GENE ROBERTSON: Columbia moves slowly in embracing African-Americans

Friday, February 25, 2011 | 3:39 p.m. CST; updated 4:18 p.m. CST, Friday, February 25, 2011

Black History Month provides an opportunity to make an assessment of the black situation in Columbia. I urge anyone interested to offer his or her assessment or modification. A dialogue on the topic would be enlightening and perhaps lead to an enhancement.

The 2000 census approximates the black population at 10 percent. African American businesses amount to less than 0.05 percent. There is a significant disparity between the achievement of black and white students. (The school system states it is committed to addressing it.) Blacks are disproportionately arrested, fined and given harsh sentences. There is a police review committee, but attempts are being made to render it impotent.

African-American decision makers in any of the profit and nonprofit sectors are approximately in the same percentile as the African-American businesses. I am discounting fancy titles which are given to outsiders with no authority and experts who were hired from outside, such as former Columbia Police Chief William Dye, former UM System President Elson Floyd and former Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Phyllis Chase. There are many notable African-Americans from Columbia who became successful leaders in every kind of endeavor. Small businesses hire few African-Americans in Columbia. Most public- and private-sector businesses have a token minority (not necessary black) that they can show at the diversity breakfast. Rarely is an African-American elevated to any position if it depends on votes.

Still, this is a big difference from the time when all hired positions for blacks were menial-level service positions. Many of my older African-American friends are quick to remind me that this is a slow but better trend. Professionals from the South appear to be comfortable with the slow rate of change. Many of them are not likely to provide the level of advocacy that Columbia might get from former Columbians such as Bill Washington, vice president of Sprint; James Nunnally, administrator of many agencies in Kansas City; and Darlene Green, comptroller of St. Louis.

The actual black unemployment rate is more than 20 percent if black unemployment is twice the stated unemployment rate. We have just as many people who have dropped out of the counted ranks due to frustration with failed job searches. Many of these are mothers without the support of safety nets because of Bill Clinton's failed welfare-to-work program. These people rely on support from those who are employed or underemployed or some kind of hustle. The land ownership in the central city by blacks is increasingly diminishing due to predatory businesses and black flight. Landmarks of a black history and presence are being continually threatened.

Eugene Robinson’s book "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America" speaks to a perception of the diversity of the African-American community. That kind of diversity is reflected in Columbia. I believe we need to unify at other times rather than the rare instances when the KKK decides to march in Columbia.

Michelle Alexander’s book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" speaks to what we lose if we don’t maximize our African-American male resources and solicit other resources to address the incarceration of young black men. It is imperative that we maximize all of our resources to address the divisions within our society. "American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt" by Daniel Rasmussen, about a slave revolt in New Orleans, shows we have the natural capacity to organize and address our issues if we develop the will.

Meanwhile, we possess what I call "quiet storms" occurring in Columbia that ought to be celebrated. In my estimation, one of the leaders in the quiet storm is the Columbia Public Library. It remains a model of what Columbia could be if it lived up to its progressive potential. The library provides a supportive learning environment and resource services evenly. St. Luke United Methodist Church has been quietly making itself, its pastors and congregation available to all who want to address relevant issues no matter who they are. The food pantries of Russell Chapel and Progressive Missionary Baptist Church have been providing food and clothing to those in need. Almeta Crayton distributed Christmas baskets from St. Paul A.M.E. Church. The Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta sororities and the Minority Men’s Network provide service and scholarships in the community. The Royal Deuces and the First Ward Ambassadors are constantly working wherever they are needed.

Certainly Wynna Faye Elbert and Almeta Crayton are all over the place. Darrell Foster and Tyree Byndom have done a great job of assisting Wynna Faye on Straight Talk at KOPN. Darrell is now running for the First Ward council seat. Ellis Ingram and his wife have been quietly but effectively working with youth to encourage them in the arts and medical fields out of their own pockets for years.

Nat Stephens has organized the Mizzou Black Men's Initiative into a dynamic group of future leaders. Charles and Carolyn Allen and the Kelly brothers quietly participate in significant community endeavors. There are other couples such as the Whitts, the Middletons, the Nunnallys, the Gordons and the Warrens who are all part of this quiet storm and who we are unaware of, but who all make an impact on African-Americans in Columbia.

We should celebrate the efforts and achievement of these individuals and organizations as well as the spirit of those who inspired them. Those we celebrate in Black History Month are black, white, red and brown. Still, the contributions are too few and less intense than what is needed. We are not maximizing our full potential. We appear to be more reactive than proactive. Our token presence in conspicuous places is not utilized. Too many of these tokens hide from being responsive. We are capable of addressing our issues if we have the will. We must remember that the needs of the black community are not exclusive of the larger Columbia community. Addressing our issues will enhance Columbia and enable Columbia to reach its maximum potential.

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeritus at MU.

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