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Friday, July 16, 2010

What Does It Take to Get Your Attention?

I am haunted by the stream of stories I read about Kansas City and the escalating homicide rate this summer. I currently reside in Camden, NJ - which is supposed to be the crime capital of the nation. Camden is a walk in the park compared to KC! The only reason KC does not end up higher on the crime rankings is because the city has more people. If crime rankings were crimes per square mile instead of crimes per 1000 people, KC would probably be #1.

61 homicides and counting and this is only July. Staggering. And much of the crime is east of Troost, through Brookside and South KC get their share too. However, the violence on the eastside is waaaaaaay out of whack. Nary a word is spoken about this. Not from the Mayor, city council, or civic leaders. Words are spoken by The Call, Alvin Brooks, various neighborhood and activist leaders. But it is only whistling in the wind. No one with any power is hearing us.

I have watched the crime and violence center in the south 80's and move to the mid 50's. Now the violence is moved to the high 30's. Yep, it is getting too close to my neighborhood and I don't like it, no sir, not one bit.

Meanwhile the Northeast has been blazing for some time and I hope that doesn't move south. I have no desire to be in the middle of two war zones. I have no idea where the violence is coming from, but I have an idea it is gangs and drugs, domestic violence, and the result of a great deal of frustration. In case the rest of the city hasn't noticed - there are no jobs, period. I'm so sick of various national political voices suggesting that people are not interested in working. People in my neighborhood would love to work IF THERE WERE JOBS available to them.

I seem to recall that the Mayor touted New Tools for Economic Development to foster assistance to the Eastside. Haven't really seen ANYTHING resulting from that gravy train except some bucks for the favored consultants. Our city council people are doing NOTHING substantial to stop the violence or improve economic opportunity.

I don't like the Tea Bags, but I really couldn't care less about them. People are dying in the streets and we spend time on a bunch of political sniping???? Have we become so callous that murders and shooting don't garner any attention? We don't need candlelight vigils, we don't need prayer vigils. What is needed is jobs and direction.

One of the efforts underway is the group "I am my Brother's Keeper" that organizes neighborhood action and the July event "Taking it to the Street". While it is a real gesture, it is preaching to the choir. Time to take the conversation out of the 'hood and into the boardrooms.

I understand how KC politics works - it has often been described as "parking lot politics" meaning that it works on informal networks of people talking, planning, and then acting. It is often out of sight, fraught with deal making, and compromised to death. It works in KC and is unlikely to change any time soon. So if those of us who are fed up with the violence and death in KC want to change things, then maybe we need to be "Taking it to the Parking Lot" and buttonhole every pol and civic leader in KC to get some traction. What KC leaders don't like is to be embarrassed in public and called on the carpet. They will respond to requests and suggestions that will enable them to be seen in a good light.

It is election season and this is a once in 4 years opportunity to work the parking lot politics. See you on the asphalt. Let's get this done.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird and KC's Leon Jordon

Apparently the media world is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird (the novel's publication). The book has been a mainstay on high school and college reading lists and is considered by most whites to be a great tableau of anti-racist solidarity. A very different take on this is delivered by a great blog, Stuff White People Do and is worth a read. The post admonishes feel-good liberal whites for warmly embracing what is essentially a racist portrayal of black subjugation, and most whites are clueless to this interpretation. I know I was. White privilege is everywhere and even those of us who think we get it are often blinded by it.

I also read today the KC Star article about reopening the Leon Jordan murder case after 40 years. Leon Jordan was a major civil rights leader and black politician in KC during the 1960s and was a co-founder of the black political club, Freedom, Inc. The news article goes into a great amount of detail about possible motives for his slaying, the political alliances and enemies that arose during that time, and conflicts within the black community itself. It's a level of detail that I never knew and found fascinating in terms of understanding the responses of today's politics in Kansas City. Like the tender reminiscences towards To Kill a Mockingbird, most people gloss over the particulars of what issues were swirling at the time of Mr. Jordan's murder.

For most white people who believe they stand against racism, they really have no clue of the issues involved. Viewing racism as a "bad thing" is akin to being against animal abuse. It is quite superficial. To view racism as something that every white person is accountable for is a much different take on the issue. The lawyer in Mockingbird, forever and indelibly portrayed by Gregory Peck, is a white hero. He stands against the abuse of the accused and is a lone voice of reason in a hateful world. But the novel does not give us anywhere to go with this except that some white people are bad and that we should not treat black people this way. Therein lies the rub.

If white people remain focused on how we should or should not treat black people, then we haven't learned anything and racism still exists. White people never think in terms of anyone "treating" them a certain way. But we feel justified in talking about "treating" black people poorly or well. It's a level of privilege that many whites never fully appreciate, especially in terms of how it affects others.

The Jordan case in KC is riveting because it continues to be assumed that it was black perpetrators that killed this black civil rights leader. But the deep details, as written in this article, suggest that there was a black mafia run by whites that ran the drug trade on the Eastside and had a conflict with Jordan. Jordan also had black political rivals that may have wanted him out of the picture. A further suggestion is that as a civil rights figure, FBI Director Hoover may have wanted him taken out. But the biggest aha for me is that Jordan was a former KC police officer - and it doesn't sound like the police investigated their own on this one. Little mention was made of Jordan's rise to Lt. on the force in a time when racial tensions boiled over in KC.

Regardless of who killed him, and that is a chapter for someone to solve, the magnanimity of this leader is completely lost on most of white Kansas City. Freedom, Inc. is often viewed by whites as a black political club that elects their own as if this is unseemly. Meanwhile the Civic Council and other white political clubs are seen as providing political enlightenment to the rest of the city upon their candidate endorsements. This type of double standard is why there is criticism of To Kill a Mockingbird and why solving the Jordan case is not about civil rights.

White people have a lot to learn and responsibility to take on.

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.