African American Catholic school family reflects on racism

| June 23, 2020 | 0 Comments

From left, Alexandria, Isaac, Stephanie, Isaac Jr. and Allen Hill pose for a photo at their home in north Minneapolis. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

‘Besides skin color, we are all the same’

More subtle than overt. But ever-present, concerning and unjust.

That’s been the experience of racism by one family who lives near Ascension parish and school in north Minneapolis. They’re among African Americans discussing and sharing their experience in the aftermath of the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American who died while being arrested and then pinned for more than 8 minutes beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer on a city street.

Captured by a bystander on video, Floyd’s death led to protests and riots in Minneapolis, St. Paul and across the country. It is prompting changes in policing and a growing awareness of historic and systemic racism in law enforcement, education, housing and other areas of daily life.

It’s also prompted soul-searching and questions about how racism manifests itself more than 150 years after the end of slavery in this country.

For Isaac and Stephanie Hill, both 38, and their four children, racism is reflected in being followed in stores or not helped at all. It’s being passed over for promotion, being reluctant to disclose their race in mortgage applications and other forms — even in naming their children in a way that their race is not immediately apparent, in hopes it will help provide them equal opportunity.

“So, when you look at their job application, you won’t be able to tell by their name the color of their skin,” said Stephanie. “It’s crazy that you have to get that specific, but you do.”

Similarly, Isaac has chosen several times over the years not to disclose his race when completing forms, such as a mortgage application. He selects “I choose not to disclose” rather than “African American.”

“I’d rather leave it up in the air than tell you I’m a black guy,” he said. “If you don’t know who I am, I feel I’ll have a better chance.”

The Hills send their children to Ascension Catholic School and DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis. They are licensed ministers at their church, True Apostolic Assembly in Minneapolis. Their faith has gotten them through difficult moments, they said, and protected them from some of the worst, overt forms of racism.

“I do believe it was the hand of God that covered us,” Stephanie said. “We are a praying family. We are strong in faith, and I believe in the power of prayer.”

From left, Isaac, Alexandria, Stephanie, Allen and Isaac Hill Jr. play cornhole in the backyard of their home in north Minneapolis. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

The couple’s younger son, Allen, 13, and daughter, Alexandria, 11, attend Ascension. Isaac Jr., 16, attends DeLaSalle. Their fourth child, Aniyah, 20, lives on her own.

The Hills make a point of talking to their sons about how to interact with police officers. Advice includes: Don’t run. Keep a respectful tone. Keep your hands where they can be seen. If they need something from you, ask the officer to reach into your pocket.

“As a parent, on the inside, that’s heartbreaking,” Stephanie said. “But the reality is, as much as we want to shield and protect them, it’s part of protecting them.”

The parents also had a conversation with their children following Floyd’s death. They knew their children were reading about it on social media, but it was important to discuss it with them.

“You try to explain the lessons that need to be learned,” Isaac said. “Without vilifying anyone, these are teachable moments. You try to let them know this is what is happening.” The lessons largely dealt with how to act around police officers, Stephanie said.

Still, Isaac said, he and his wife have mostly dealt with “wonderful people.”

“For the most part, our interactions have been pretty good,” he said.

One place they have experienced different treatment is while shopping. Isaac said he sometimes feels like he is followed in a store. But Stephanie finds that she often has no one offering her assistance, when other customers are helped.

Isaac grew up in public housing projects in north Minneapolis in a predominantly black and Asian neighborhood, with some Native Americans. He attended North High School. He had little to no interaction with white people “because it wasn’t something we saw,” he said.

That changed when he started caddying at a golf course at age 13, one of the biggest eye-opening experiences of his life. He said he went from a low-income neighborhood to spending time with successful professionals.

“Being around those type of folks was a new world,” he said, “a world I didn’t know existed.”

“You could go to downtown Minneapolis and see some of the same names of the people that you caddy for on the buildings,” he added. “You start to realize that there is a completely different world outside of a little bubble.”

Isaac said he doesn’t recall any outright racism while growing up, but some things happened “more on the sly.”

“I was one of the best caddies there,” he said, and he worked during tournaments, too, including LPGA events. Yet he felt he was not treated quite the same as others at the same experience level. He never caddied for the upper echelon players who were the biggest tippers.

Isaac worked there for more than 10 years, including as a locker room attendant. From there he became a loan processor and started showing houses, and then worked his way up to being a loan officer. Today he works for a local sanitation company.

Stephanie worked during college, graduating in 2016 with an associate’s degree in health information management. She is certified as a registered health information technologist. Today, she is a reimbursement policy manager for a large health insurer. A while back, she saw others getting promoted at her workplace so she decided to pay more attention to things like dressing for the role she wanted. But her manager hired a young white woman who had the same credentials but no experience with the company, and Stephanie learned the new hire was making $20,000 more than she was.

When her manager, who is white, said something to Stephanie following a meeting that Stephanie believed to be racist, Stephanie quit. Once she left, the company fired the manager and Stephanie was welcomed back.

More recently, after the death of George Floyd, the company CEO addressed that situation head-on, sending a company-wide memo stating that the company values equality and inclusion.

“That made me feel good to know that I worked for a company that actually took a stand,” Stephanie said.

She grew up in Lorain, Ohio, which she said is predominantly African American and also Puerto Rican. She moved to Minneapolis permanently in ninth grade.

Stephanie’s mother sent her to a predominantly white school on the east side of St. Paul, Como Park Senior High. Most of her friends were white, and Stephanie said she didn’t have any real issues regarding race through high school.

The Hills’ children also think about racism, and hope for a better world ahead.

“Bring up a child in the way he should go,” offers Allen, choosing words from the Book of Proverbs. For him, those words help explain how racism persists — and how it could change.

Racism, he said, has its roots in how one is raised. “You’re not born racist,” he said. “You’re not born hateful of other people.

“If your parents bring you up to hate others or to have that hate in your heart, that’s what you’re going to do when you get older; that’s what you’re going to teach your kids because that’s what you were taught.”

Allen said he hasn’t experienced overt racism. His older brother said he and his friends do not get called racial slurs. “It’s mainly looks, like, ‘Why are you here?’” he said.

In order to change, people have to look at each other the same way, Isaac Jr. said. “People have to realize we all bleed the same blood. In the end when we die, we all return to dust. Besides skin color, we are all the same.”

Some people simply lack knowledge, he said, but others are taught in their homes. Some kids don’t really have a problem with people, he said, but it’s the way they’re brought up and the way that they’re taught to disrespect others. “That’s what they bring out in public.”

Isaac Jr. said the topic of racism doesn’t come up in classrooms, but groups of friends sometimes talk about it. “We talk about what can we do to change this?” he said, “and how can we get people to have a different outlook?”

The Hills said they work to provide every opportunity for their children, starting with education.

“As a mom, my concern is about my children,” Stephanie said. “I want to see equal opportunity in the educational system … and equal funding across the board. I want my child to have the same experiences or opportunities on an academic level as the next kid. That’s what’s important to me.”

She said she doesn’t want Ascension seen as “the poor, black, Catholic school,” which she said she has heard from children at other Catholic schools. “That’s learned behavior, learned conversation,” she said. “And Ascension, in all honesty, has one of the best academic programs I’ve witnessed.”

But there are differences, she said, citing the time it took for children to get Chromebooks in their private school. “You go to a public school in the suburbs and they have Chromebooks, laptops … they get to take them home and do their homework,” Stephanie said.

“I believe there are schools in the inner city where there is more of an opportunity gap than an achievement gap,” Isaac said. “I think the achievement gap can actually close if there were more opportunities.”

Thinking about it logically, Isaac said, the schools with the most need should get the most resources. “But it actually works in reverse,” he said. “From an education system standpoint, there’s got to be someone looking at that from a higher level to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t make sense.’”

Stephanie added that teachers in the inner city are not paid the same as those in the suburbs, “and all of this is cause and effect.”

Isaac said he wishes more people tried to live Christ’s message of love, equality and service to others. “It’s about inclusiveness,” he said, and helping those in need.

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