The NAACP has singled out Missouri for this distinct non-honor: Ours is the first state for which the civil rights group has issued a travel advisory, warning people of color to approach with caution.
This is a dramatic announcement, and it’s human nature that our first response might be to wonder whether we’re really such standouts when discrimination is so rampant. But let’s not waste any time indulging that impulse because we have real problems to fix.
Among them is the recently enacted Missouri law that as of Aug. 28 will make employment discrimination suits all but impossible to win. (Unless you have the ex-boss on tape saying, “You bet race is the reason I’m firing Miss Smith,” how can anyone prove that race wasn’t just a reason but the reason?) The law, which will require fired workers to prove that bias was the explicit reason they were let go, rather than that bias was a contributing factor, is an embarrassment and a mistake the public should demand that lawmakers correct.
We do not want to be the new Mississippi. Or Venezuela, where the State Department has warned Americans not to venture. We want to be known for bio-medical research and agriculture, among other distinguishing features.
But instead, the word Missouri these days evokes the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the slurs against black students at the University of Missouri and the recent death of Tory Sanders, a mentally ill black man from Nashville who took a wrong turn, ran out of gas, approached cops for help and wound up dead in a southeast Missouri jail cell after officers reportedly used a stun gun and pepper spray on him.
Rod Chapel, the president of the Missouri NAACP, asked, “How do you come to Missouri, run out of gas and find yourself dead in a jail cell when you haven’t broken any laws?” Fair question.
A piece on the conservative site Red State counters that the advisory “seems more like political vengeance against Missouri’s tort reform than actual fear.” We disagree and note that Missouri reported 100 hate crimes in 2015, the most recent year statistics were available from the FBI’s hate crime reporting program. (That puts us 16th in the country, but that other states also have some soul-searching to do excuses nothing.)
Just a few months ago, the windows of a Blue Springs barbershop were covered with racial slurs. And the most recent attorney general’s report shows black drivers in Missouri were 75 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.
Against this backdrop, we don’t see how our Justice Department can justify going after discrimination against white people or how our president can claim he was joking when he encouraged police officers to rough up suspects. If he was trying to be funny, that was one twisted joke.
The NAACP is letting people know, Chapel said, that “people need to be ready, whether it’s bringing bail money with them, or letting relatives know they are traveling through the state.”
Our own advisory is that while most Missourians welcome all travelers to our state, our law enforcement officials and lawmakers do need to think about why we’re seen in such a negative light. And it’s up to the rest of us to make sure they lose their jobs if they don’t.