Sunday, January 15, 2017

Black Mayor Part II: The Other Part of the Equation

Earlier this month I posted a commentary about the need for a black mayor in the upcoming election. As expected, some folk took offense to the premise. “Race doesn’t matter,” they protested. It obviously does. As I noted, throughout Mayor Slay’s term in office, politicians have been re-segregating the city with tax perks designed for already rich developers in already stable, already majority white neighborhoods. The voices, needs and concerns of black residents have been rendered irrelevant. The city has been consistently ranked as one the most violent in America and the current mayor has been MIA in the fight to address poverty, black unemployment and all the other societal and economic ills that fuel disproportionate crime, high school drop out rates and hopelessness.

Most of the push-back came from whites. I respect their sentiments but it left me wondering who these people are and whose opinion they represented. Yes, our region is polarized but many whites I know seem to be equally as passionate about building strong diverse neighborhoods. They comment affirmatively and share what I write. They donate and/or volunteer to help my nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). They don’t outwardly flinch when I express the need to invest in black communities or find ways to empower black people to address disparities that impact their lives, children or neighborhoods. In fact, I find it stunning that some white, far south side aldermen seem to be doing more to inform the public and dismantle the established system of white privilege than some black aldermen who’ve allowed the city to basically ignore their wards and constituents for years.

So, yeah, in this election, at this time, I think a black mayor is needed in a city that’s grown comfortable operating under a segregated umbrella.  However, I emphasis again, voters shouldn’t base their opinions on skin color alone. We should support the candidate who has the moxie to shake things up and convince white voters that black social and economic progress won’t harm them. In fact, it may help us become a more diverse, eclectic, safer, and culturally relevant region.

With that said, we should discuss something else. African Americans don’t have the luxury of waiting for the president, Congress, state representatives, aldermen or a new mayor to come up with a plan to save us. Those of us busting our butts to educate and employ at-risk youth; address homelessness, build affordable housing, develop stronger, safer neighborhoods or those trying to create a powerful, healthy food system in the city need to come together. We need to demand-not ask-that the next mayor provide the same opportunities and resources to us that they've gifted to rich developers, sports officials and tony, segregated neighborhoods.  

We need to demand-not ask-that the next mayor provide the same opportunities and resources to us that they've gift to rich developers, sports officials and tony, segregated neighborhoods. 

Why is this important? Well, maybe it's best to answer with a short story:

The year was 2009, months after the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I was still a Metro Columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Through my union reps, I learned managers were manufacturing a case to fire me. I won’t go into all the sordid details here but I will admit their actions led to a huge opportunity that wound up planting the seed for SPP.

During the madness, I received a call from Tavis Smiley. The public TV commentator also owned his own book company. Tavis was familiar with my work. He asked if I’d be interested in working as a researcher and consultant with one of his writers, Tom Burrell, author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.  With the offer in mind, I instructed union officials not to fight for my job. With the help of my ex-wife and my activist friends we held a press conference. I resigned from the PD and accepted Tavis’ offer.

Brainwashed by Tom Burrell

Working in Tavis’ world, to me, meant that I’d be in the midst of the nation’s top black thinkers. Keep in mind, this was right after the country elected its first black president.  Finally, I thought, great, positive change was about to happen in America’s urban areas.

I couldn’t have been more naive or more wrong. At the time, Smiley, Al Sharpton and a bunch of other black leaders were embroiled in a huge, petty fight over whether Obama should say the words “black agenda”…or not. I was Burrell’s guest at the 2010 Chicago symposium Tavis hosted that included, Dr. Cornel West, the Rev. Jessie Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan and other prominent, black intellectuals.

2010 "We Count" forum participants

I was beyond frustrated that this influential group spent more time defending the need for a “black agenda” than defining or articulating their own agenda. Surely, this group could come up with a plan based on their expertise, connections with black people, their knowledge and outcries about the centuries-long plight of African Americans.

I will always be grateful to Tavis for offering me the chance to get inside his head and contribute to some of his books as well as other authors under the SmileyBooks label. But I can’t get past the fact that black leaders absolutely blew the chance to present Obama with a detailed, budgeted inclusive agenda that would improve the lives of, arguably, America’s most disenfranchised demographic.  The experience led me to the conclusion that I should try, in my own way, to create a program aimed at empowering black youth and revitalizing black neighborhoods in my own city. Thus the birth of SPP.

On a much smaller scale, black mayoral candidates, along with white supporters, have a beautiful opportunity to change the trajectory of a segregated city. However, the onus isn’t just in the hands of a new mayor. If there is to be a real agenda for positive, inclusive change, those of us who are connected and concerned must design and articulate that vision.

In my Nov. 9th St. Louis American commentary, I  argued that the city already has dedicated, committed individuals and groups (black and white) working to make serious, sustainable change in North St. Louis. We’ve put in the sweat equity but have been basically ignored by short-sighted politicians. 

I’m pleased that there are ongoing debates that allow candidates to explain how they will lead the city in different directions. However, I’d like to see a different kind of forum. I’d like to have those of us working in the trenches tell the candidates what we’re doing and what we need to enhance our collective endeavors. After we speak, I’d like those candidates to tell us how our plans fit their platforms. I’d like to see them compete for our votes and/or support by telling us how they can bring us the same creativity, vigor and resources that’s been doled out to downtown, central corridor or other areas of development in the city.  

I will float this forum idea among the individuals I mentioned in the American commentary. Anybody interested in hosting such an event, please let me know. Despite push-back from some readers due to my call for a black mayor, I believe there’s enough progressive and engaged whites who aren’t afraid of the possibilities. They live or work among black people. Some south side aldermen and voters have and are supporting black candidates. I don’t want to see black leaders and voters blow an opportunity to do locally what we didn’t do nationally with the Obama administration. 

I’d like to see a different kind of forum....(where) candidates tell us how our plans fit their agendas. I’d like to see them compete for our votes or support by telling us how they can bring us the same creativity, vigor and resources that’s been given to downtown, central corridor or other areas of development in the city.  

As the title of Dr. West’s book reminded us, “Race Matters.” We can argue about this all day long but I prefer to work with those who get it. I want to collaborate with those who aren’t afraid to speak up for diversity in a racially-diverse city. I want to surround myself with those willing to inform and challenge mayoral candidates to rise above racial complacency and political impotency. I want to stand with those benevolent, engaged and enlightened individuals willing to challenge the status quo and do the hard work of ending the segregated mindset in our city.   


Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, this current crop of mayoral candidates fall short, in varying degrees, of addressing the needs of our neighborhoods and the poor and working class folks living there.
The good news is that there's time for an Independent candidate to emerge that progressives can believe in.

Jim said...

I'm from Illinois if you need a neutral moderator, Sylvester.

Ramona Fortner said...