A local group that advocates for racial justice is taking on City Manager Mike Matthes for remarks he made last Thursday during a speech at the Columbia Values Diversity breakfast.
Matthes’ speech primarily focused on the city’s effort to reduce black unemployment. As part of the talk, Matthes displayed pictures that five young, black people posted on social media during the protests after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. The people who posted their photos asked which pictures the news media would use if they were shot and killed by police.
“It was this feeling like they used the thuggish picture of Michael Brown, and not the picture of him graduating from high school, or all of the other good things he did in his life,” Matthes said.
He described each of the casual pictures that he projected for the audience, and how each made him uncomfortable as a white man.
- “In the upper left, he’s flashing a gang sign,” Matthes said. “The guy in the middle looks like he’s gonna rob a bank, right?
- “The upper-right: I’m not sure which gender he or she is. I’m befuddled, right?
- “In the lower left, why is he so angry?
- “And the lower right, that’s totally inappropriate dress in a professional environment, if you’re looking for a job. So, that’s my culture, that’s my bias.”
Matthes then changed the slides to show the same five people dressed professionally, prompting applause from some in the audience. One man was a U.S. Army soldier, another man was a firefighter, and another a doctor. The woman Matthes said was dressed inappropriately for work wore her graduation robes.
“Now, I’m not so uncomfortable anymore,” Matthes said before describing the transition in each picture. “The funny thing about the guy who looked like he was gonna rob a bank — he is a banker.”
The speech has drawn sharp criticism from members of Race Matters, Friends. Group President Traci Wilson-Kleekamp called Matthes culturally and racially illiterate, saying he doesn’t know how to talk about social and economic conditions that cause inequality.
She said showing pictures of how people dress when they’re not at work has nothing to do with poverty, economic justice or diversity.
“I don’t know why that was there, but it’s like saying: ‘I view you black people as looking like this, but you might actually dress like this and look like this, and oh, yeah, now we can hire you,” Wilson-Kleekamp said.
Matthes also touted in his speech the city’s Career Awareness Related Experience, or CARE, program, which offers job coaching and mentoring for teenagers.
“I didn’t know this when I was 14, when I started working,” he said. “You have to be on time. That matters to your employer. It’s best to have a bath, too, right? These are fundamentals.”
After a pause he continued: “I’m talking about me now. If only I had a job coach.”
The speech also drew backlash at Tuesday night’s Columbia City Council meeting when members discussed a draft resolution that would direct Matthes to design a plan to transition the Columbia Police Department into community policing.
Rachel Taylor of Race Matters, Friends, told the council that Matthes’ presentation showed an insensitivity to people of color, racial illiteracy and an inability to read his audience. She said she had “grave reservations” about him leading a transition to community policing.
Wilson-Kleekamp told the Missourian she isn’t convinced, based on Matthes’ past remarks, that he has the skills or cultural competence to do that. The council will hear public comment on the draft plan at its Feb. 5 meeting and will vote on Feb. 19.
“Community policing is, in many respects, all about social justice,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “It is a philosophy about how you treat people. It also requires cultural competence. It also is being willing to embrace a guardian mindset.”
Police with a “guardian mindset” are trained to see themselves as protectors of the people they serve, while a “warrior mindset causes them to view the people they’re supposed to protect as enemies.
The overall narrative of Matthes’ speech was the economic inequality between black and white people in Columbia and the progress the city has made in addressing it over the past few years.
Citing the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, Matthes said unemployment among black Columbians dropped from 14.8 percent in 2012 to 8 percent in 2016, after rising to 15.7 percent in 2013. White unemployment dropped from 4.9 percent to 3.4 percent from 2012 to 2016.
The survey shows a 4.7 percent margin of error for the 2012 black unemployment rate and a 2.9 percent margin of error for 2016. The margin of error for the white unemployment rate was less than 1 percent both years.
Matthes said the city was prompted to act in 2013 by the “unexplainable” 11.3 percent gap between the unemployment rates of black and white people in Columbia.
“We finally joined the fight against poverty because of this statistic, but look where we’ve come,” Matthes said. “It’s been dropping ever since. We’ve now reached, for the first time that we can find, single-digit unemployment for African-Americans in Columbia.”
Wilson-Kleekamp said Matthes has a habit of tying race to poverty.
“If you look at the listening tour remarks he made, they are always tying race to poverty,” she said. “Why is poverty on the agenda for a diversity celebration unless you think race and poverty always go together?”
Matthes needs to look at the history of the city’s economic policies and how they’ve contributed to the construction of poverty in Columbia, Wilson-Kleekamp said. She said the city’s budget priorities today reinforce the historical conditions behind inequality, citing a $2 million incentive the city will give to a hotel developer as one example of the city’s misplaced priorities.
“That’s where the action is at,” she said. “It’s not about how people dress. It’s not about making sure that young people know that they need to take a bath.”
“If you look at the listening tour remarks he made, they are always tying race to poverty. Why is poverty on the agenda for a diversity celebration unless you think race and poverty always go together?” Traci Wilson-Kleekamp Race Matters, Friends president