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Rod Watson: An era passed with Curtin, leaving equity up to us

The two stories on the same front page, each dealing with racial equity, leave two inescapable questions: Is the glass half-empty or half-full? And either way, are we willing to pour any more into the effort?

The death of U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin is a reminder of a time when, despite virulent and even violent opposition, courts saw the Constitution as a vehicle for remedying past wrongs, cognizant that merely removing overt barriers was not enough. They knew that those long held back couldn’t automatically pull even with folks who had written a head start into the law, gaining advantages many whites today aren’t even aware of as they chafe at the kinds of remedies fashioned by Curtin.

John T. Curtin, federal judge who desegregated Buffalo schools, dies at 95

With Neil Gorsuch taking his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court this week, Curtin’s era seems further and further in the rearview mirror. That reality puts more focus on non-judicial efforts, like the one at the heart of the second story – the resolution to the controversy over public art in the black community, with black artists belatedly added to the project.

Forget for now the absurdity that in 2017 the Albright-Knox Art Gallery would try to mount an East Side exhibit portraying black leaders without including black artists. After an outcry from a no-longer-dormant African-American community, gallery leaders corrected that blatant omission.

Albright-Knox does about-face on East Side portrait project

It’s not hard to imagine that in a different time – or at different organization – the community’s outcry would be ignored. Instead, the Albright-Knox listened, learned and eventually broadened its project.

But why would officials ever think they could mount such an exhibit in the first place without being inclusive?

They probably didn’t think at all – which underscores how hard achieving equity is going to be. After all, a spokesman said Albright-Knox leaders underwent training last fall through the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable, the project to educate community honchos about the benefits of inclusion and the history that necessitates a corrective effort today.

Does the Albright-Knox experience mean such training is worthless?

No, it just means that "one and done" to check off a box on the progressive worksheet is not nearly enough. If organizations don’t constantly reinforce the message from the training and periodically reassess their efforts, they are wasting their time. There has to be an ongoing commitment, with follow-up until inclusion becomes ingrained. That – along with public pressure – is how institutional cultures change.

But it has to start somewhere, and the Roundtable effort is a good beginning.

"Companies continue to sign up," said Alphonso O’Neill-White, Roundtable chairman. So far, officials said, 43 organizations have participated in the training, with another six already scheduled and 17 more on a waiting list.

With Gorsuch restoring the Supreme Court’s conservative majority in an era in which even basic voting rights are at risk, it’s hard to imagine a lower-court judge like Curtin having the impact he had in the 1970s when he desegregated Buffalo’s schools as well as its police and fire departments.

That leaves voluntary efforts like the Roundtable’s as optimists’ best hope. Pessimists will look at the changed political landscape and Albright-Knox’s initial resistance, and wonder if that is enough. Realists will recognize that, for now, it’s all we have.

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