Diverse but still a long way to go

February 18, 2013

WILKES-BARRE – On face value, Luzerne County has become much more diverse over the past few decades, with more and more people of color calling the Wyoming Valley, Greater Hazleton, Mountain Top, Pittston Area and Back Mountain their home.
But while the population has become more diverse, attitudes toward blacks and other minorities are unpalatable to some folks of color who have lived here for many years, if not all their lives.
In recognition of Black History Month, The Times Leader asked four African American women to share their experiences and views of life in Luzerne County.
What they have to say, some might not want to hear or admit.
The women are:
Shannon King, 38, is a business owner from Wilkes-Barre. She was born and raised in the area.
Theresa Tyler-Smith of Mountain Top is co-pastor of New Covenant Church. She moved here from Ohio in 1978.
Jacqueline Walters of Wilkes-Barre is coordinator of Disability Services at Penn State.
Sherrell Odom of the Mountain Top area is an executive with Kraft Foods.
Following are excerpts from a group discussion.
What was the atmosphere like when you came here?
It was quaint and very segregated in terms of neighborhoods and races. There were blacks in certain neighborhoods. It was very new to me because that’s not the environment that I grew up in. The environment in which I was raised was very integrated.
Has the area changed since then?
In that sense, yes. It’s become more integrated in terms of neighborhood housing.
When I first came here 27, 28 years ago, there was a small population of blacks. Most black people, you knew everybody in the community; either directly or indirectly, you knew something about them.
Now, there is an increased number of blacks, and you may not necessarily know an individual you encounter. Also, we have a lot more Hispanics. So there’s an increase in diversity as well as additional minorities.
I went to Meyers High School and I think in the whole entire high school, there were probably 25 African Americans, maybe five Asian kids and maybe three Hispanic kids. I think that was a representation of what this area was like, so that allows this area to remain blissfully ignorant, this diversity that was out there.
(She tells a story of hearing someone recently refer to an Asian person as “an oriental” – now considered a derogatory term.)
Now, because of the … changing landscape of people now in this area, people here can no longer be ignorant. … They can now no longer say, “I never met an Asian person, I never met a black person, I never met an Hispanic person.” So I think this area is angry that their landscape has changed and their neighborhoods have changed … and I think it’s coming out in their actions and their tone and the way they carry themselves and what they say.
… They want to do something but they don’t know what to do and I think they realize that they don’t have the power to do anything about it because the world is changing – not only Wilkes-Barre, but the world is changing – and I don’t think this area wants to change, but they’re being forced to.
I feel like that. I’ve been here 10 years. I relocated here with my job. … I’ve experienced people referring to me as “colored.” I told her, when she says colored, it takes me back to before the Civil Rights movement because I’m a child of the South and we went from colored to negro to black and from black to African American.
And what I noticed here is that there are so many Confederate flags all over. I travel back and forth to the South, and I can honestly say I see more confederate flags here than I do in my hometown, which is in what was a Confederate state. I don’t know what that represents to them, but when we see a Confederate flag, it’s very offensive and intimidating. And I think it’s meant for intimidation.
I think people here felt comfortable (expressing racist remarks) because they didn’t fear anything. But now, with more people of color moving in … and with President Obama being the leader of this country, I think people feel justified in their racist statements now, more so since probably the time of the Civil Rights movement.
Many of the people that are moving in are moving here because of employment. … When I first came here, there were fewer employment opportunities for people of color. As more companies came in, transferring positions into this area (belonging to) people of means – that was another level of intimidation to people who were already here.
What can or should be done?
I think this area is OK being ignorant and unaware. There’s comfort in what they know. … How many teachers of color work in the school district?
Everyone that works in the schools is from this area, so you have no new experiences and it remains the same. … I have a friend who has applied numerous times. He has dual degrees and has been an administrator in New Jersey, in Maryland, and they don’t look at his resume. He never receives a call.
I interviewed for a job (in the early 1980s) and got the job. When I came in to fill out the necessary forms, the employer actually told me that they were just hiring me because they needed minorities to fill a certain quota so they could get certain funding, so I never returned. I told them if you can’t accept me for my qualifications and skills, I would never work for you. In the ’90s, I had an employer who was taking over an organization I was working for in a management position. They actually told me they did not want any black as part of their management team. So I went to Philadelphia to work and I commuted for years.
So Luzerne County still has a long way to go?
Luzerne County is 20 years behind the times.
If all the people in positions of management and power are from this area, nothing is going to change. … I believe that if I would leave Wilkes-Barre today, come back 20 years from now and it would be exactly the same.
When I see a push for change or a push for inclusiveness, it always comes from the outside or maybe from a company that has moved into the area and wants to educate their workforce on diversity as related to inclusiveness. … Companies that are rooted and were (started) in this community, they don’t recognize the need for inclusiveness, they don’t recognize the need for change. There’s a strong desire to remain the same.
Because change does not come easy to people from this area, we now find our community being forced to accept radical change and it is very uncomfortable. We have become a magnet for … criminals … because they have learned to identify and prey on non-progressive areas. … I believe this area has changed because it is being forced to.
People don’t just wake up and say today I am going to be a racist … it’s a learned behavior and mindset in both the white communities and the communities of color. In the ’70s, I believed this was a segregated, prejudiced and hopeless community full of racist whites. Today, I believe this is a community that has a significant number of whites that do not embrace racism but have not had an opportunity to really understand other cultures, and unfortunately, we fear what we don’t know or understand.
I believe that if our community would come together, have dialogue and really begin to embrace difference, that collectively we could identify and change those things that make this area appealing to criminals.