I can’t lie – when I first heard that the city of Mobile was planning on having a panel discussion about race relations, I chuckled. To say the news was met with skepticism on my behalf would have been somewhat of an understatement. My mother always tells me that I am too young to be as cynical as I am, but I couldn’t help it.
Considering the history of my city, there was just no way that I thought its leaders were ready for a full on discussion about issues pertaining to race.
I saw it more as a PR move. Maybe the officials wanted to calm any tensions that could potentially turn us into the next Ferguson. Maybe this would ease the sting of Gov. Bentley’s remarks about the murder of 8-year-old Hiawayi Robinson. Either way, I bought into it just as much as I bought into Mayor Stimpson’s “One Mobile” idea, meaning I clutched my wallet.
As I walked into the University of South Alabama’s student center that Monday afternoon, I was expecting worse. But my fears would end up being simultaneously confirmed and eased.
The Mobile Pledge is what they call it. It’s the same as the Birmingham Pledge written in 1997, only for Mobile in 2014. Jim Rotch, the author of the pledge, shared the story of how he came to write it and the effect it has had on Birmingham.
I looked around the room during his speech to see there were few young people, black or white in attendance. It struck me as odd, seeing the whole thing took place on a college campus. Applause accompanied the end of his speech as if the mere conception of the pledge was the answer in itself. Needless to say I was not impressed.
But things picked up with the second half of the program as guests were encouraged to sit amongst a group of people they were not familiar with for a table discussion. During the discussion we were to share three things about ourselves: First, an introduction as well as our cultural background, second, an event that helped shape our idea on race relations and third, our ideal community in regards to race relations. If there was any part of the program that was actually beneficial, this was it.
My table consisted of five women and one other man, all from different walks of life. The conversations were insightful, but most importantly honest. There were no political agendas to be had, just concerned citizens looking to make Mobile a more tolerant place for themselves and their families.
I was exposed to very sincere, albeit different, points of view. Difference is not a bad thing, though. On the contrary, it’s a quite beautiful thing when given the proper respect.
Everybody was attentive, responsive and most of all: respectful. Time slipped away from us and I was never given a chance to share my response to number three: an ideal community in regards to race relations. My answer would have been “a place where everybody is given a fair shot, an even playing ground,” which brings me to my next, and last point about the event and the pledge in general.
As the event came to a close, people shook hands and walked away seeming to feel accomplished in the discussion. I couldn’t help but to feel the whole point may have been missed. To improve race relations and “end racism” we must have an accurate idea as to what racism is.
It’s more than just a feeling one person has toward another. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be concerned about racism in the first place. I don’t care about changing people’s feelings, I care about results.
The fact is racism is an institution. It’s numbers and statistics. It’s inequality in schools. It’s a prison population where people of color vastly outweigh their white counterparts. It’s the difference between the conditions of the roads in Toulminville and those in west Mobile. It’s predatory loans and police brutality. It’s the difference in urgency between the cases of a missing 8-year-old black girl and a missing college-age white girl.
It’s why the YMCA will never be at risk of closing, yet funding for the Boys and Girls Club is on the verge of being cut. Until we can admit that racism is a system and put conscious efforts towards tearing down that system and building a replacement, the “pledge” we all gathered to celebrate is nothing more than a group of words that sound pretty.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my city for taking a step in the right direction. That step however, is merely the first step of a marathon. I’m interested to see if we have the stamina to finish what we have started.
Clyde Foster is a 2006 graduate of Murphy High School and freelance contributor to several local publications.