Thursday, June 24, 2010

A story with a life of its own

Having broken the news that started the whole Blair-vs-mural hubbub, which went international and brought a whole lot of unkind attention on our fair city, now the Courier editors have had enough and wish it would just go away. Show's over, nothing to see here, move along.

Taking their cue from Mayor Kuykendall ("The public wanted the opportunity to speak, and now we're going to put this behind us"), today the unnamed Courier editor has decreed that further discussion of the topic is officially boring and we should be done with it, even promising additional censorship of the letters and comments. Nice.

This controversy touched a raw nerve in our town and opened a dialogue that's been a long time coming. It's no surprise at all that a lot of people want to be heard, nor that many are staking out extreme positions, nor that the champions of the status quo would like to vacuum the genie back into the bottle. It's an embarrassing story, and Prescott's customary way of dealing with embarrassment is to sweep it under the rug.

But is that any way for a news organization to act? Tim Weideraenders shows that this is a preferred approach in telling us he doesn't watch TV because tampon ads gross him out. After restating his own position, Steve Stockmar declares the argument over, clearly expressing the short attention span of the media in general and the public at large, as well as the typical offhand hubris of journos in deciding what's important and what's not.

Steve, Tim and the Mayor all seem to believe that their function is to lead the people in how to think, and what happened yesterday is not important. But they're all missing both the core of the story and the opportunity it presents, and forgetting that they are all in their chairs to serve the public.

Councilman Blair, Superintendent Kapp, Principal Lane and a bunch of racist yobbos all did things that were deeply offensive to the Miller Valley kids, their parents and teachers, and a large part of this community. Mr Blair has got some deserved blowback from his constituents and suffered some predictable cost in his commercial relationships. Messrs. Kapp and Lane walked their actions back and apologized, but that should not get them off without public discussion of how things are done in our schools, and how important political deals are made in secret among friends.

The Mayor blew an important and rare opportunity for sensible dialogue to address the day-to-day injustice and high background radiation of unacknowledged racism that splinters our community under its Leave-It-To-Beaver facade.

All of us overfed, comfy white folk would like to think of ourselves as friendly, open people who wave and greet passersby and treat strangers as new-found friends. But we all know or should know that we don't respond that way to all strangers, or even all of our neighbors. The majority here has grown comfortable in not seeing the ones who are different, or poor, or young, or mentally challenged, and there's constant pressure to make them even less visible. Many of us are in deep denial about how Prescott is changing with the world around it and refusing to go along, making Prescott increasingly neurotic.

This is news, one of the biggest news stories in our community. Refusal to talk about it, including by our local media, has built up the pressure we see being released now.

Rather than pulling the curtain and telling us the show's over, the Courier should be leaning into this story, seeking out the reasonable voices and different viewpoints, challenging rhetoric with facts, and pushing for answers to the very important questions it raises. Proaction, not reaction.

I don't know how long the story will sustain itself. Americans really do have the attention span of a gnat, after all, and in its current form the dialogue isn't very productive. The status-quo types will probably win. But be warned that the issue of racism in Prescott will not go away, it will only repressurize and emerge somewhere else, uglier and more recalcitrant. The editors have only kicked the can down the road.


Jack Wilson said...

I agree that this was/is big news and it is an opportunity to open a respectful community dialog on the issue of racism. Sweeping it under the rug will not solve anything. I, for one, thought Councilman Hanna's closing statement regarding diversity should be examined closely, especially from a historic perspective.

BearWhizBeer said...

not to mention that convincing everyone to stand down and forget about the whole thing is steve blair's best chance of serving out his term on the city council.

i too was appalled by hanna's comments -- he invoked the classic defense of racists everywhere.

there is an opportunity here. everyone involved would probably agree that we all want to live in a color-blind society. steve blair has said as much, and hanna implied that that's what what was here mid-last century.
i don't believe that for a minute, but perhaps that common desire can serve as a lever.

Steven Ayres said...

BWB: That's a really positive way to look at this, and I agree.

The hard nut here is that our standard imagery of racism -- deputies siccing dogs on black sit-down strikers, LA cops thrashing Rodney King, Archie Bunker, the Klan -- are too extreme for most of us to try on and ask ourselves, "Am I a racist?" It's an insidious problem, usually disguised in good manners, charity and benign conscious intent. In many cases it may take the experience of discrimination against yourself to be able to spot it. But what we know for sure is that you can't ever get around racism or even minor interracial misunderstanding without strong, ongoing dialogue that builds trust. That dialogue has to start with getting someone's attention and saying, in effect, "You're hurting me because of how I look, and that's wrong."

Anonymous said...

The mural is not the controversy. What - or who - started all of the negative comments about the mural? Mr. Blair. As an elected official and someone that wields some power in this town (as scary as that sounds), he did not uphold his entrusted status in this community. Here's a conversation I would like to have: should we hold elected officials to a higher standard? Why or why not? If some old coot in a bar said the same thing that Mr. Blair did would we be in this situation? I believe Mr. Blair incited all of the other folks to come out of the woodwork and feel brave in their racism. He needs to go away because how can his electorate trust him to make rational - important - decisions when he has shown he usually does just the opposite?

Anonymous said...

Is there room in the debate about racial enmity for recognition of the fact that racial hostility is not the sole purview of "overfed, comfy white folk" ?

In truth, the description of "folks who would like to think of themselves as friendly, open people who wave and greet passersby and treat strangers as new-found friends" doesn't much fit the attitude of many committed white people haters.

I'm not a fan of racial discrimination or hatred on any level, so I figure it's the smart thing to do to just be real about the fact that white people are hardly the only, if even the most culpable when it comes to fomenting ugly stereotypes as justification for mindless hating. No problem is ever solved by cherry picking which aspects of it we're allowed to address.

It's a glaring fact that non-white people stereotype and incite hatred against white people all the time, in public, and with complete immunity from criticism, so perhaps we might not reasonably expect a resolution to the situation by placing all the blame and responsibility on white people.

Just keepin' it real.

Steven Ayres said...

There's certainly room in the discussion to talk about people's feelings and practices across the spectrum, but I prefer to drive the snakes from my own nest before pointing at someone else's. So my purpose is not to "put all the blame on white people," but rather to call foul on white people who dissemble or claim benign intent to cover obvious racist acts, and to try to awaken the white majority to the racism within us, hiding beneath benign intent. I'll let black and brown people address their own problems in their own way. Any other course is self-righteousness and blaming, and only makes matters worse.

One of the toughest nuts white people have is our own defensiveness about the idea of being racist. If you're over 40 you grew up racist in America -- I don't care who you think you are, it was unavoidable. It's in your most basic programming, and to a significant extent it's part of the DNA of everyone on the planet. Rather than continue to divert and claim innocence, wouldn't it be more constructive to be personally proactive about the deepest, most destructive and most intractable social problem we face?

Steven Ayres said...

CurlyFry, in characterizing my "notion" as "that white people bear some extra burden of guilt and responsibility for racial hatred," you directly demonstrate the blinkered defensiveness I'm talking about. You're defending all white people against objective criticism of specific white people for clearly racist acts.

Note that I wrote, "If you're over 40 you grew up racist in America," not "If you're over 40 and white you grew up racist in America." You've fallen down a cognitive rabbit hole that might be instructive if you give it a chance.