Art, Race, and Inequality in Holyoke

Before he died, Kurt Vonnegut’s father commented to his famous son, “you know–you never wrote a story with a villain in it.”

Artist David Flores with a t-shirt depiction of his mural. Photo by Adrian Dahlin.

Over the span of a few weeks this fall, Holyoke residents watched as an alleyway cleanup effort seeking to install public art in the downtown (led by the Holyoke Alleyway Revitalization Project, or HARP) devolved into a wide-reaching, divisive argument about discrimination, politics, and racism. The incident and ensuing actions by Holyoke’s Mayor and City Council were debated on Facebook, blogs, a radio show, Fox News Latino, The Boston Globe, and in the City Council chambers. It left many wondering, “why are people so mad, how did it get this bad, and where do I stand?” For some onlookers, it was just a bunch of squabbling over nothing or a simple mistake by a few individuals. For others, it was a dizzying reflection of ethnic and political divisions not fully acknowledged or understood by most of us. When the council voted to temporarily ban public art in response to two recent installations, the Boston Globe was right to point out that Holyoke was sending its creative community “a negative message when it should be sending a welcoming one.” However, this debate isn’t just about public art. It’s about free expression, inequality, and race.

Regardless of where you stand, if you live in Holyoke the situation probably made you uncomfortable. This is a good, important discomfort. Any discourse that makes us aware of injustice helps to fight that injustice. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” said Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. As injustice and inequality become clear, the best thing we can do to fight discrimination and strengthen the bonds between ethnic groups within our community is to look at ourselves. It starts with healing our own prejudice, both known and unknown. Furthermore, we need to look at the society we live in and acknowledge that it has built-in disadvantages for some people. This needs to change, and change doesn’t happen without some discomfort.

For evidence of inequality in Holyoke, look at the top. We’re governed by a City Council of 15 members. Seven are elected by wards, while eight are elected at-large. Of the seven ward councilors, three are Latino, which is as close as you can get to a split mirroring the population at large. But how many of the at-large councilors are Latino? Zero. That means that a city that’s almost half Latino is led by a 20 percent Latino council. Even if every councilor earnestly has the interests of all residents at heart, a governing body needs to look like its constituents if it’s going to represent their interests as well as possible.

When the City Council passed an order indefinitely prohibiting public art, they probably didn’t realize they were playing right into this systemic unfairness.

For proof of inequality, look at the bottom. While 47 percent of the population is Latino, as of 2011, 77 percent of students in the public schools were Latino. 74 percent of students were low-income and 23percent had limited English proficiency. In 2010, there was a 53 percent four-year graduation rate, compared with 82 percent statewide. Unemployment in Holyoke was over 10 percent in July 2014, while it was around 6 percent for the state of Massachusetts and the nation at large. Latinos have much lower median household incomes than the rest of the population.

When the City Council passed an order indefinitely prohibiting public art, they probably didn’t realize they were playing right into this systemic unfairness. Generations of American powers-that-be have made rational and well-meaning decisions that ended up being fundamentally problematic. As Holyoke’s councilors made an argument for stronger policy on public art, they failed to see that their timing sent a clear and oppressive message to Latinos in Holyoke (even though the order’s author took issue with a different piece of art and another councilor argued that better policy could pave the way for more art). They could have worked on rules about public art without insisting on a reactive order banning all art indefinitely, especially right after a piece of cultural expression came under debate (the decision was also timed right around yetanother public art installation, which seeks to educate the public about stormwater and trash). Instead of providing thoughtful leadership, the reasoned decision of ten councilors sent a clear, if unintended message: we don’t like that mural or what it represents.

“You know–you never wrote a story with a villain in it.”

If none of Kurt Vonnegut’s stories had a villain, then Holyoke’s City Councilors certainly aren’t villains for temporarily banning art and neither is one property owner a villain for opposing a mural. Furthermore, if we attempt to create a villain and blame an individual or a small group for a systemic problem–whether those people are right or wrong–we will fail to solve the problem. Instead, we need to expect that they learn from these mistakes, and we must do the same ourselves.

Racism and inequality are not fun things to talk about. I didn’t become comfortable with the terms until I realized that racism isn’t the same thing as hatred. Growing up I didn’t hate anybody and I believed, as I was taught, that anybody who works hard has a chance to succeed in America. I didn’t see until much later that racism can exist without hatred and that it occurs in a systemic form that makes it harder for some to succeed. In time I learned that racism is present, often without our knowledge, that its subtlety allows it to survive, and that I benefit from it. I won’t describe all the ways I’ve benefited from my race, but suffice it to say I never have to worry about my voice or my vote or my artistic expression being suppressed, and even at a sometimes boisterous 6'6" I have never been targeted as a threat to public safety and probably never will be.

You might ask, what does the idea of a “systemic problem” even mean? It’s the sum of many decisions, policies, traditions, and attitudes that disadvantage some and benefit others in the areas of education, employment, housing, criminal justice, culture, and politics. A systemic problem is not an abstract idea. It’s a set of habits, biases, and assumptions bred into each of us; it’s the resulting decisions we make every day that affect others around us. It’s all the things we turn a blind eye to and accept as the way things are and must be.

I believe we can be forgiven for the most part for not understanding this, and for making some of the mistakes we have made. We can be forgiven as long as we remain unaware. But it’s time to open our eyes and become aware.

There’s something tragic about being unknowingly responsible for injustice. And even if you’re not really responsible, there’s still a sting that comes with realizing you’ve benefited from it. This feeling gets worse as you sensitize yourself to the plights of others. Maybe this is why we tend to avoid thinking about it. It stings.

We have to think about it, though, and that’s why I’m glad the recent debate has surfaced in Holyoke. I’m encouraged by Mayor Morse’s formation of a human rights advisory committee and I’m glad to hear he wants to facilitate a dialogue. I hope it brings together a diverse group of Holyokers; I hope it gets real enough that people learn something from it; and I hope it’s well moderated. A group of mostly Latinos sharing all-too-familiar stories with each other or a group of mostly white people joining in an hour of brow-wrinkling, chin-stroking concern will not solve our problem. On the other hand, something that involves a diverse group of residents and leaders could help us all move forward.

I hope, for Holyoke’s sake, recent events spark a real dialogue. I know it’ll be uncomfortable, and I know I’ll learn a lot.

Artist David Flores showing the back of his t-shirt. Photo by Adrian Dahlin.

Originally published on on December 10, 2014: