In recent months, I’ve been immersed in the topic of race like no other time in my career in journalism.
As many of you know, The Cap Times has served as a catalyst for racial discussion at about the same time the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families issued its “Race to Equity” report that revealed shocking disparities between whites and blacks in Dane County on measures including health, education, child welfare, criminal justice, employment, and income.
As that report was reverberating, The Cap Times published the “Justified Anger” essay by the Rev. Alex Gee about his experiences with racial profiling and other injustices in Madison. Out of that essay sprang an African-American-led movement that is still taking shape and will make headlines with its next ideas fairly soon.
The Evjue Foundation, the philanthropic arm of The Cap Times, joined with the Madison Gas & Electric Foundation, the CUNA Mutual Foundation, the Madison Community Foundation and several individuals to fund the coalition, which is led by Gee and many of the most prominent African-American voices in town.
In recent months, I’ve spent more time listening to African-Americans speak about racial disparities here, individually and in groups, than in all my previous years added together.
So now we have the Ferguson story and its aftermath, including the explosive grand jury decision and its impact on the national conscience, which has me pondering what Ferguson means to Madison, now or eventually.
I see it in the context of the delicate relationships here among well-intended people, white and black, about how to best make progress.
I think a defining question looms and it is this:
How much of the Madison area’s problems are due to shortcomings by the institutions and programs largely controlled by white people, and how much is it a deficit of what whites euphemistically term “personal responsibility” in the black community about some aspects within black culture?
Mulling that, a single New York Times article -- part of the deluge of Ferguson coverage -- stands out, a story about how the reaction to the Ferguson grand jury decision varied by race. One passage reflected themes that I find noteworthy for Madison, today and looking ahead.
In the story, a black man who grew up in a white, middle-class suburb of a large city said the Ferguson decision destroyed any notion that race does not matter, that he could “opt out of the negative parts of blackness.”
“I grew up with a lot of economic privilege,” the man told the Times, “and still because of my race and my age and my gender, I’m still in certain situations perceived as a threat. When I walk down the street, they don’t see my SAT score, they see a black man.
“I don’t believe most white people are malicious. I think most white people are oblivious. And I think that there’s a lot of work to do.”
I have found it chilling as I listen to blacks, particularly black men, describe how people move away on the street at night or lock car doors from inside as they pass. Trust me, white people, they do notice.
In Madison, it is also keenly noticed in the black community how little social interaction there is between whites and blacks, even when they occupy a similar social and financial status. African-Americans often suspect that when they are asked to join in, be part of something, appear at some event or press conference, it is as much or more about getting a black face as getting black input.
I was interviewed on a national podcast about racial problems in a liberal college town this fall, and I said at one point I thought some social separation between races here was due to the relatively small size of the black middle and upper-middle class. A prominent black leader who heard me later told me that the black middle class is not all that small; it’s just that white people (like me) don’t interact with it much socially.
So, the separation is a real problem, as is coming to grips with some aspects of African-American culture, a topic also reflected in the Times’ story.
Another black man, who is a pastor and police officer, is quoted as focusing on fellow African-Americans. “I now realize that we who consider ourselves leaders in the black community can’t just be against racism,” he told the reporter. “We have to also be against a portion of black culture that has become increasingly anti-authority and antisocial to a point of self-destruction. This is an enemy we’ve yet to engage in the black community. But it’s a conversation I think we’re forced to have now.”
Once you set aside the racists with the Confederate flags, there is still tension around how even well-meaning whites perceive the “portion of black culture” he refers to. And many blacks, I know, are uncomfortable when “black culture” becomes code for looting and baggy pants, not other aspects of their world.
I have personal experience with a difficult racially charged culture.
Decades ago, at my high school on the west side of Rockford, Ill., there existed a persistent and palpable air of tension, danger even, that pitted many of the black males against some of the white males. Most of both groups were from poor neighborhoods in south Rockford. At school, there were beatings, strong-arm robberies; I witnessed a race-related knifing incident.
As the editor of my high school newspaper, the big Rockford newspaper published an entire story about me, not because I was special, but because the reporter was sent to try to find some positive story at the school. After I graduated, Rockford West was the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case. In Grayned v. City of Rockford, the court ruled that Rockford’s anti-picketing ordinance that was used to stop a protest by black students at the school was unconstitutional. The late Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the majority opinion.
So, early in life, there was that experience. And now, much later, this one, in which I think I’ve been allowed a closer look at Madison’s black community. “Together Apart,” the name of The Cap Times’ website on race, still seems pretty apt in describing the overall condition of race relations here.
As we approach a period in which African-Americans seek greater influence and control over strategies and tactics on racial disparities in Madison, I do have a smidgen of empathy for white leaders -- political, philanthropic or direct service providers – who think they have done their best to improve things and feel underappreciated.
But only a smidgen.
Looking forward, blacks in Madison are owed a central role, and Ferguson reminds us that no matter how hard we whites try to see the world through their eyes, we, well, kind of can’t.