Garrett Griffin, 27, squints his light blue eyes and turns to stare out the window of Winstead’s at 135th Street and Roe Avenue. He rubs his hands together and begins.
“A lot of whites view the conditions of black Americans today without sociological or historical context,” he says. “So, if you were to ask one of them about poor blacks east of Troost and rich whites west of Troost, the answer wouldn’t be rooted in history.”
Rather, he said, whites might give a pat answer about the black-white wealth gap being due to a lack of ambition on the part of urban blacks.
Griffin, a Grandview resident and newly appointed contributing political writer for online magazine “Weekend Collective,” is frustrated by this kind of thinking. So frustrated, in fact, that he wrote a book called “Racism in Kansas City: A Short History.”
“A lot of whites look at black-on-black crime and murder rates — most murders are by black males and most victims are African-American as well … some Kansas Citians look at that and because they don’t understand that around the world, no matter what, poverty breeds crime — they conclude that blacks are simply more likely to commit crimes. These are myths that are still with us today,” Griffin said.
He said we’ve got to look into our history and understand it well enough that we can dispel damaging myths.
“I’m not claiming or intending to speak for the black community,” Griffin said. “The book is written for a conservative white audience. I reserve the right to preach to a white audience if I see problems that need fixing.”
He explained his motivation in beginning a book: “History has always been a passion. Writing is a passion. I wanted a way to creatively express myself and make a difference and I hope this book will do both.”
But why the interest in racism? Griffin is a graduate of Blue Valley High School in Kansas. He was a Media Studies student at Missouri State in Springfield and studied History Education at Rockhurst University for graduate school. He doesn’t seem to have a dog in the fight of local race relations.
As everyone knows, the past several years have seen a terrible number of high-profile clashes between white police officers and black citizens. Griffin was curious about where Kansas City stood.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the subsequent nationwide riots, Griffin quotes Episcopal priest David Fly as saying, “While other cities experienced riots in the streets, we proudly said, ‘Kansas City is different.’ ” The young writer thought that sounded a lot like what KC locals said after the unrest in Ferguson, but was it true then and is it true now?
The idea that Kansas City behaved differently after King’s assassination proved completely false when Fly said it back in 1968 — on April 9, 1968, Kansas City burst into a calamitous riot that left seven black Kansas Citians dead, more than 1,000 people jailed, the majority of whom were black, and more than $4 million in property damage.
Following the riot, Kansas City’s mayor Ilus Davis appointed civil rights leader Alvin Brooks as city human relations director.
Brooks struck at the heart of black desperation and anger: low-quality employment and housing. “He set aside resources to boost employment and improve housing on the east side. He also created the Commission on Civil Disorder to draft proposals on how to prevent riots,” Griffin writes in his book.
Brooks, now 83, is the founder and organizational consultant of Ad Hoc Group Against Crime which, since 1977, has worked as a bridge between the black community and law enforcement in Kansas City. He also wrote the forward to “Racism in Kansas City” and understands Griffin’s interest in the material.
“I think he’s mature enough and wise enough to see we all have a stake in this. It’ll take all of us (to end racism),” Brooks said over the phone. He quoted civil rights leader Whitney Young: “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
Griffin began researching race relations in Kansas City while he worked as a paraprofessional educator in a Grandview school. He said he was interested in books that told the story of what he calls the “white oppression of blacks.” He wanted to know about our city’s darkest hours.
He found a few books, but nothing that gave him what he was after. The only thing to do was write the book he wanted to read.
He leaned heavily on the Kansas City Public Library special collections, taking care to work from as many primary sources — newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs — as possible. His research and writing took about a year and a half.
Studying history, he said, is key to making sense of our current issues and discovering solutions.
In 2013 Griffin held a student-teaching position at a Raytown school through his Rockhurst graduate program. He was working with a group of sixth-graders who had just watched a documentary about baseball. The film made an observation about how fewer ballplayers are black now than in recent decades and that Latino players are on the rise.
One sixth-grader said, “That’s racist!”
“Kids think talking about race is racist,” Griffin said, “but it’s the cure for racism.” The fear of talking about it and possibly seeming racist prevents meaningful discussion.
Griffin lists a number of actions, in addition to more open conversation, that would ease the tensions and the issues that he uncovered in writing the book.
He writes, “We whites need to abandon our myths of innate black laziness, aggression and immorality, and consciously seek out neighbors, classmates, and colleagues who are racially different than us.”
He also mentions the need to pull together as a community to eradicate poverty; the need to end exploitative banking and improve the working wage, education, housing, and medical reform; support of diverse police forces, and so on.
Brooks says, “Sometimes a laundry list is good. Which one can you deal with? Here’s something I can do.” If people understand what needs to happen, even if it’s a lot, the hope is that each person will see just one action he or she is capable of taking toward change.
Griffin said he’s not yet where he wants to be as far as activism goes. He’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, “a passionate anti-racism group, among other things,” he says. “I also participate in Fight for $15 marches in Kansas City, such as the prominent one on April 15 of this year, though that is of course more about economic equality.”
The book, he said, is just the beginning for him.
Reach Anne Kniggendorf at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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