Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A gentle quietening of African Americans in Flint?

I'm getting old. Admittedly, I sometimes wonder if my hearing is getting a little bad as I find myself asking more and more people to repeat what they just said. I have even done so two and three times, depending upon the registration of their voice. After that many times, I felt so uncomfortable asking once more that I gave up, smiled, and pretended like I heard them. I usually nod my head affirmingly just to look a little more convincing... Whatever it was they were trying to communicate didn't get through. I left the conversation hearing only myself.

Frankly, I fear the same types of "conversations" are going to happen more and more between whites and African Americans in Flint. We are losing far too many African American voices that speak loud enough for white folk to hear them.

My heart sank when I learned that Fran Cleaves had died. I worked with Fran on various projects in the past, and while we were not friends, I had the utmost respect for her. Every time I saw her, regardless of the situation, she was strong, she was smiling, she was honest. When I saw her in the stands at Mateen's games, I saw the same - anyone watching - even from afar - could see those qualities about her. I never had to listen closely to Fran Cleaves. She spoke loudly enough for all of us to hear - and we were better for it.

I feel the same way about losing Pam Loving, I must say. While she has not died, she has suffered a personal and professional death that will undoubtedly have an impact on this community. Pam, too, is a strong woman with a legacy of activism starting with her father. She once spoke loudly in this community. Many people listened to her, both black and white... Now it seems that even her friends have trouble hearing her.

Flint is in trouble, people. I fear as the African American voices grow more quiet, white people will grow more weary of not being able to hear exactly what is being said - we will feel foolish asking to have it repeated one more time - and we will smile, nod our heads in affirmation, and walk away, having heard only ourselves.

For the first time since the city adopted a strong mayor form of government, both mayoral nominees are white. This majority black city seems to be losing its voice.

Some claim the votes in the primary election were split among four black candidates. Yes, that is troubling, however, to me there is a real lack of African American leadership in a city in desperate need of voices like Fran Cleaves and Pam Loving. I'll go one step further and suggest that since the recall of Mayor Woodrow Stanley in 2002, no other black leader has boldly stepped in to ensure that African Americans were at the table, making policy decisions, being counted as important to the decision-making process. Don't get me wrong, there have been a few who have been loud -- but more loud than useful. There have been some who have been quiet -- and yes, they have made quiet progress, but quiet don't cut it in Flint politics. Quiet leaders don't force loud issues that demand courage and respect and equality.

It isn't rocket science - race remains a powerful force in this community - sheer numbers indicate it is a powerful force in Flint's voting booths. The Journal reported more than 55 percent of the vote in predominantly black precincts went to one of the four black candidates on the ballot. And 88 percent of the votes in predominantly white neighborhoods went to one of the three white candidates. Predominantly black precincts accounted for almost 50 percent of the votes cast Tuesday. Votes from predominantly white precincts accounted for 41 percent. The other 9 percent came from racially mixed precincts.

Something is being communicated loud and clear - are we listening?

I was 30 when I met Woodrow Stanley for the first time for an interview for a local magazine; 31 when he appointed me to his cabinet. For 10 years, I was granted an opportunity to not only observe our racial problem, that I quickly learned was far greater than I ever felt, but also experience life in two Flints (borrowing the imagery from John Edwards). Working closely with Woodrow Stanley granted me access to discussions, if not situations, where I as a white person would have never been invited if it were not for him. Not that I fault the restrictions. On the contrary, now I understand all too well why the problem remains today, nearly 50 years since the Civil Rights upheaval of the '60s.

Many times I listened as Woodrow Stanley described the need for African American leaders today to live above the standard of white leaders, how the scrutiny and expectations of black leaders was far more intense, that there are those people in this city and country who will stop at nothing to remove an African American from a position of power. He said all that before he was recalled, likely many times as the local FBI wiretapped his phone and installed video cameras in his office to find something that simply was not there.

I heard one African American executive recently say, "We just sit and wait our turn."

My guess is, in the months and years to come, fewer and fewer African Americans will be given their turn. I fear that the quietening of African American voices through death of one kind or another will lead to a deafening silence.

May God help us all...

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