I wonder if the people present at the conversation on race the other night really are those who needed to be there most.
Like most such attempts this one appears to mostly have devolved into the standard explanations of why Jim Crow Era laws are responsible for today’s ills, recitations of past atrocities and complaints about unfairness.
I’d be surprised if anyone had his or her mind changed about race relations in Mobile as a result. Not that it’s a bad thing to have the forums or to start a discussion that might eventually go down a different road, but it seems to me most of the racial problems in Mobile and the country as a whole are primarily a matter of perceptions.
That’s not to say there aren’t racists. There certainly are people who automatically dislike one another because of their ancestry. But I sincerely doubt that’s the majority of people in our city or country.
Do we all have preconceived notions when we see people who fit certain stereotypes — the young, tattooed black man with sagging pants and gold teeth, or the young white redneck with tats, shaved head and missing teeth — sure. Is it always correct? No. But is more of a learned response or inherent racism?
Much like what’s happening in Ferguson, Mo., it often seems we confuse racism with more fine-tuned perceptions gathered over years of life. In the case of Michael Brown, a very large young man who just shoved and intimidated a storeowner, then got into an altercation with a cop. Was the cop looking to shoot a black guy, or did he feel threatened by that individual? Did Brown make choices that put him in danger? Absolutely.
But now the media speaks of him as a hero and victim. Maybe he is in some people’s minds, but burning the world down, looting and fighting hardly seem reasonable responses to the situation.
So when we think about Mobile what are the big racial hurdles? Clearly we’re a city that is majority black but also one where much of the wealth is held by the minority whites. Is this fair? Maybe not, but it’s reality. What’s also reality, though, is that plenty of poor black and white people alike have found success in our area, so if racism or even classism are causes of poverty they doesn’t seem to have the gravity to keep a motivated individual from rising into the atmosphere.
And for every poor black or white kid who does find success, it helps chip away at others’ perceptions of what someone from that background can be.
Here in the South we’re really fond of constantly talking about the Civil Rights Era and Jim Crow, but that time is half a century in the rear view mirror now. I’m in my mid-40s now and grew up in a time in small-town Mississippi where I went to school with black children, had black friends, stayed the night at their houses and vice versa. We weren’t spraying each other with fire hoses and having German Shepherds attack one another.
That’s not to say we all may not have grown apart as we got older and that there aren’t issues where we see things from completely different sides of the table, but if there’s racial hatred there, I’m not seeing it.
Being a white guy other white guys feel pretty free talking around me, and it’s rare to hear what I would consider real racial animosity expressed. Do people express animosity about those they feel aren’t really contributing to society? Yes, but I hear that from and about both black and white Mobilians.
Mobile’s biggest problem is that there are so many poorly educated, unmotivated people of all races, many of whom frequently hide behind racism or classism as reasons they can’t succeed or be productive.
In addition to looking at the South’s admittedly woeful history, at the race forum there were complaints the city leadership doesn’t properly reflect the city’s makeup. Maybe that’s true, but it didn’t reflect it for the last eight years either.
Seems to me the people and groups that really ought to participate in these forums on race are the ones who have may be quickest to point fingers at the other race while simultaneously fostering some of the city’s biggest problems.
Look at the almost totally African-American Mobile Housing Board that oversees some of the most run-down slums in America that by and large house blacks. Look at a city run by a black mayor for eight years who did almost nothing to improve the poorest sections of town — predominantly black areas where residents sat on their hands during the last election allowing a white mayor to win simply because they realized racism wasn’t the reason their neighborhoods weren’t improving.
Look at many of the big business groups in town that are predominantly white. I know many of those people probably feel poverty in the black community is a big problem for Mobile, but are their groups really trying to help black businesses thrive? That has to be at the core of brining people out of poverty.
Is the school system really doing the best it can to educate black and white children alike, especially those from poorer backgrounds, or are they frequently busier worrying about making test scores look good? Certainly we’ve seen lots of evidence of the latter, but not much in the way of making sure it isn’t all about the scores.
Most local cries of racism are manufactured by politicians with an agenda who know the buzzword will work every time.
If Mobile does have a problem with racism it’s that it is used as a crutch — an excuse — for lowered or absent expectations. As long as we can point fingers at each other there’s no need to look in the mirror.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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