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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fear of Others

Great post over at Race Has Nothing to Do With You on the fear spreading through Chinatown in LA. Stores are boarding up because the shopkeepers fear an LA riot by blacks. No clue what's going on, but the post reminds us that communication is essential in the face of fear.

Here in Kansas City a similar fear is brewing. As schools close and scholars transition to their new schools for fall, some neighborhoods are feeling like they are under assault from more students who don't look like the neighbors. One such transition is the students at attendance-based Westport High who will transfer to the signature school - Southwest College prep. This school will double in size and with mostly scholars of color. This has the affluent white neighbors in a pickle. They don't want to appear racist, but, everyone KNOWS that these students may bring crime into the neighborhood.

I've been to two neighborhood meetings on this topic. At the first meeting, organized by neighbors, it got fairly ugly in terms of the tenor and tone towards the likely bad things that would befall this neighborhood when new students arrive. The room was white, save for one person, and the white fear factor was in full swing. At one point, a man stated that if a group of these kids came walking down his street, well he would have to call the police, because who knows what mayhem would be brewing. Then he took it to the next level...what if someone got shot? (I think he meant if police killed one of these marauding teens) - then all hell would break lose. At that point, some pushback came into play with several people speaking up that the rhetoric needed to be dialed back.

The amazing thing is that all of these folks said, basically, I am not a racist- but, you have to realize that the likelihood of crime is real and these kids will be the source. They are so convinced of their view that they don't even see how racist they are.

At the second meeting a few days later, called by one of the neighborhood churches (white), many of the same people showed up. However, this time there were more black people in the room (the district superintendent, some of his staff, and some advocates from parent organizations). There was no mention of race at this meeting. There was no hint of panic. I believe it was because there was a tipping point and it wasn't "safe" for the whites to be openly derogatory. Or maybe they had just thought things through over the last couple of days.

What is clear is that there has been precious little conversation about the increase in students at Southwest High outside of a few gatherings of neighbors where their wildest ideas seem to catch on. Kudos to the church for taking this on and providing a grounded forum in which to speak. My concern, however, is that the fear was merely masked and not addressed. White people that don't even see that they are racist may in fact be racist out of fear of otherness. These people don't spend any time around people who don't look like them, who don't have the same lifestyle that they do, and that may behave differently from them. That lack of awareness yields fear.

Communication can create awareness and extinguish fear. Some of the ideas raised are to have the neighbors be mentors and tutors at the school, be a booster club, host a welcoming event on the first day of school complete with gift bags, and so forth. Exposure to these students is key and conversation is essential. Fear will dissipate for many and perhaps some real acceptance will be forthcoming. Here's hoping.

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