As I attended holiday services on Christmas Eve at All Souls, a Unitarian church in Washington, D.C., one thing that jumped out was the diversity in the congregation.
Many African-Americans were interspersed among the dominantly white crowd in the imposing historic sanctuary located two miles up 16th Street from the White House.
Perhaps I should have known that at All Souls, diversity is a given. A church pamphlet depicting famous attendees featured images of William Howard Taft, a stuffy-looking, mustachioed former U.S. president, alongside Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned social reformer and influential abolitionist, a man described by some as the father of the civil rights movement. The church was a rallying point for the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and has been a hub of civil rights activism for decades.
We were in Washington for a family visit, and the topic of race relations was fresh in my mind after The Cap Times published a cover story Dec. 18 headlined “Justified Anger.”
In it, Rev. Alex Gee of Madison, pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and founder and CEO of the nonprofit Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, detailed his deeply personal experiences with Madison’s racial divide, including being stopped and interviewed by police as a possible drug dealer.
And they have, more than I could have anticipated. Letters, comments, columns and a television appearance have followed. And our opinion staff has reached out for reflections from more voices in the community, which will publish in the coming weeks.
Gee and I met again after I returned from Washington. He described how he had been inundated with emails, phone calls and face-to-face comments, almost all supportive of his decision to speak out. Many endorsed his underlying message that there is a bigger separation around race than many in liberal and highly educated Madison care to acknowledge.
Indeed, Gee’s personal reflection created lots of waves, but the question we discussed over coffee that day was this: How can we build on this attention to advance the cause of race relations in Madison in 2014?
We did not try for answers that morning, but instead agreed we would work together by combining active involvement by him and other African-Americans he would recruit. In addition, the Cap Times would make the subject of race relations a major focus in the coming months.
Going in, it’s clear the local racial issue that has received the most attention in recent years is the achievement gap, the disappointing difference in academic performance between higher scoring white students and their minority classmates.
That topic has produced bitter debates about causes and best paths to improvements, and it is clear that Jennifer Cheatham, the Madison schools superintendent who arrived from Chicago last year, was hired in part because of her work on similar minority achievement issues in Illinois.
Less discussed, it seems, is what Gee and others regard as another pervasive gap, the one between adult whites and African-Americans across socioeconomic groups in Madison.
The subject arises indirectly in news stories about how hard it is to recruit minority students and faculty to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It also came to the forefront when Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, then president of the Madison City Council, talked in one of my 2012 columns about Madison’s “tale of two cities,” one made up of older, white progressives, the other of minorities.
That same theme was central to a story in the latest edition of the Eastside News, published by the Goodman Community Center. “A tale of two cities,” in fact, is the headline, and the story references a recent report measuring racial disparities in Dane County.
In the story, Sheena Loiacono, a Madison newcomer and Goodman employee, writes about how she was thrilled to settle into an apartment she found on Craigslist.
When she went to yard sales to buy furniture, people were friendly and inquired where she had moved. “I would smile and happily tell them that I was living in the Allied Drive neighborhood,” a minority-dominated area with a troubled reputation.
She says she saw looks of worry and concern and was advised to look for a safer part of town. “Only recently have I fully begun to understand the larger social implications of this community within a community; separate and separated; denigrated and marginalized by the rest of the city.”
Stories such as Gee’s and Loiacono’s reinforce the urgency of a broader community discussion. Gee and I discussed how best to work together on the next steps.
Traditional journalism must play a role. To that end, I was reminded of my acquaintance with journalist Keith Woods, whom I met when he was in town in the 1990s to provide diversity awareness training for journalists.
Woods, who is black, had been a key editor on a 20-member New Orleans Times-Picayune team that produced the groundbreaking series “Together Apart: The Myth of Race.” The series was exhaustive — 166 broadsheet pages — and focused on race relations in the South from the era of slavery until 1993, when the series was published.
Woods, now vice president for diversity in news and operations at National Public Radio in Washington, told me over dinner how, whatever his professional success, he was keenly aware that whites often reacted to him differently — nervously — when he was dressed casually at night. I have reconnected with Woods and he has agreed to help us brainstorm, writing in an email, "I can imagine that the dynamics of race and ethnic relations in the area have changed profoundly since the early 90s."
To those of us at The Cap Times, the internet provides a terrific vehicle for this dynamic, ongoing and interactive exploration of race relations. Coincidentally, we have evolved during this past year to become much more focused on digital formats.
But much of the conversation and action will need to take place face to face. The Cap Times had already planned to begin sponsoring events in 2014; to start, we want to work with Gee to develop the right forums to talk about race and take action.
In the end, I think race relations is one of the two overriding contemporary issues facing Madison; the other is how to invigorate a healthy local economy with a diminished government employment base.
We welcome all advice at firstname.lastname@example.org. As you can infer, our goal is bigger than a flurry of short-term attention.