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"Racial Tension" Workshops Address Race Issues In Escambia County

The University of West Florida Social Work Department is facilitating a new series of community workshops to explore the issue of race in Escambia County. “Racial Tension: Cooling the Fires” will kick off this Thursday evening in downtown Pensacola.

Key triggers of this focus on racial issues have included nationally publicized police-involved shootings of blacks and the massacre of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C.  

Julie Patton, an instructor in the UWF Social Work Department, says she and her colleagues felt compelled to dig deeper.

“Social workers have an ethical responsibility to address systemic problems in the society,” said Patton. “We felt that there were still very severe problems with the way that our country responds to certain minorities, and we wanted to do something about it.”

The result of their collective response was a series of community-based conversations framed as “Race & Reconciliation.”

Patton, who’s also a member of the League of Women Voters, says these discussions and her work at the university made it clear that there are some systemic problems in Escambia County.

“It’s considered by my students, who come from other parts of the country, to be a really racist community,” Patton said. “I’m from Escambia County, and it hurt me to think of the community that I love as being really racist, and so I was really interested in somehow doing something about the racism.”

Now, those early community conversations have evolved into a new series of workshops titled “Racial Tension: Cooling the Fires” to be held monthly through December.

For this first workshop, Patton will lead off with a presentation on “Social Inequality and Privilege in Escambia County: Why Tensions are so High.”

Using her social work experience, she has put together a ‘social inequality wheel’ to help demonstrate the environment in which an average child - black, white, and Hispanic - grows up in Escambia.

Patton collected a series of statistics on various areas of life experience in Escambia County, such as household income, segregated schools, the school-to-prison pipeline and high school graduation rates. She says the idea is to “try to create almost a dash board of sorts of the measures that need we need to be looking at in order to understand whether the quality of life for black citizens in Escambia County is a good quality of life that supports them or whether it hinders their growth”

In her examination of the statistics, Patton says a number of things stood out.

For example, the median white income in Escambia County is almost double that of the median black income in Escambia. While, Patton notes that money isn’t everything, she says it can certainly make everyday life smoother or harder, if it’s lacking.

“The fact that a child is born into a really impoverished household adds an enormous amount of stress to their lives,” said Patton, pointing to recent research has shown that people on average people who are in poverty test 15 percentage points lower than people who are not in poverty.

“People who don’t have any money, or don’t have a home or whatever, have to focus all of their energy on how they’re going to eat today, as opposed to what career they’re going to pursue.”

Patton says she was surprised to find that participation in the workforce was just about equal for whites and blacks, with 62.4 percent of whites have jobs, while 59.8% of African-Americans work and, in many cases, are holding down two jobs.

The result is a domino effect on things like the personal stamina and resilience of blacks, their ability to parent their children, and to follow up on their children’s issues at school.

While the graduation rate for African American students in Escambia County has improved to 61.8%, it still lags behind the 78.7% graduation rate for white students in the county.

Education disparities can also lead to disparities in the criminal justice system.  Patton notes the school-to-prison pipeline in Escambia County. Following a 2012 complaint by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is investigating the Escambia School District for its school discipline policies.

Patton refers to statistics showing that Florida has the highest suspension rate in the U.S. and Escambia’s suspension rate is 27% higher than the state. By comparison, white students are five times less likely to be suspended than black students. Also, Escambia arrests more students than large counties like Miami-Dade.

Also making presentations at Thursday’s workshop will be Patton’s Social Work colleague Dr. Dione King, who’ll talk about ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences and Their Influence on Achievement.’ And UWF Staff Psychologist Dr. Keya Wiggins will discuss ‘Psychological Adjustment to Ongoing Inequality.’

Patton says one of her goals in holding these conversations is a better understanding of what life is really like for a black person living in Escambia County.

“The effort really is to get everybody to agree this is a problem. Until you recognize you have a problem, you don’t really have any ways of solving it,” Patton said.

The “Racial Tension: Cooling the Fires” workshop is set for this Thursday from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at the J. Earle Bowden Building, 120 Church Street, Pensacola.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.