Bridging the gulf of bad assumptions can be as difficult as, well, getting a bridge built over Mobile Bay. Once someone has latched onto an idea, no matter how flawed, it can be hard to dislodge. Well did the legendary American writer and satirist Mark Twain say: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so!”
Much trouble, mischief and tragedy have come about because of what someone or some group has known for sure, but just wasn’t so. When considering the subject of racial harmony, whether it be in Mobile or anywhere else across the nation – or the globe for that matter – one of the root issues to be dealt with is bad assumptions and false knowledge. That’s why I feel that it was quite wise and prudent of the Mayor to set aside the single event racial forum in lieu of a series of community conversations aimed at developing meaningful dialogue between the black and white communities in Mobile.
The community conversations on race have been devised as a way to help Mobile traverse racial assumptions that have exposed a fault line that could tear our city apart racially and impede economic growth if we’re not careful. I don’t believe things in Mobile would erupt into a situation as virulent as that taking place in Ferguson, Mo., but it could retard our efforts to be a welcoming and expansive metropolis that many would want to call home.
Shelia Flanagan, assistant director of the Museum of Mobile, who is a bastion of knowledge concerning Mobile’s civil rights history, opined in a conversation that I had with her recently that one of the pitfalls of efforts such as the community conversations on race is that you end up “preaching to the choir.” She noted that similar community conversations have taken place in the past, most notably in the 1990s, and generally what you have is those who are interested in the topic attending and participating, but the majority of Mobilians not being a part of the effort in any meaningful way. To her, the controversy surrounding the appointment of Sam Jones to the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System served as a flashpoint to reveal how hard those old mindsets can be to eradicate.
If the past truly serves as prologue, Flanagan raises a valid point. In the spring of 1998, a report was commissioned by the Race Relations Committee of Mobile United. The purpose of the report was to gauge the extent of the racial climate of that time and before. The title of the report was “Mobile County in Black and White: Results from Studies of Racial Inequality and Race Relations.” The lead researcher was Dr. G.
David Johnson, then professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama (now the Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs at USA). Because blacks and whites made up the core of Mobile’s population, the study focused on these two groups.
What were the major findings of the report? Whites perceive more good will directed toward blacks (from whites) than blacks do, and whites perceive more good will directed toward whites (from blacks) than blacks do. Even though a majority of whites and blacks supported racial integration of schools, de facto public school segregation was increasing. The report noted, “A paradox revealed in this study is that support for integrated schools is growing among whites, and remains strong among blacks, as the school system increasingly is divided along the lines of race … Nonetheless, the trend toward increasing segregation is worrisome to many as a sign of an unhealthy community.”
In 2014 this trend in school resegregation continues.
Additionally, the report also found that the poverty rate among African-American children in Mobile had reached alarming levels as compared with those of white children, and the overall difference in income and poverty levels among the races were large. Even the infant mortality rate, which had dropped for blacks nationally during the time, had not done so for black Mobilians. Flash forward, and the black infant mortality rate is still high as compared to that of whites, the rate of the black poor in the city of Mobile is triple that of the white poor, and the poverty rate among African-American children is higher than that of whites.
Yet, results from the study were definitely not all bad. The report concluded, “Mobile’s local governmental agencies have undergone significant reforms which have increased their perceived fairness and legitimacy in the eyes of African-Americans.”
Indeed, in a conversation with former Mayor Mike Dow, he related how when he was elected in 1989, this was a major focus of his and other leaders in the community. He felt that for Mobile to move forward, a mindset of inclusiveness and balance had to be developed in city government and other strictures of authority and power within the city. As plans and policy initiatives were put in place they had to be beneficial to the whole city. The 1998 study, notes former Mayor Dow, was meant to be a gauge or serve as a benchmark to determine how far Mobile had come in reaching preset goals to move the city forward.
Whereas the 1998 study showed there were areas of growth in racial inclusiveness and overall race relations, a central point highlighted in the report, I believe, will still be a major sticking point today. It goes back to dealing with assumptions and perceptions that can be so hard to disabuse people from.
The report observes, “Finally, a very disturbing finding concerns the lack of trust reported by whites, but especially by blacks, in their fellow community members … This is an important indicator of alienation – in this case, the alienation that divides neighbor from neighbor. It is a worrisome indicator. How is trust engendered? How is a spirit of community built?”
This is the very essence of questions that need to be answered and objectives that need to be achieved in our city’s current efforts to create racial harmony amongst its citizens.
This is where the words of Mrs. Flanagan become so timely. Dr. Michael Thomason, retired director of the University of South Alabama Archives and professor of history, basically maintained the same theme when he keenly noted, “I think the target population [of the community race conversations] should be working class people, black and white. They and the poor are the ones who bear the burdens of discrimination and resentment. It is they who must cope with “mixed” neighborhoods and higher crime rates … [they] doubt that any real positive change will affect them and they put the blame on the people of the other race whose lives are most like theirs for their difficulties. These are the people who need to be involved.”
We may have a black president, but that doesn’t mean we live in a post-racial society. The color of one’s skin still has significance and carries connotations in our society, be they ill or well. Building racial harmony doesn’t require naivety, but it does and will require maturity. Maturity in the sense that we as everyday individuals living in this beautiful city by the bay must tap into those attributes and efforts that draw us outside our comfort zones and embrace actions that promote reaching out and understanding those who look different than us.
In other words, taking the steps to really “know” and “understand” others through meaningful interaction and not flawed assumptions. You don’t have to live next door to someone different than you (though that would be a great thing) but you should be open to opening your door to those who look different or come from a different background than you.