It was just past the one-hour mark in our discussion when the panel turned on me.
I had invited four local community organizers — two black, two white — to meet at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kansas City, Kan., to hash out recent controversies that have bubbled up about race: Rachel Dolezal of the NAACP pretending to be black, Hillary Clinton saying “All lives matter” in a black church after the Charleston, S.C., killings, President Barack Obama using the word “nigger.” What can we learn from these incidents, and how can we get better at talking across race lines?
As we sipped iced tea around a table in a sunny alcove, the first 60 minutes were genteel. The panelists patiently answered my questions and shared personal stories about their calling to community service.
But then they had had enough: the white preacher with the honey-soft Southern accent; the tall, perennially upbeat black neighborhood organizer; the fiery strawberry-blond social worker; and the elegant national leader whose words are few and powerful. I felt the conversational rudder being wrenched out of my hand. We steered out of the placid waters of optimism and into the swift and dangerous current of grievances, old and new.
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The group attacked Star articles and editorial positions they disagreed with. I stonewalled: That’s not what we’re here to talk about.
They said I was being defensive, doing what white people “always” do: instigate a conversation, then shut it down when it gets uncomfortable.
They accused me of wanting to stage a feel-good encounter during a time of wrenching hatred and violence. They were right; I believe in the power of words to change hearts and minds.
For the next hour, I sat and listened.
Here, in their own words, edited for length and clarity, the community leaders address the recent controversies and their vision of the change that is needed to overcome racism.
Sam Mann, retired pastor of St. Mark Union Church, 1101 Euclid Ave., where he preached for 43 years to an all-black congregation. Mann is also past president of the Kansas City chapter of Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Raised in Eufaula, Ala., 20 miles from George Wallace’s home, Mann lives in midtown with his wife and has three children, seven grandchildren and a great grandchild.
Anita L. Russell is president of the Kansas City chapter of NAACP and sits on the national NAACP board of directors. She integrated Longfellow elementary school in the fourth grade, following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Russell was born and raised in Kansas City, where she still lives with her husband of 42 years and an elderly aunt she cares for.
Richard Mabion is president of the Kansas City, Kan., branch of NAACP and the first black board member of Kansas Sierra Club. Mabion speaks around the country about training black youth to work in green technology jobs. He was born and raised in then-white Argentine. He integrated Argentine High, graduating in 1964. He still lives in Kansas City, Kan., is engaged and has a son, a granddaughter, a stepdaughter and two stepgrandchildren.
Lora McDonald, community organizer and executive director of More2 (More Squared). McDonald was raised in rural Cass County. Her grandparents owned an integrated fishing lake, and her parents grew up with friends of color. The first in her family to go to college, she worked in a prison and a drug treatment center early in her 20-year career in social work. She lives north of the river with her son.
On Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP president who resigned after she was accused of pretending to be black. (In a recent interview, Dolezal, whose parents are white, still maintains she is black):
Anita L. Russell: The main problem is that she was not truthful. She did not have to be black to be president of NAACP. Everything she did, she could have done as herself.
Lora McDonald: I don’t personalize a lot of stuff, but I really personalized that, as a white woman who works really hard out of integrity to build relationships in the community and has been doing it for 20 years. … She was just masquerading as a person of color, and how disrespectful, because we don’t know, Sam Mann and me, what it is like to be black. We can live and work among black people, but at the end of the day we’re white people.
The black man who was doing my eyebrows today said, “Are you black?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “You know, like Rachel.” I almost jumped out of my chair. I said, “Don’t put that on me.” … Her doing that detracts from what I do.
Richard Mabion: I was deeply offended. The bottom line is, she lied. … Up on Quindaro, people are saying, “How come nobody noticed she wasn’t black?” You can’t tell by looking at somebody’s skin color, but you can tell by the way they talk and the way they walk when they think nobody’s watchin’.
Sam Mann: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has an interesting editorial in Time magazine. He said we should give her a get-out-of-jail card. I don’t know if we should give her a get-out-of-jail card or not. I don’t know her. All I know is she lied, and she didn’t have to. I’m not offended by it. I wouldn’t defend her.
On President Obama being criticized for saying in a recent podcast: “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.”
McDonald: Frankly, I’m surprised you said it out loud. I can’t say it out loud, and you are using it in a similar context, to raise a discussion, but I can’t say it out loud.
I’m offended that people are talking about that and not talking about the fact that people have called him that word over and over again since he had the audacity to run for public office.
When a white person uses that word, it’s a display of power and aggression. When a person of color uses it, typically it’s used in the context of paying homage to someone, it’s diffusing the power of that word. … There is no double standard, because it is not used in the same way.
Mabion: I have no problem with him saying that. I grew up with a father that used to say, “Nigger, please,” all the time. I love my father to death. That was just a normal part of our life. … We were proud of being black people.
Now I’m not a rap fan, I’m not a “nigga, nigga, nigga” kind of person. But as far as having a conversation about it like he was, or having a conversation like we are right now, that’s not calling someone a name, that’s talking about that word and what that word has done to our culture.
I’ve always felt that we need to be able to transcend that word. If my white friends call each other peckerwoods (a derogatory term for poor rural whites), nobody goes into a tizzy.
Mann: The issue for me is context and permission. When is it proper for a white person to say that word? Never. Never. Unless there is somehow a context and permission within the black community that allows it, and that’s based on relationship and trust. Without permission, it’s almost like the white woman (Rachel Dolezal) that took on the black identity. It’s that.
Russell: I understood how he meant it. But, you know, we buried that word in Detroit many years ago. (In July 2007, the NAACP held a mock burial for the word at its annual convention.) I was there, so I’m wondering why it keeps coming back.
On Hillary Clinton saying “All lives matter” at a community meeting in a black church in Florissant, Mo., near Ferguson following the Charleston, S.C., church shootings. She drew fire from people who saw it as a rejection of the “Black lives matter” message. Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley recently was criticized for the same thing:
Mann: Sometimes it’s like we’ve got 52 cards, but we’re playing different games with them. You’re playing bridge, and maybe I’m playing 52-card pickup. All lives do matter. But to say it in the context of that game ain’t right.
McDonald: Those aren’t the lives we’re talking about right now. One guy on Twitter said it’s like going on a diabetes walk and saying my so-and-so has cancer.
Russell: It is true all lives matter, but she was speaking there in a black church after the Charleston killings, so it was inappropriate.
Mabion: Whoa, I’ll let you all have your opinions about it. … Black folks I know care more about blacks killing blacks than they do talking about “black lives matter.” We’re runnin’ around talking about little clichés to make ourselves be heard, but no one is saying a word about the fact that black folks are being killed drastically by each other, and the black community is saying nothing.
But if you create a situation where a white cop for whatever reason stops an individual that does not do what he tells him to do and it escalates to a point where somebody ends up getting shot, then all of a sudden everybody’s coming out of the woodwork, jumping on this white cop for what he did. We’re sitting here right now and could be in harm’s way because some idiots are running out in the street shooting at each other in Wyandotte County.
We got babies gettin’ killed inside homes and then we sit up and talk about “black lives matter.”
On being black in a white community and being white in a black community:
Mabion: I never had a black teacher in my life. I know more about being white than about being black. … I was raised to be black in a dominant white world. That’s not being scared of white people or running from white people, but at the same time understanding that that was the world that we lived in — and we still do!
If a cop told me when I was growing up to get down, I got down. I never would have questioned him whatsoever. If I get stopped in my car for a ticket, my parents taught me this, the first thing I do is stick my hands out the window, because I don’t want to be an accident. I know black people that got shot in a car reaching for a wine bottle on the floor.
(Carter Godwin) Woodson in his (1933) book “The Mis-Education of the Negro” talked about the educated black becoming of no value to the uneducated black because the educated black is taught to be white to live in a white world, so if you bring that educated black back into that black community to try and talk about the stuff that he’s done and learned in that white world, it don’t fit.
So, yeah, I’m kinda stuck between those two worlds.
McDonald: When a family of color moved to our community when I was in about the first grade, my mom said: “There’s a new boy that’s gonna be in your school, his name is JJ” — that was JJ Smith, by the way, who later played for the Chiefs — “and the kids are going to treat him differently, but you won’t.” It was a threat; we would have hell to pay if she caught wind of us treating him differently.
I got my first gig as a social worker when I was 20. It was an internship in a prison in Booneville. So I’m sitting in this prison across from this guy and I’m not kidding you, what I’m doing in there as a 20-year-old unpaid intern is making a report to the judge to say if this guy should get out after a 120-day program called Shock Incarceration — they still have it in Missouri — or if he should serve a seven-year backup sentence.
So I’m sitting across from this cat from Kansas City … and I’m reading his rap sheet and I swear to God, y’all, he hadn’t done anything on there that I hadn’t done. I just hadn’t gotten arrested for any of those things.
And then on top of that he was born the same year I was born, 1973, and … he’s telling me about his mom, and his mom was a CNA (certified nursing assistant). That’s what my mom did. And his dad did construction. That’s what my dad did. His dad left the family when he was about 10 years old, and my dad left the family when I was about that age — for different reasons, but they both split, and abandonment feels the same.
And I’m looking at him knowing that he acted out out of the same context that I did and in that moment I was just deeply ashamed that I was in a position to decide and determine this man’s fate. And I’m in college? How did I even get to college? I shouldn’t have even been in college, really, I was a first-generation college student, and I shouldn’t (voice catching) — how did I get this privilege?
I didn’t tell him any of this to this day — hell, maybe he’ll see this in the Star — but his last name was King, and he was a king on my journey (voice breaking) … because I couldn’t live with myself to take advantage of that privilege, and how dare I sit on the other side of the desk and not do some s--- about it, you know?
Russell: See, here’s the thing about the two worlds: Black people always have known white people, ’cause when you went to the store or wherever you went, you had to deal with them. So we know you, but you don’t know us. And of course our parents told us. My husband laughs at me because I say I can’t believe that he wasn’t told this, but whenever you go to the store to buy something, you get a sack. Because if you’ve got a sack you didn’t steal it. If I get a Coke and a bag of potato chips, I get a sack. I can’t break that habit.
When I was at the white grade school, this one little girl in the class’s grandmother lived near, and she would come up at recess and be behind the fence talking, and she would share with them about when she was growing up, that they would draw a line and tell the black people they couldn’t cross the line. What I’ve learned from this is when you watch little children, they don’t know. Black children and white children hug each other and play. Children don’t know the difference until somebody says something. It (racism) has to be taught, and that’s the problem.
Mann: To be perfectly honest, I wrote a little story called “30 Days Notice,” where I came to understand at an early age that between me and the black preacher who plowed a field next door to me in Eufaula, Alabama, there was 30 days difference: They could come take his house right now, but they had to give me 30 days notice.
I could tell you those stories, but it doesn’t seem to get at the brutality of this white supremacy and white privilege. … The thing is still so insidious and still so systemic and still so mean.
The thing we have to do about race is more the issue of justice and more the issue of the revolutionary need to change a culture than it is that sister Anita and I can talk to each other and be with each other. That makes white people feel good. … We’ve been doing this for 40 years. We’ve had little dinners for 12, where black people and white people get together and talk. And yet we come to today and we have Ferguson. We come to today and we have Charleston.
In 1992, I was in this same town with (the late Kansas City Baptist preacher and national civil rights figure) Mac Charles Jones and Bill Clinton, and we were dealing with the burning of black churches in that year. And we come to today, and we have black churches burning.
We need to take the conversation to an economic justice level, where Dr. King was headed. One of the things Dr. King wanted was for all of the working class, including the white people, to get on board when it comes to, say, minimum wage. (Working class) white people are always talking about how hard it was for them coming up, and that’s true. But we’ve got the same enemy: the rich white people.
We make Dr. King some guru of feel good, he makes white people feel good. I don’t want white people to feel good. White people have got to come to grips with privilege and white supremacy.
On what we need to do to overcome racism.
Mann: Let me just give you four points: No. 1, integration is not an unequivocal good, because it’s always Anita coming into my house. It’s never the other way around. You never see white people flocking east of Troost. … Integration is a white agenda in some ways.
The second thing is, we need to totally rewrite the history of the United States. I’m not talking about just pieces, adding Anita’s story or Richard’s story to the thing; we need to rewrite the whole thing to include at the pinnacle of it the Middle Passage (transporting slaves from Africa) and the Trail of Tears (forcing American Indians onto reservations). These are central to our experience, and these have got to be taught to our children.
The third thing is, white people have got to come to deal with their own pathology. Whenever we get a white shooter killing people on a white campus, we don’t call it white … because we see ourselves as the norm. We’ve got to get out of that.
The last thing is, we’ve got to repair the damage (from slavery and injustice) — the health damage and economic damage. It ain’t been repaired yet. When we destroyed Europe we did a Marshall Plan. We set out a plan to rebuild. There needs to be a Marshall Plan. The Urban League founder Whitney Young wrote a book, “To Be Equal” (1964, McGraw-Hill), and he said if black folks started right now with all the barriers down, they could never catch white people because the white people are so far ahead. … This is the stuff!
McDonald: We have to go through some discomfort. And that’s our biggest challenge as white people, and our biggest privilege, is, as soon as some s--- gets uncomfortable, we start bouncing: “Well, I’m out of here. I don’t have to listen to this.”
As an example, the day we all learned about the Charleston shooting was the day of More Squared’s clergy caucus, and I played a spoken word piece that was a minute and a half long of absolute anguish from my sister in St. Louis — not my biological sister but an organizer at my sister organization in St. Louis — and her rage was: I’m tired of sittin’ in spaces with white people and creating spaces for white people so they can talk about their privilege, you know. She was like: I need you to cry for my people. I need you to care like I care. We’re in a black church and after everyone leaves, a white minister says to me, “Well, I want to do this, but don’t yell at me.” And I said, “Who yelled at you?” And she said, “That thing you played.”
So, you couldn’t say that in the room with mixed company? You waited until you were with me alone, to feel some camaraderie and say: “She was a little harsh, wasn’t she?” And especially white ladies — whether it’s Rachel Dolezal or Hillary Clinton — maybe we are trying to do the right thing, but we need someone to hold us to a higher standard that we have not reached. I still make errors and almost every single person in my inner circle is African-American, with the exception of my white kid. I feel like my job right now is pushing white people out of their comfort zone.
Mabion: We need to teach our inner city people how to develop economically. Now you’re going to say, “How do you do that?” We don’t know. What we need to do for real is come to a table and start multiculturally brainstorming.
The system is not designed to save our children. You take four, five or 20 of them and put them in a special class, and the next thing you know you’ve got them on the front page news and on TV about how great this group is doing, but you’ve got all these others back here that are just stumbling and fumbling over each other, and we never talk about them.
I know a little girl who was sitting on my lap at age 4 working a computer. Today she’s 16 and super bright and the only job she can get is at Winstead’s on the Plaza. … We as a human race need to understand if that girl is going to stand a chance in the future, she should be working in some technology job. She should be at Google. She should be down at General Motors. She should be down there in robotics.
Russell: It’s like America does not want to deal with slavery. We say, “Remember the Holocaust.” We say, “Remember 9/11.” Black people say something about slavery? “Get over it.” The consequences of slavery, both social and economic, are still a part of our present. … People say, “I didn’t do it. And it was so long ago.” No, no, no. Because they are reaping the benefits of what slavery did, and we are suffering the consequences of it. Until we sit down and have that conversation, it’s like I said earlier: We know you, but you don’t know us.
So I’m in favor of throwing out the history and rewriting and including everything, because slavery was the most inhumane thing that could ever happen. In Louisiana (after the 1811 slave rebellion), they cut off slaves’ heads and put them on sticks, but now ISIS are the worst people in the world. It’s not anything different than anything that’s been done to us.
By the time we stood and shook hands to leave, I realized this: Words matter, but not enough. Conversation can’t redress inequality. And when we do sit down at the table with people whose experience we have not lived, we need to talk less and listen more. Sometimes we need to hear the rage.