This is a Blog I Have Been Wanting To Write
I have been itching to write this blog post for months. Every time I heard someone use the term “woke” incorrectly made me want to write this.
I know that having a writer share his or her key findings at the beginning of an article is the opposite to what you are accustomed. However, I am going to do just that. Here it is: Many people have no idea what the word “woke” means.
You see, all words and phrases are subject to abuse, and “woke” is one of them. Ron DeSantis says the word “woke” every two or three sentences. He recently said about Florida, “This is where woke comes to die.” Yet, he does not even know what the word means.
The other day, Donald Trump got fed up with Ron De-Sanctimonious (as Trump calls him). While campaigning in Iowa, Trump said, “I don’t like the term ‘woke,’ ’cause I hear ‘woke,’ ‘woke,’ ‘woke,’ you know, it’s like just a term, half the people can’t define it, they don’t know what it is.” (Fox News, 2023). I agree with Trump. In fact, I would say more than half the people cannot define it.
Being Awake Started with Slavery
Although slavery was over in 1865 as per the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the prejudice and discrimination expressed by many Whites continued. After slavery, state governments across the South instituted laws known as Black Codes. These laws granted certain legal rights to blacks, including the right to marry, own property, and sue in court. However, these Codes also made it illegal for blacks to serve on juries, testify against whites, or serve in state militias. The Black Codes also required black sharecroppers and tenant farmers to sign annual labor contracts with white landowners. If they refused they could be arrested and hired out for work at very low pay. Sounds like a form of slavery to me.
As a result, after the Civil War ended, many Black Americans lived in desperate, rural poverty across the south for decades. As slaves, they were denied education and wages. As former slaves, they were often forced by the necessity of poverty to rent land from former white slave owners. As sharecroppers, they paid rent on the land by giving a portion of their crop to the landowner. Who do you think made out the best in these arrangements?
The History of the Term “Woke”
The earliest known examples of “wokeness” revolved around the idea of Blacks “waking up” to a new reality or activism that dates back to the early 20th century. As early as 1923, global Black citizens were encouraged to become more socially and politically conscious. Remember than in 1923, most Blacks in America were only one generation removed from slavery.
In 1938, the phrase “stay woke” turned up in a protest song by a Black American Blues musician. The song describes the 1931 story of a group of nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama, who were falsely accused of raping two white women. This Blues musician used “stay woke” as the need for Black Americans to be aware of racially motivated threats and the potential dangers of white America. This meaning and usage has largely stayed consistent ever since.
Modern Use of the Term “Woke”
The term fell into non-use for a while. Before 2014, the call to “stay woke” was unfamiliar for many. However, in 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “stay woke” suddenly became the cautionary mantra of Black Lives Matter activists in the streets. It was used in a specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics. By 2014, the idea behind it was common within Black communities. The notion that staying “woke” and alert to others, especially to the police, was a basic survival tactic. Think of the conversations that Black mothers and dads had to have with their teenage boys!
In summary then, the historic and true meaning of “woke” is derived from Black America. Being “woke” means being aware and actively attentive to important societal issues and factors, especially issues of racial and social justice.
Does racial and social injustice exist? Read the next page or so, then you tell me.
You Either See the Obvious or You Do not Want To See It
You either see the obvious, or you do not want to. Black Americans have long suffered from persistent inequality in the United States due to centuries of racism, discrimination, the long-lasting effects of slavery, redlining, and generational poverty. All of these factors have made it very difficult for Black Americans to get ahead, to accumulate wealth, and to pass it down to their children and grandchildren.
I am referring to systemic racism — at times called structural racism or institutional racism. It is the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that create the disparate outcomes or gaps that we see. Systemic racism leads to disparities in many “success indicators” for black and brown people. This includes disparities in wealth, health, criminal justice, employment, housing, political representation, and education.
If one opens their eyes and mind, it is obvious that gaps or disparities exist by race/ethnicity in almost all outcomes. For example, here are just a few that I found in my research:
- The rate of death while giving birth
- The proportion of people who have health insurance
- The number of people who dies from COVID-19
- Life span/longevity from birth
- Third and fourth grade reading levels
- Suspension rates in school
- Percent who graduate from high school on time
- Percent of students who graduate from 4-year college programs
- The rate of unemployment
- The percentage of employers with high paying jobs
- The number of Fortune 500 CEOS
- The amount of household median income
- Home ownership
- Percentage of people living below the poverty line
- The percentage of men killed by the police
- The number of Senators in the U.S. Senate
- The number of Representatives in the U.S. House
Did you know that only 18% of Black kids in the U.S. scored “proficient” or above in reading at grade four. As 8th graders, this rate decreased to 15% of Black youth. Likewise, Black American kids and American Indian/Alaska natives have the lowest high school graduation rates of any race.
Did you know that the college loan default rates are almost six times higher among Black graduates and 2.5 times higher among Latino graduates than they are among White graduates? About 1/3 of Black graduates from four-year public or private institutions defaulted on their student loan, while nearly 14% of Latino graduates did so.
Did you know that after six years of attending college and paying for it, only about half – 52% to be exact of Black and Hispanic students have a degree? After 6 years!! What about Whites? 70%.
Did you know that only around 40% of Black males ever graduate from college?
Did you know that in the past 30 years, there has been an increase of only 1.6% of medical school faculty that self-identified as Black or African American. That is correct. You read that correctly! Only an improvement of 1.6% in 30 years! The smallest percentage change improvement occurred at the Associate and Full Professor ranks. However, white politicians tell us that we should not talk about this, correct? We do not need any racial diversity in medical school faculty!
Did you know that only 5.8% of active practicing physicians identified as Hispanic and only 5% identified as Black or African American.
The Word “Woke” Has Been Hijacked
As I said at the beginning of this blog post, all words and phrases are subject to abuse, and “woke” is one of them. Today, the word “woke” is used by some as a stick to try to beat others who aspire to equity for all – which I believe should be all of us! That stick is often wielded by those who do not recognize how un-woke they are.
The term has recently been used by some conservatives as an insult against those who value diversity, equity, and inclusion due to institutional racism. Some politicians even believe that we tenured professors have nothing better to do than to indoctrinate our students to be “woke.” If they only knew!
Trump has been a promiscuous and enthusiastic user of “woke.” For example, when a Republican senator said that the 2020 presidential election was fair and legitimate, Trump wrote, “Senator Mike Rounds of the Great State of South Dakota just went woke on the Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020.”
Huh? He went “woke” by telling the truth?
There is real CRT — critical race theory that needs to be taught. CRT is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.
A good example is when, in the 1930s, government officials literally drew red lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas. As a result, many of those redlined areas suffered from a lack of investment, especially in infrastructure, and black and brown families have been hurt because of it (https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disasters/jackson-mississippi-water-crisis/)
Criticizing “woke culture” has become a way of claiming victim status for oneself – like the “Great Replacement conspiracy theory.” Rather than acknowledging that there are obvious disparities by race and ethnicity, some would rather blame black and brown people. The term “woke” has gone from a virtue to a dog whistle. The language has been co-opted.
I Am Very Happy and Proud to be Awake
I see and recognize the reality of institutional racism, contrary to some others. I will continue to teach structural racism and the need for more black and brown individuals in my field of higher education, public health, and medicine. I will do everything in my power to be part of the solution.
I am very proud and happy to be “awake” to the reality of racial and social injustice. Yes, I am awake! I want my adult children and grandkids to be “woke.” I want them to see and realize the racial and ethnic disparities in many areas of life and be part of the solution.
The 1795 Group Can Help
We have a Health Equity Coordinator and a Coordinator of Cultural Competency on our team. Both young men are highly skilled and well suited for their positions. You can find videos of both of them here: https://1795group.com/our-team/
Perhaps you would like a guest speaker or a presentation on health equity or cultural competency. Perhaps you would like to have your students, learners, or employees enjoy the benefits of an in-person or virtual professional development workshop in this topical area. Perhaps you need a course to be written for your learners. Whatever your need, the 1795 Group can help. Call us and let’s brainstorm ways to work together to make your life easier.
Contact me today:
Phone: (419) 359- 5798 (text first)
Grass Roots Health Podcast: Episode # 4. Is There Racism in the U.S. Health Care System? An Interview with Dr. Haley Thompson. https://1795group.com/episode/episode-4/
Williams, D.R. and Rucker T.D. (2000). Understanding and Addressing Racial Disparities in Health Care. Health Care Financ Rev. ; 21(4): 75–90. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4194634/
Greenidge, K. (2022). What It’s Like to Lose Water in Jackson, Mississippi. Harper’s Bazaar. https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a41054440/what-its-like-to-lose-water-in-jackson-mississippi/
Blog Post by Dr. Tim Jordan. Why We Should Talk About Politics. https://1795group.com/why-we-should-talk-about-politics/
Grass Roots Health Podcast: Episode # 10. The Impact of Mis/Disinformation. An Interview with Dr. Yotam Ophir. https://1795group.com/episode/episode-10-the-impact-of-mis-disinformation-an-interview-with-yotam-ophir-ph-d/