A larger issue of race: discussing real-life problems in the First Ward

Friday, March 28, 2008 | 4:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:31 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dear Reader:

I’ve been bothered by something missing in the First Ward race for City Council.

This week, the Missourian ran extensive profiles of all four candidates. They were, for the most part, interesting and enlightening. Not once, though, was the issue of race mentioned.

Those fascinated by tactics might dwell on the fact that incumbent Almeta Crayton is black and her opponents some version or another of Caucasian. I’m interested in a more fundamental discussion.

The First Ward holds the largest concentration of blacks in the city — in part because the city designated the Garth Avenue corridor as the “Negro” part of town back in the ‘30s, according to a Missourian article last May. Some of Columbia’s poorest residents, black or white, live in the First Ward. (The southern parts of the ward are drastically wealthier.) There is more crime in the First Ward than in any other, meaning more blacks are affected by crime there.

The NAACP this week held its candidate forum. I know, from the Missourian story, the candidates addressed the perennial question of whether Columbia police were guilty of racial profiling. Expected answers were given, ranging from blaming the whole police culture to the few-bad-apples argument. How, though, do we move forward among the endless cycle of blame followed by defense by police? I fear these discussions only breed more cynicism.

In his column this week, Richard Harwood said engagement on deep racial issues must begin with real-life problems “in our communities, with people we can see and hear and feel, where we can hold each other accountable for what we say and do.” Real life means finding ways to encourage black-owned businesses. Real life might even mean discussing what it means to be white in the First Ward.

Are we, the people, too afraid to discuss real problems in the First Ward because they deal with race? Is it because we lack the language and the appropriate forums to discuss them?

There’s another possibility: that the discussions are occurring, but the press in town doesn’t know how to report on such an emotional but occasionally obtuse issue. Where, after all, is the news in reporting that blacks in Columbia have suffered from the long American nightmare of prejudice and discrimination emanating from slavery and continuing until today? Yet, if journalism is devoted to reporting about the conditions and conversation of the people it serves, it can’t hide under the institutional norms of occasional press announcements or NAACP forums.

For a candidate, the goal is pretty obvious: Get elected. (There’s a reason why you see all those “Decision ’08” logos with campaign coverage.) Our democracy allows for — and occasionally even encourages — another purpose. Call it “Discussion ’08.” Let’s use the last week before Election Day to make sure race moves from implication to conversation.

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