Failing Cities

Justified Anger

I wonder how many of us in cities throughout America can relate to what Alex Gee is saying in the following article. Is this just about my beloved city, a city in which I led the police for over 20 years? A city in which I had followed the career of Alex Gee as both a community leader and now as a fellow pastor? Or is it about more — about how ALL of us have failed one another. You decide. And when you’ve finished reading this article click on the link below and read the comments from residents of my fair, “liberal/progressive” city and then tell me we don’t have a problem!

How Madison is Failing It’s African-American Community

By the Rev. Dr. Alex Gee

[The Rev. Alex Gee is pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and founder/CEO of the non-profit Nehemiah Center of Urban Leadership. I have taken the liberty of condensing his remarks. The full text may be found HERE.

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The Rev. Dr. Gee in his office.

“I had just finished my presentation about the mass incarceration of African-American men to a Downtown Rotary luncheon when a woman from the audience approached me.

“’Wonderful presentation, Dr. Gee!’ she told me, adding she was intrigued by my data and insights about Wisconsin’s mass incarceration phenomenon.

“She added, ‘If you don’t mind, I must tell you that I am so glad that you are not some angry black man!’

“This well-intentioned white Rotarian had just heard how Wisconsin has an epidemic and leads the nation in the incarceration of African-American males between 20 and 24 years old.

“Giving these kinds of presentations typically takes a toll on me because of the bleakness of the subject matter, the pain in my soul unearthed by the topic and the typically blank stares by people who wonder why we are still talking about racial disparities in 2013.

“’I am an angry black man,’ I responded. ‘Why would you think I wasn’t angry over what is happening in and to my community? Is it because I put on my best face and “safe” black voice for you today?’…

“So why am I sharing this experience?

“My family has lived in Madison for nearly 45 years. Candidly, I enjoy what I consider to be very fruitful and recognized work in our community. For nearly 30 years I have led a vibrant, multicultural and multi-class congregation that actively serves its community…

“I was compelled to write this article for several reasons: To offer a fresh, indigenous African-American male perspective on race relations in Madison; to voice my desire to see a stronger and healthier community; to challenge the city’s subtle — and at times not-so-subtle — elitism, paternalism, racism and classism; and most importantly, I am writing this because I have a nephew, a godson and a host of African-American boys who I love and respect and cannot bear to have them exposed to the reality of the current inequities of our community…

“I am not upset because Madison has issues; I am upset at how Madison skates on many of these issues.

“I hesitate a bit out of concern my close white friends may misread my anger as being directed at all white people. My anger is with systems, ignorance, insensitivity, prejudiced views and not with individuals.

“I am equally concerned that I don’t alienate my trusted African-American friends by sounding as though I am asking whites for social handouts without challenging African-Americans to work harder and take responsibility for their own lives. I believe in personal responsibility that readies individuals to truly soar in life as walls of institutional racism are eliminated….

“Does she feel that my education, my public profile or the fact that I am an articulate speaker help me escape racial profiling, discrimination or feeling as though I need to always represent my race in a positive way by working harder, faster and longer? Little did she know that anger is probably what keeps me connected to the dismal realities and staying the course as an activist.

“How can I not be angry when I’ve been a victim of racial profiling?

“A couple of years ago I was pulled over and interrogated by police in my own church parking lot as I arrived for my standing Saturday evening meeting.

“How could I not be angry when the officer told me he was looking for a red car that had been driving down the wrong side of the road (my car is clearly black, evident even in a dimly lit church parking lot)?

“I was questioned (albeit politely) about what I was doing there, in a public space, at 9 p.m.

“As questioning continued, my associate pastor, a white male, was already parked in the church lot and came to investigate. The officers never asked to see his identification, never asked his name nor ascertained why he was parked in the parking lot waiting for me to arrive.

“They let him stand there making small talk with them while I convinced them to compare the name on the church sign with the name on my identification as well as dropping names of several police officers who attend my church.

“Again, they never asked my associate a single question. They apologized — sincerely and with apparent embarrassment — and left for another call.

“As they drove away, a flood of emotions which had been dammed up during their questioning began to flow. I could not afford to become emotional or outwardly upset during my interrogation out of concern that my burning anger would betray me and cause me to look guilty of some real crime, warranting a search, a ride downtown or further professional embarrassment.

“Like other African-American male community leaders who have experienced similar situations, I did the typical thing you do when something like this happens: you call the police chief, the mayor, you may even consider calling the media. You tell your wife. You compare notes with others who have similar stories. You warn your sons and nephews about how to handle themselves in situations like these and to not lose their cool. You try to remind yourself that this isn’t 1913 or 1963 but 2013!…

“That sickening feeling is only exacerbated by the fact that if I talk about it — really talk about it — I’ll sound angry and paranoid to many of my non-African-American colleagues. But if I hold it in I’ll grow cynical and apathetic…

“My experience is that many white Madisonians have an inordinate fear of being seen as racist. That fear is so paralyzing that it impedes honest dialogue about discrimination, systemic racism and white privilege.

“The thought that a white individual could unwittingly participate in or benefit from systemic racism is horrid because these individuals fear benefitting from systemic racism. Typically, that conversation is quickly redirected toward the individual victim because personal responsibility is easier for many whites to discuss than systemic group culpability…

“A white colleague recently told me that many of their white peers feel that short of being murdered, nothing is worse than being called a racist. I responded by stating that if people exerted the same energy identifying, challenging and dismantling unjust systems as they did fearing being called racist, we could change society…

“Sadly, Madison is contributing to the ugly statistics about mass incarceration, unemployment, high school dropouts, achievement gaps and poverty. The recent Race to Equity report, which looked at the state of racial disparities in Dane County, offers a sobering, even frightening, glimpse of African-American life here.

“Wisconsin has the nation’s worst rate of incarceration of young African-American males on a per capita basis, and Dane County is much worse than the state average. Wisconsin has by some measures the widest academic achievement gap between African-American and white students in the country, and Dane County is worse than the state average…

“Why am I angry?…

“We are a state known for protests and rallies against injustice, yet we have been negligent in our response to our state’s academic and incarceration disparity…

“So, what is wrong with our corrections system, government agencies, educational system, foundations and funding sources, businesses, churches and political leaders that we have allowed this to happen on our liberal watch? Why aren’t more African-American leaders consulted and brought to real decision-making tables?…

“I challenge the entire community to become concerned and involved. I challenge African-American pastors to make their voices and concerns known and hold community forums with politicians to demand action.

“I challenge white clergy to address racial disparity and discrimination from their pulpits, challenge parishioners to think and act differently and help sound the alarm of the injustice and inequity in our community. I need those pastors to explain how these systems are perpetuated by the silence of ‘nice’ people.

“I invite Latino and Asian pastors to stand with us in solidarity. I issue a challenge to the business executives and directors of local funding agencies and foundations to sit with African-American leaders to see how they may support us directly in our strategies in serving our community rather than just harvesting our ideas and forgetting us when solutions are funded. We are very capable of creating solutions for our own community if given the chance … and resources.

“I challenge the broader community and governmental leaders to check the history books to see that there has never been a successful empowerment effort for African-Americans that didn’t find its roots in the African-American faith community and spirituality…

“I publicly recommit myself to community-based solutions and strategic alliances with other partners.

“I cannot live with myself if I allow my middle-class life to convince me that I’ve arrived and others should do likewise. I am not successful because I’m unique or because there were no systemic barriers. I succeeded because as a kid I was given wonderful tools from God, family and a concerned and empowering Madison community to navigate the rough waters of systemic racism.

“I challenge my Madison community to look more closely at the issues discussed here and work toward returning to its roots of offering disenfranchised families the same support and respect that Madison offered my single, divorced mother with two children in 1970 when she moved to Madison from Chicago to attend UW-Madison and to make a better life for her children.

“We can only address our issues to the extent we admit we have them. We should strive for more than just the reputation of liberalism; we should strive for the fruit of liberalism. Andy Crouch says in his book “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power” that true power is creating space in which others may flourish … not falter. This is what I need those in power to create in Madison, a place where the poor and disenfranchised may flourish.

“I will close with the late Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

“Forward!”