What if Martin Luther King Jr Were alive today?

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 17, 2018

Last week’s remembrances of Martin Luther King Jr. caused me to read, for the first time, King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” In it, King writes about his concern about the term “Black Power” and assesses the strategic position of African Americans. What caught my attention, however, is the appendix titled: “Programs and Prospects” that contains insights and proposals about education, employment, rights and housing that equal his world-class ability as a community organizer and preacher. The book provides a vantage point for conjecturing about the frequently asked question, “What would King say about racial progress if he were alive today?”

I imagine King might recognize that the election of President Barack Obama was a milestone for racial progress but might single out the “School to Prison Pipeline” as illustrative of our failure to address fundamental aspects of our society.

King had high expectations and lots of criticism of the role that public education might have in reducing inequality. King acknowledged the additional challenges faced by children of poor families and wrote, “The job of the school is to teach so well that family background is no longer an issue.” He hoped that efforts such as Headstart could prepare at-risk students for educational success. King would have been disappointed, but not surprised, at the quality of education received by many African American kids.

While black high school graduation rates have increased to about 90 percent, nearly the same as for white students, test scores show a different picture. NAEP scores have gradually increased for all students, but black students are between 25-30 points behind in math and reading. One report found that black students enter high school about three years behind white students.

King proposed federal education parks, a large-scale magnet school in metropolitan areas that would be integrated and expending resources to close the achievement gap. In the half century since King’s death, I suspect he would have said that we have spent too much time and resources arguing about busing, even in Boston, and affirmative action rather than learning how to teach to at risk students.

Nationally, about 63 percent of students who begin college finish within six years. That figure is 45 percent for African Americans. In 1989, 25 percent of white men and women had college degrees, by 2009, college grads were 32 percent of white men and 41 percent of white women. For black men and women, the percent with college degrees increased from 12 percent in 1989 to 18 percent for men and 21 percent for women in 2009.

There are still wide disparities in economic factors. White families earn about $55,000 a year compared with $32,000 for Black families. While shocking, income is more equally distributed than wealth and savings. In 2011, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth compared to $7,113 for the median black household. Seventy-three percent of white families own their own home compared to 45 percent black families. Home ownership is usually the major asset by which families store wealth that is bequest to the next generation. Discriminatory patterns in the housing market persists in many cities.

Public policies based in tax credits rather than direct services have ironically perpetuated economic inequality because tax breaks like the Home Mortgage Interest deduction, the largest tax break, is worth more as family income increases.

The incarceration rate of African Americans has nearly tripled between 1968 and 2016 — perhaps the most disappointing development in civil rights in the last 50 years. African Americans are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be jailed or imprisoned largely due to non-violent drug arrests. Removing black men from families is disruptive, reduces income and, most importantly, removes male role models. King would have been an eloquent advocate for reforming American prisons.

King subtitled his last book “Chaos or Community?” It would certainly be easier to argue for the former than the latter. On one hand, the black middle class has expanded, there are black quarterbacks and coaches in the NFL; on the other, racial profiling, differential poverty rates, and social rhetoric denies that we have made sufficient process toward King’s “beloved community.”
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

The Columbia of 1968 strived for the same progress it does today

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN March 30, 2018

Last April 4, the 49th year since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, I became curious about Columbia’s reaction to the news of King’s murder on April 4, 1968. So, I spent the evening with Columbia Tribune microfilm at the Columbia Public Library. I was curious, hopeful and a little bit afraid of what I would find. When I came to Columbia in 1986, I was surprised to discover its segregated housing pattern, to learn that I walked the same ground where slaves once worked and to count more Confederate names than Union names on the courthouse war memorial.

I learned a great deal from the Tribune’s coverage of the week following April 4, 1968. Most important, Columbia remained calm and did not experience violent reactions as did Jefferson City, Kansas City and St. Louis.

The local context of public reaction to King’s murder included the defeat of a hotly debated open housing referendum just a few weeks before. Nationally, the politics of Vietnam War had caused President Lyndon Johnson to announce on March 31, 1968, that he would not run for re-election.

On Saturday, April 6 of that year, more than 500 “Negroes and non-Negroes” attended a two-hour memorial service at the Second Baptist Church where Mayor George Nicholaus called on “all Columbians to heal through mutual respect the deep disillusionment evoked by the sniper slaying” of King. He urged all people to “forget differences, look at similarities.”

The Sunday after the Thursday that King was killed was Palm Sunday. King was buried during the Christian Holy Week.
Nicholaus said, “I think the playing of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ makes us all realize that we have a common purpose of being here tonight.”

Nicholaus went on, “I could not help but draw an analogy to the week we are about to begin” and “the last words of our Lord as he hangs on the Roman cross, ‘It is finished.'”

The Tribune reported that the mood of the audience was one of reverent dedication to making King’s death an impetus for better race relations.
At 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, the day of King’s funeral in Atlanta, more than 1,000 marched “10-12 abreast, many arm-in-arm” from the Blind Boone Community Center to the Boone Country Courthouse.

The event was led by the Columbia Civil Rights Coalition and heard remarks from five speakers, including George Brooks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Annie Gardner of the Congress for Racial Equality and two members of the Columbia Action Teen Council.
An April 10, 1968, Tribune editorial praised local citizens for staying true to King’s philosophy of nonviolence. It read:
“Anyone who has taken the trouble to observe our Columbia Negro people in recent months can have gained only one impression.
“Through the frustrating experience of the open housing election and the despair surrounding Dr. King’s murder, they have conducted themselves with dignity, intelligence, and restraint. They have clung tenaciously to their announced tactic of operating peacefully and within the law…
“During the open housing situation, the Negro voice was fair and untainted by malice. In defeat it remained admirably calm. At the Tuesday afternoon memorial service it said things that any resident of this city would hear with complete approval…
“The Negro leadership in Columbia today is exemplary. The Negro people respond to their suggestion of using traditional democratic means for achieving progress.”

As a believer in “traditional democratic means” for changing public policy, my research into Columbia’s reaction to King’s killing was a relief to my worries that Columbia might have been full of racial strife. The Columbia of 1968 sounds like it was the foundation of Columbia today that strives to make racial progress, even if painfully slow.

As for me, I was a junior in high school in a nearly all-white western Pennsylvania steel town. I heard the news with my father on the car radio when we stopped for gas on the way home that Thursday evening.
We were stunned. We sat in disbelief. Over the next few days my parents worried about the safety of my elder sister who attended a university not far from Pittsburgh’s Hill District that went up in flames like more than a 100 American cities.

Over the years since King’s murder, I have marveled at his personal characteristics of patience and persistent, but perhaps mostly at his leadership abilities.

At the time of his death, King was struggling with the Black Power movement, as well as the politics of the Vietnam War. As I learn more history and personal accounts of those 50 years, I learn the great struggles and sacrifices made by millions of my fellow citizens to move toward more racial equality.

The year 1968 was a traumatic year in American history; my impression is that Columbia came through in a lot better condition than most cities. Leadership of the black community must have been the difference.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.


The misfortunes in ‘Fruitvale Station’ lie closer to home

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN March 27, 2018

“Fruitvale Station,” a film released in 2013, tells the story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American man killed by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer early New Year’s Day 2009.

Oscar was unarmed, lying facedown and handcuffed. The film captures his last 24 hours of life, interacting with his daughter, his mother, his girlfriend. I saw it twice last week on Netflix. It left me overwhelmed and angry but admiring the director, Ryan Coogler, who is now, and will likely forever be, better known for directing the blockbuster “Black Panther.” Michael B. Jordan is the main character in both films.

I do not know anyone like the mythical heroes in “Black Panther,” but I have come to know several guys like Oscar Grant. I drove one of them, I will call him Oscar II, to court last week so he could make payment on his restitution obligation for a crime he plead guilty to a couple years ago.

Oscar II is a big guy with a full bucket of everyday concerns—his health, keeping his job, keeping his housing. I met him a couple years ago and learned a lot about him, his daily challenges, and the confusing complexities of the so-called criminal justice system.

Oscar II is older than Oscar Grant, and he has a son who is now about Oscar’s age. He attended Columbia Public Schools, but I’m pretty sure he never graduated from high school. Oscar II has pointed out the many streets in Columbia, and several houses in surrounding counties, where he has lived.
He is a gregarious guy who knows lots of people. Oscar II is now middle-aged and may have been in a good deal of trouble in his youth. I have learned about his children, for whom he is still paying child support, and about the three low-wage part-time jobs he is now juggling. I know of several previous brushes with the law, including a DWI, that have left him rather isolated because he “wants to avoid trouble.”

Spending a few hours with Oscar II gives an opportunity to talk about basketball, why weather forecast doesn’t seem to be right very often, and the aches and pains that come with age. Oscar II says he is lucky because he has a reliable place to stay. He doesn’t plan very well. Many of his challenges are due to decisions he made, or didn’t make, in previous months and years.

Oscar II is a resilient, pleasant guy, with a sense of humor. He gets stressed out worrying he will be late for his hearing and never complains when he must wait an hour while the judge allows the defendants with lawyers who, he knows, will go before him.

“Fruitvale Station” is gripping because it is so realistic. Oscar Grant is not an angry black man, nor is he a thug. He is imperfect in many ways, yet he seemed to be trying to straighten himself out. He remembered his mother’s birthday, was figuring out how to get out of the drug trade and wanting to get his job back.

The criminal justice system has not served either man well. Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station was pulled off the Bay Area transit station because of a ruckus where he was defending himself. Neither he nor his buddies were armed. The police were not in jeopardy until they placed themselves in jeopardy. The officer who shot and killed Oscar was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent time in prison.

Oscar II has been caught in a criminal justice maze that may make sense to lawyers and judges but not to the uninitiated. Oscar II was in danger of having his probation revoked because he erroneously thought court costs had been part of the restitution payment schedule. Either his public defender had not noticed, or the judge talked too fast for Oscar II, or me, to fully understand.
“Fruitvale Station” illustrates Oscar’s mother’s love and concern for him, her guilt over encouraging him to take the Bart train on New Year’s Eve so he would not be tempted to drink and drive. Fruitvale Station shows Oscar’s striving to do better with his baby’s mama and his daughter.

“Fruitvale Station” is an engaging film, even if Oscar had not been just another of the police shootings of unarmed black men across our country. “Black Panther” is a huge success, but “Fruitvale Station” shows the humanity, the normality, of a young black man.

There are lots of Oscars in Columbia and America. We need to see more films like “Fruitvale Station,” despite how unpleasant stories they tell.

Original link

Can Trump’s bombastic style shake things up on two crucial issues?

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN March 15, 2018

President Donald Trump is rolling the dice on two issues near-and-dear to me — the future, perhaps a last gasp, of America’s steel industry and the fate, at least in the short-term, of the Korean Peninsula. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and his decision to accept an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before May are in the face of about 50 years of prevailing economic doctrine and diplomatic history.

Little of Trump’s personal and governing style appeals to me. Apparently, he listens to few people, hardly reads policy briefings, and is largely uninformed about American political traditions and practices. Is it possible that his bombastic, often erratic, operating style just may shake up the foreign affairs establishment and the free trade club and set new us on a new course in Asia and renewed hopes in Ohio and Pennsylvania steel towns?

There are sharp contrasts in these two issues, and Trump’s involvement in them. Protective tariffs are an old issue that largely has been turned over to trade agreements and international organizations. Despite my fond memories of Pennsylvania steel towns, the parade has left town with few people, except Trump and his steel-town voters staying behind.

North Korea is also an old issue, at least 50 years, but one that national policy makers have not solved. Perhaps it is Trump’s political naiveté and international affairs inexperience that causes him to take on a challenge that his three immediate predecessors avoided. Trump showed some courage, and performed rather well, in speaking to the South Korea National Assembly last November. Perhaps he now thinks of himself as an international diplomat.

Both these policy issues that have pervaded recent American history but never really became the issue of the day. International trade policy largely has been bipartisan in supporting “free trade” and now consists of many international agreements and organizations. American interest in the Korean Peninsula also has been bipartisan — but largely one of inattention and inaction.

Academics and think-tank observers have tended to sing the same song to themselves without clearly connecting with American citizens about the real-life impacts of each issue. The decline of American manufacturing and the rise of the North Korea Kim dynasty have gone practically unchecked because no one knows the perfect solution. Enter Trump and his impulsive decision style to shake up conventional thinking and overcome inaction.

The American steel industry that once prospered in Pennsylvania and Ohio has been in free fall since the early 1980s. Despite talks of industrial policy to rejuvenate economically depressed communities, unemployed workers could listen to Washington leaders and experts talk about the benefits of free trade. Free trade appears to have benefited the information technology industry and American higher education and lowered some consumer price. It did little, however, for Western Pennsylvania and Ohio — three areas where voters somewhat inexplicably supported Trump in 2016. It was as if voters threw up their hands and collectively said “what the heck, at least he sounds like he feels our pain.” While these voters may feel good about Trump throwing some attention their way, trade tariffs will not restore their jobs and communities. The impacts are likely to be a symbolic victory appreciated only by Trump’s political base.

The United States are now almost powerless to affect the world steel industry. International trade globalization is too far along for one nation to garner economic gain through protectionism. The World Trade Organization will not permit Trump’s tariffs to stand. The time to effectively resist free trade agreements was a generation ago.

Alternatively, Trump’s announced willingness to meet with North Korea’s Kim has the potential to reduce the North Korea nuclear threat and promote stability in Asia. While both announcements were surprises, his decision on North Korea can be directly linked to his visit to South Korea last November. In this space, I wrote on Nov. 13, that time is running out, that conventional diplomatic relations have not been successful and that Trump meeting directly with Kim could work. Circumventing the “Six Party Talks” that have become another diplomatic obstacle in achieving peace in the region. Just as Trump has little patience with Congressional negotiations and compromise, he is unlikely to be patient with one-level-at-a-time diplomacy. This may be Trump’s most risky adventure. There needs to be a second, a third, and many future meetings, to chart a path toward a lasting Korean peace. Most important, Trump cannot lose interest and back off from meeting with Kim.

How will all this turn out? As Trump often says, “We’ll have to wait and see.”

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.


Homelessness: a common theme to at least One Type

The New York TIMES has an article “A Bright Light, Dimmed by Homelessness”

that reminded me of an ESPN E-60 story about Schyler LaRue, AAC player of the year who tuned homeless.


I do know a few people like the women they describe–but maybe not as talented. I have had a lot of interaction with a guy this winter who just doesn’t make the decisions concerning his own shelter that most of us would make. It is frustrating that I do not succeed in getting him out of the cold–but at some level he is making his own decisions.

What Presidential Leadership on Gun Violence Might Look Like

David Webber
Columbia MISSOURIAN February 27, 2018

A Presidential Commission on Reducing Gun Violence should be established. We need a facilitator of a national discussion on how to preserve the legitimate use of guns for hunting and self-defense without exposing innocent citizens to gun violence and mass shootings. President Donald Trump is not that facilitator, but he can lead us in making it happen.

It is hard not to be cynical when learning of another school mass shooting and hearing special interest reactions and made-for-TV media commentary and town hall forums. Before Parkland, there was Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and all the way back in 1999 there was Columbine. The estimated 34,000 fatalities annually from guns — about the same as the number of vehicle fatalities — seem hopelessly high.

But we have solved other seemingly insurmountable problems in the past. We have eradicated small pox, reduced the prevalence of smoking and reduced traffic fatalities. Yes, vehicular deaths are about 35,000 per year — down from almost 55,000 in the 1970s. Adjusted for population growth the driving fatality rate per 100,000 population has been cut in half. That’s amazing. How did we do it? A variety of public policy decisions and private incentive, that’s how. We reduced the speed limit, increased the drinking age, enforced DWI and seat belt laws, and auto manufactures improved vehicular design. These changes were driven by research, insurance companies and committed citizens like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

America can do the same again. We can reduce gun violence and ensuing deaths through persistence along several tracks. For starters, it would be helpful if journalists and politicians carefully examined the politically motivated claim that the “Second Amendment prevents any gun control.” The Supreme Court did not rule this in District of Columbia vs Heller (2008) because it was limited to hand guns for use in self-defense. Moreover, citizens need to reject the proposed Interstate Conceal and Carry Reconciliation Act that sounds like a victory for freedom but would circumvent local control of concealed weapons in their jurisdiction.

Reasonable gun controls might upset that NRA but will garner broad public support. Public opinion polls going back to 1975 find that a majority have always favored stricter controls. Presently more than two-thirds of Americans favor some restrictions, primarily on assault weapons.

Gun control advocates should accept half a loaf rather than campaign for a full-course meal. They should be realistic and accept that there are an estimated 300 million guns floating around American society and that political opposition to any change will be fierce. The planned March 24 March for Our Lives should stay focused on reducing gun violence not defeating the NRA.

President Donald Trump’s discussion after the recent Parkland, Florida, mass shooting was a good symbolic step, but his suggestion of arming teachers, and his speech a few days later, are wanting. I don’t expect him, or any president, to have solutions to tough problems, but I expect them to lead. Trump should appoint a Presidents Commission on Reducing Gun Violence. Presidents have created similar bipartisan commissions after 9/11, after the riots in 1965 and after the Kennedy Assassination. The 9/11 Commission, took almost three years to complete. We already know the facts about gun violence, we need a consensus on solutions. This can be done in less than one year.

Outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch, former President George W. Bush, former Missouri governor and Attorney General John Ashcroft might be good practical picks to head the commission. The Gun Violence Commission should do the following.

1) Admit we have a gun violence problem and commit to reducing it.

2)Encourage research about gun violence. There are presently Congressionally imposed restrictions of the Centers for Disease Control conducting research about gun violence. The commission should be asked to research “how to reduce gun violence.”

3)Ensure only non-dangerous people are permitted to buy guns. Congress should fund national background checks.Given the likely link between mental health and using guns to hurt people, mental health policy needs to be examined to reduce the incidence of mental disturbances.

4)Reconsider computer and internet violent games. Surely these are not good.
Require gun owner insurance or other forms of promoting gun owner responsibility.

5)Take a close look at “no tolerance” school provisions intended to promote safe schools that may be contributing to the “school to prison pipelines” without making schools any safer.

Public policy does change. In addition to reduction in traffic fatalities, there have been significant changes in same-sex marriage and de-criminalization of marijuana. Even so, advocates of controlling guns have a steep slope to climb.

Best wishes to the March 24 March for Our Lives for keeping gun violence on the public agenda and for giving Trump the courage to lead in reducing gun violence.

I saw “Black Panther”

I saw “Black Panther” and am glad I did. I am a novice when it comes to action movies. I thought Marvel was only a paper comic book. I was not aware that “Black Panther” debuted in 1966. I belong to a Social Justice Arts Group that discusses films with a high racial content. To be honest, if members of that group had not suggested we next discuss “Black Panther,” I might not have ever known about it. Now I feel I am kewl (as kids said back in the 90’s) I feel like I now know about a secret world that everyone knew about but me.

I watched “Black Panther” early Sunday evening of Presidents Day weekend (opening weekend). The theatre had at least five other showings that day and my showing was packed: Blacks, whites, young and old, a few couples, more families, lots of guys. My biggest surprise was they all acted like they had been waiting for this move since 2014, when it was first announced. Moreover, they knew to stay seated after the first conclusion because more action would follow. They seemed to already know that there will be a sequel in two years.

I fully appreciate the significance of the first blockbuster Hollywood film with a black director but as an action-packed fantasy film, race was not the dominant lens for me. It wasn’t like “I am Not your Negro” or “Detroit.” I expect the box office success of “Black Panther” will boost many production and acting careers and may lead to more “culturally diverse” films. I am appalled, but should have expected, that anti-Black sentiments tried to sabotage the Rotten Tomatoes ratings (currently 97) in hopes of surprising enthusiasm for the film.

I enjoyed the technological wizardry but grew tired of some of the physical conflict. I know, I know—it is an action film. I personally liked the scenes short in Pusan, S. Korea, because I recognize them, but I don’t imagine most Americans particularly cared where they took place. There were at least five witty lines I appreciated and probably would have noticed more if I had not been enthralled by the cyber gymnastics.

Two quotes have returned to my thinking several times this week. They are:
1. One of the main characters (who had ancestors brought to America from Africa) says “throw me off the ship like my ancestors. It is better to be dead than in bondage.”
2. The ending—which I won’t spoil for you.

I am eagerly waiting our discussion group to learn about significant parts that I missed. I am proud of myself, however, that I noticed the ambiguity surrounding the fate of the main rival of the king.

Here are some links that may be of interest:
1. New York Times review https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/movies/black-panther-review-movie.html?

2. Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/black-panther-is-exhilarating-groundbreaking-and-more-than-worth-the-wait/2018/02/09/5bff1d4c-0916-11e8-94e8-e8b8600ade23_story.html?utm_term=.096b122cd7c4

3. An interesting analysis I found on Facebook (but it is a spoiler)

added 3/14
from THE Christian Century

Why don’t homeless people go to shelters?

It is reported that three-quarters of Los Angeles’ homeless are in tents, vehicles and abandoned buildings. In New York City, more than 100 social workers are assigned to persuade the estimated 4,000 homeless to go to the city’s expanded Safe Haven rather than ride the subway throughout the night.

Volunteers and housed citizens alike often ask why don’t homeless people take advantage of shelter opportunities? Having asked myself the same question, I’ve listened very carefully over the past few years. Here is what I have learned.

Viewing the homeless as lazy freeloaders prevents a deeper understanding of their decisions. The freeloader perspective naturally predicts the homeless would use all the services available to them — but they don’t. Most homeless people are very short-term goal oriented. They are focused on getting through the day rather than where they will spend the night.

For most chronically homeless, there is no”normal” day. They often do not have routines, they usually do not need to know what day it is or what time it is. That’s why they miss appointments with their caseworkers and forget where they left stuff. Many homeless do not plan very well. Getting to a shelter by a specific time is an obstacle they can avoid by just sleeping at their campsite which is always open and for which they do not need a reservation.

Many homeless do not make good decisions. They intend to get an ID or go to the food pantry, but something comes up and gets them off track. In that way, they are like most of us who only stick with our New Year’s resolutions to quit smoking, lose weight or save more money for a few weeks. People do not freely choose to continue alcohol, tobacco, opiate or chocolate addictions. Alcoholic and Narcotics Anonymous groups provide support for many housed students, housewives and business people. Some homeless, too, have addictions that prevent them from making it through the night without a cigarette, a toke or a drink, so they decide to stay outdoors.

Social workers and volunteers often say their guests “won’t follow the rules.” It is not that simple. Many homeless do not seem to really comprehend the rules or know what is expected of them. Social workers and volunteers sooner or later realize that raising one’s voice and repeating a request a dozen times doesn’t accomplish much. A frequent comment I have heard from those who choose not to go to an available shelter is, “I don’t want no problems.”

Humans seem to like their familiar comfort zones. Shelters that are here one week and there another don’t become familiar. Sleeping in your own bed, even if in a campsite, is your own bed. Shelters are noisy with no personal space. Many homeless follow their own clock. They are 24/7, not 9 to 5. Being required to be in at 7 p.m. and out at 7 a.m. doesn’t always fit well. Moreover, checking into a shelter means leaving one’s regular camp or space unoccupied, inviting ransacking or theft.

Personal safety and property security are issues facing the homeless, including those staying at shelters. Checking their bags at the door makes sense for program organizers but means a loss of control for a homeless guest. Most of us housed people don’t like having a purse, or pack, checked at a movie theater or sporting venue. The closest most of us come to feeling like a homeless person checking into a shelter is probably going through security at an airport. We don’t like it. We don’t like taking off our shoes and walking on that filthy floor, emptying our pockets in front of strangers and being told where to stand and when to move.

However well-intentioned they may be, caseworkers and volunteers sometimes seem more concerned with following their own rules than serving the needs of their homeless guests. Despite their good hearts, it is not unusual to hear volunteers and staff say, “They should be grateful for a warm place to stay.” Imagine overhearing a TSA inspector say, “They should be grateful that they will make it there safely,” as you wait in line fearing you will miss your flight.

Assisting the homeless in obtaining a standard apartment is a laudable goal but mini-houses, mobile homes, even storage sheds, may be a step up from the streets for some men and women who just don’t use existing shelters.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Matthes’ diversity speech provokes many reactions

David Webber   Columbia MISSOURIAN, January 24, 2018

A national conversation on race that so many call for, yearn for, must begin with local conversations on race. Meaningful conversations require honest dialogue accepting that people talk in different styles and use different words. City Manager Mike Matthes’ speech at the Columbia Values Diversity Breakfast can contribute to local conversation about racial differences in employment and economic well-being. Alternatively, it could spark a chilling effect on attempts to further community interaction and racial understanding.

Matthes’ breakfast speech was “bashed” by Race Matters, Friends for being “culturally and racially illiterate.” The speech would have been instructive in a college classroom because it demonstrated several truths about race in America. Among these are that media images make a difference in our perceptions of other people and that government and social programs can address “perception gaps” and biases.

The reaction also demonstrates that achieving the theme of the breakfast, “Forward in Unity: Embracing our Beloved Community,” is made more difficult by subsets of the community looking for political advantage rather than helping grow the local conversation.

Matthes set up his speech reporting on Columbia’s efforts at closing the job gap by illustrating how media images affect our perceptions. He recounted that during the protest in Ferguson in August 2014, the media was criticized for using unflattering images of Michael Brown as a thug rather than as a recent high school graduate who was college bound.

In response, protestors created a social media site where they posted photos of themselves in casual street dress and in more formal professional dress to illustrate that they are the same person that can project different images to society and the media.

To illustrate the importance of a job, Matthes’ showed two sets of images of five African-Americans. To be honest, as Matthes showed casual photos of the five Americans with comments such as, “The guy in the middle looks like he could rob a bank,” I squirmed in my seat a little and thought, “What the heck, where is he going?” I noticed some of the other people in the 1,000-person audience looking more closely at the images and shifting in their chairs. Matthes then went on to display and commenting on job-related photos of the same five people. For the guy in the middle he said, “The funny thing about the guy who looked like he was gonna rob a bank — he is a banker.” With that, I exhaled and thought, “Oh, I get it — ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’” and “clothes make the man (sic)” as our parents would say. We know this to be true, but we seldom admit it so publicly, especially before a crowd of well educated, racially sensitive people who bought, or were given, tickets to the event.

Matthes then went on to discuss a city youth internship called CARE — Career Awareness Related Experience — that provides at-risk 14-20 year olds with job readiness and internships in local businesses and organizations. Matthes said that it costs about $1,500 per participant and asked that we consider contributing. I had not been aware of the program but certainly see its value in closing the racial job gaps that exists across America.

Overall, Matthes’ choice of words and examples were startling but appropriate although it made me squirm a little. Personally, I would not have said “as a white man” because I have been educated to be an academic wimp and would have used the more vague “some people.” Secondly, rather than saying “it is good to be on time and to take a bath before a job interview,” it would be more politically hygienic to say “be punctual and dress for success.” Matthes seemed to be genuine and speaking “personally” so I accept his choice of words. Too often we repeat the same old socially acceptable slogans out of fear of being blasted for being “culturally and racially illiterate.”

Columbia has two race-oriented discussion programs this spring in which I will eagerly participate. The Inclusive Excellence program is a collection of city events focusing on promoting understanding of our diverse population. The second is book study of Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin” involving 12 local churches supported by a reconciliation grant from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I hope all participants will speak frankly and honestly using their own words rather than repeating rhetorical platitudes that make us feel good but seldom result in change. I hope that if I say “take a bath” rather than “dress for success” that fellow participants either say “some people find that too personal to be polite” or say “oh, I know what you mean and I will cut you some slack.” Productive, genuine conversation about racial topics require us to persevere, be understanding, and not look for reasons to be disagreeable.


David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.