no brands in Germany or any other industrialized nation where imagery reflecting the subjection, imprisonment, torture, experimentation and murder of Jews during the holocaust is used to brand a product or service.  There are no references to the Nazi party, no inferences to the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” or anti-Semitic marks or slogans used to identify products or services.  In fact, no one would even dare argue that such branding, if it did exist, would not be perceived as inhumane, hateful, grotesque and utterly distasteful.

2. How do you respond to the typical white person saying “well, if they (a black person) had just done what they police told them to, none of this (arrest, beating, etc.) would have happened to them”

I think they miss the context of those interactions and the difference in how police aggressively interact with black people in such a way as to unnecessarily escalate the situation.  There is absence of humanity, an underlying fear and preconceived notion that white officers have toward black men in general, based on myth, that is baked into these interactions. George Floyd’s killing is an example of incidences that happen on a smaller level every day and are because of a fear that officers have of black people. 

3. Along those same lines, have you ever had an experience with law enforcement that raised concerns for you? 

Yes, the first time occurred when I was just 14-years-old.  A police officer in Newnan, with hand on his gun, threatened to “shoot [my] black ass off the back of that motorcycle” if I dared start my engine.  The officer later apologized.  Second, there was also a more recent incident in Midtown Atlanta when an officer was aggressive and started escalating a situation where I had pulled my vehicle to the side of street waiting for my wife and two white friends to walk up.  The police officer accused me of being an Uber or Lyft driver and was refusing to listen until my white friends arrived and said something which deescalated the situation.  They were shocked by the officer’s behavior.  Third, I stopped driving luxury vehicles, in part, because of the numerous times I have gotten stopped by police and sometimes even ticketed, while traveling the same speed as traffic flow.

4. What should be done with the Confederate Battle Flag? Should it be retired to museums. Should it be banned from public events? Essentially, where does it belong and not belong? 

Both the Nazi flag and the Confederate Battle Flag represent a racist ideology intent on killing and destruction to deny the humanity of a group of people.  What has been done with the Nazi flag in Germany?  I lived in that country on two separate stints and not once did I see a Nazi flag on display.  Yet the grandfather of my very close friend actually served as an officer in the Nazi army.  At a minimum, the Confederate Battle flag should be retired to museums and it should absolutely be banned from any public event sanctioned by or affiliated with any government.  Private entities, such as NASCAR, are allowed to make their own decisions but as a decision maker for any brand, I would not want to associate my product or service with allowing the display of the Confederate Battle Flag.

5. Do you see that flag as a symbol of hate speech or a relic of past history for Southern pride?

One need only look at the history of the Confederate Battle Flag to see it was used and promoted as a symbol of hate, inhumanity and oppression.  The facts are indisputable.  The flag was introduced and reintroduced throughout history as a symbol of opposition to the quest for equal rights for black Americans.

 6. What should be done with Confederate statutes of Civil War generals and heroes in public places?

They should be removed.  The Confederacy waged war against the United States and thank God, lost.  Period. The objective of the Confederacy was to wage war and sacrifice lives for the sole purpose of enslaving and denying the God-given inalienable rights of other human beings.  Why should glorifying those who fought against humanity and against the United States be acceptable as public monuments in the United States?

 7. What about the Confederate statues in downtown Newnan?

See above answer at 6.

 8. Pop groups Lady Antebellum and The Dixie Chicks are now calling themselves Lady A and The Chicks. Dixie Beer is changing its name, along with many other product names like Aunt Jemima. Where does it stop? What about black coffee or brownies or Cracker Barrel or White Castle? When does this end?

For those asking this question, they have completely missed it.  It stops where any name makes a direct or indirect reference to oppression, racism, slavery, or segregation.  For purposes of the response to this question, let’s analogize the Confederacy and Dixie and Antebellum to the Nazi Party in Germany. Anything promoting the Nazi Party or its ideas of genocide have been scrutinized with common sense and ended.  Somehow, in America, the culture of the southern pride and the Confederacy have been romanticized in such a way as to ignore their monstrosity.

 9. A lot of people watching the protests on television cannot grasp why blacks would riot in their own neighborhoods, destroy black businesses or businesses that hire primarily black employees. What is your response?

First, let’s identify peaceful protests and rioting and agree that they are not the same. While I am encouraged by the peaceful protests and worldwide support for the call for equal justice in America, like many, I am frustrated by the occurrence of riots in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and other places.

Second, I agree with the quote from the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” And I would remind all that to some extent, there is rarefied precedent for riots in America as a now famous riot occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 16, 1773, that ultimately gave birth to America and its ideals of freedom, justice, and representative government by the consent of the governed. Just a thought but there are similarities, right or wrong.  With this context, while I do not agree with rioting, I understand it.  And to a broader extent, I understand there is a mindset that the black Americans in those communities do not own anything and coupled with the frustration of a system that is set up to ensure the continuation of that status quo and worse, many believe that rioting is the only act that will polarize the public and prompt people to engage in particularly ostentatious displays of allegiance or condemnation for the underlying reason or root cause of the riots: systemic racism in America.  I think that but for the riots, we would probably not be having the conversations that are happening now.

10. Most parents have “the talks” – drugs and sex. It seems black parents/relatives also have to have another talk with their teenagers living in a white world. How does that go? 

First, I cannot speak to everyone’s approach.  Contrary to popular belief, black Americans are not a monolith but are as diverse in our philosophical approaches to life as any other community.  Second, I have been wondering out loud since 1991, the year my baby brother was born, “is this generation of black American children going to finally encounter a society where that conversation is not necessary?”  For me and my household, unfortunately, the talk happened and continues to happen long before teenage years.  My son who loved to wear hoodies when he was just four years old in 2013, asked with tears in his eyes, was George Zimmerman going to kill him too.  And this was secondary trauma that he had absorbed from his surroundings and not from a conversation we had.  The conversation involves an explanation about all people being created equal but there is unfortunately, a deep-seated cultural and community sin of systemic racism in America that you will have to contend with.  And in that vein, you need to be mindful of your surroundings. For my son, who has been reading fluently since age three (3) and is off the charts in terms of reading, math and cognitive measurables, he has to be aware that because of racism, stigma and historic discrimination, some people will be uncomfortable with that and may treat him differently.  The talk also involves letting him know that, in spite of popular perceptions, he is not a unicorn or part of a just few but there are hundreds of thousands of other black American young scholars whose paths he has yet to cross.

From my observations, the whole purpose of that talk is to protect but, unlike the drugs and sex talk which work if followed, black families are just giving best practices and hoping things turn out for the best.

 11. So what is correct in responding to race? Is it “black,” “Black,” “African-American,” or “people of color”?

Black American is my preference but each of those you mentioned are socially acceptable.  However, “people of color” does not encompass just black people but also includes Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Native American, etc.

 12. What is one main thing you wished white people understood about race in America?

That there are and have always been unequal playing fields perpetuated because of and by way of racism.  That the reality is that “all lives do NOT matter” because black lives do not matter, and all lives will matter once black lives finally matter.  As Paul McCartney sang in 1982, “we all know that people are the same wherever you go. There is good and bad in everyone.”  However, the problem lies in the white majority’s practice of judging and painting with a broad brush all black Americans based on the actions of a few individuals. At the same time, the white majority does not think it fair to characterize all white people by the actions of the worst of those within that demographic. That throughout history, there has always been outrage and resistance to black Americans’ plea for equal justice, equal freedom and equal opportunity.  That the repeal of laws that were racist on their face has not ended racist law enforcement practices, lending practices, education practices, housing practices and business practices.

13. What is the most significant thing white people can do to improve their part of race relations.

There is a lot of unlearning to do. White people need to be active in taking a sober examination of their beliefs and what they have been taught to believe, and then to address ignorance that amounts to racist views within their own spaces.  Recognize that you do  not have to be racist to benefit from racism.  Also, get to actually know people who are black.  And for those who profess to be Jesus followers, address hypocrisy and the sin of racism in your own circles, (see Acts 11:2-4, 18; Gal 2:11-21) and love those brothers and sisters who are not of your tribe with the love that shows all men who Jesus’ disciples are.  (John 13:34-35, Matt 5:46-47).

14. Should we focus on being “colorblind” or acknowledge and celebrate our various “colors” as a part of our makeup?

Until we can equally exist, live and thrive in a society that is colorblind, we have to acknowledge our different challenges that go along with the territory.  I have traveled the world, met and spent significant time with people from all over the world.  And in those travels and interactions, I have come to realize that people are for the most part, the same. We all want the same things for ourselves and our families.

 15. Every parent has problems with their kids’ choice of music. But how do we deal with certain mainstream Rap music that glorifies gangs, cop killing, degrading of women and more than enough of the N- and other similar derogatory words. 

First, I do not think I agree that this description reflects the content of mainstream rap music.  It may be some rap music but not mainstream rap music.  And I think we deal with it the same way we deal with black metal, heavy metal music that expresses extreme hate and anti-Christian views and advocates various forms of Satanism or ethnic paganism.  It is a genre of artistic expression that is allowed and is protected under the First Amendment for those who wish to consume it.  If people were to no longer consume it, I suppose it would reduce the popularity of such music but there are likely artists who would still create it.  Nevertheless, as parents, each of us has a responsibility to scrutinize and use discretion in what we allow our children to listen to.

16. Any final thoughts?

Black Americans do not need to or should feel compelled to have to justify our existence or our presence.  If a black professional or black family is in the same space with you in business or on vacation, just recognize and believe they have had to work and overcome twice as many obstacles to get there. We cannot out-grade, out-perform, out-earn, or out-degree racism. But we can outlast, out-understand and out-love systemic racism.  And I am hopeful that we will do so.

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