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Paul Fanlund: Listen more than you talk, and other advice on racial justice

Paul Fanlund: Listen more than you talk, and other advice on racial justice

AACC Black Lives Matter Solidarity March (copy)

Marchers make their way up Park Street toward State Street during a Black Lives Matter solidarity march in June 2020. In the wake of these protests last year, there was an unrelenting buzz among a subset of Madisonians about property damage connected to the protests, a suggestion that there were lawless hordes downtown.

Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

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In preparing recently for a speech to a local group about racial justice in Madison, I researched how many columns I’d written on the topic since joining the Cap Times in 2006.

The number was 50, and many others touched on race without the “racial justice” search phrase. So, a lot.

Have I shared any of this before? Perhaps, but with the trial around George Floyd’s tragic death dominating the news, looking at race in Madison seems timely.

First, a clear caveat. I am limited by my whiteness. As I’ve written before, I have never lived here while Black, Latino, Asian or Native American.

What I can offer is the experience from my various roles.

As a columnist, I listen for themes on race to be developed and shared when I’m in discussions with local leaders.

[Madison City Council denounces hate against Asian, Pacific Islander community members]

As an editor, I lead a newsroom with a tradition of covering racial justice going back to the Cap Times’ fight against a Ku Klux Klan march in Madison a century ago. This role extends to choices about the allocation of staff resources.

As a member of the Evjue Foundation, the Cap Times’ charitable arm, I get to learn about the dreams, aspirations and sometimes competing demands for money from racial justice advocates across the city.

As leader of Cap Times Idea Fest, our big annual thought festival, we try to identify salient questions about racial justice and use those to frame festival sessions.

So, here goes. One guy’s take on race in Madison.

I will never fully understand the city’s sharp racial divide on economic and educational achievement and its de facto cultural segregation.

Given this town’s self-image as a compassionate bubble of liberal ideals, you’d think we would be in a better place. We’re not.

[Which students are returning to which schools in MMSD?]

Maybe part of it has to do with where we start. Whites drawn to Madison are often among the most highly educated — attracted to our world-class university or the region’s burgeoning technology sector.

Some people of color who come here don’t start with the same privileges and that’s also true for their children at school, but generalizations are perilous and there’s much more to the achievement gap story than that. Well-educated people of color often report that their children don’t get the same treatment at school here that white children do.

Many do, but not all Madisonians care much about delving deeper into racial justice.

I noticed after Black Lives Matter protests here last year an unrelenting buzz about the property damage on State Street and the suggestion that there were lawless hordes downtown. Madison police, criticized by some Black leaders as racially insensitive, are criticized by others as overly conciliatory.

Racial animus was stoked by Donald Trump, and some subset of Madison buys into that. They probably like the law-and-order message and would be less likely — just as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said he was — to fear the predominately white crowd at the U.S. Capitol insurrection than Black Lives Matter activists. Yes, Madison is generally liberal, but I have been surprised at how prominent that vibe has been.

[Boys and Girls Club opens hub on Capitol Square]

The absence of a sizable professional class of people of color is a central problem.

It’s your classic chicken-and-egg thing. The city’s historic inability to attract and retain more professionals of color — a challenge across all sectors and especially at the university — makes this cycle feel almost insurmountable.

Visitors of color ask: “Where are the people who look like me? Where can I get my hair cut?” It is part of the reason that a Black cultural center that has gained initial financial backing from the city and county is so important, and why groups like 100 Black Men of Madison are so essential.

I know some local leaders of color even question their decisions to stay in a town where their children feel isolated. To most whites, in contrast, raising a family here feels like Shangri-La.

Leaders of color, regardless of academic or professional credentials, feel stereotyped and pigeonholed as being relevant only when the subject is race.

“I have done this and this and this,” more than one has told me. “But you would never think to quote me or have your staff call me except when it is about race, when some Black kid gets shot or there is some national story on race you need a local comment on.”

[Jessie Opoien: Wisconsinites deserve safe water — and lawmakers who will fight PFAS contamination]

That reminds me of a comment I heard years ago directed at mainstream news organizations like mine: “The only time you show up in our neighborhoods is when there’s yellow police tape” marking a crime scene.

Money and power are overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of white people in Madison.

Leaders of color think they are treated differently when asking for money for their initiatives, that traditional white-led causes are less scrutinized during and after the giving process. A Black leader told me years ago that they refer to the experience of appearing before one major nonprofit board as facing “the firing squad.”

It is seldom publicly discussed, but there is tension between the Black and Latino communities when competing for financial support from public and private sources.

And the Native American community, for its part, would like to be recognized for its pre-eminent historical position and its culture instead of being synonymous with slot machines and casinos. The Asian community has really been in the background but, sadly, recent hate crimes around the nation may be changing that.

So, in sum, for white people who genuinely care about this topic, I’d offer these thoughts:

  • Don’t get into racial justice efforts expecting accolades.
  • Listen more than talk, and be humble.
  • Know that genuine cross-cultural friendships and relationships need to extend beyond racial identity to, as one leader calls it, other “commonalities.” In other words, there needs to be something in common beyond just wanting to have a cross-cultural friend.
  • Don’t pretend to understand more than you do.

On that last one, we whites can all look in the mirror.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

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