Ignore STL’s racial divide, at your own peril

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few weeks about the “why” of addressing institutional racism to stakeholders who don’t believe it to be “the” or even “a” problem. I haven’t quite come up with the most concise language, but I guess it just comes down to numbers.

St. Louis is 47% black. Say, to be conservative, half of them experience racism regularly and/or believe it to be a real phenomenon that impacts institutional decisions and people’s lives. Let’s say, to be conservative, half of the rest of the people who live in St. Louis are either also of color and/or are foreign-born, have a spouse/relative/adopted child who is in that half of the 47% or have worked in a field, had an experience, studied and/or simply believe those who’ve told them that they experience racism on a regular basis and that it impacts institutional decisions and people’s lives.

This would mean that, to be conservative, half the people who live in this city believe that race is a social and economic strategy used to control resources and power on purpose and that there are very real implications of said use and that the only way to turn the tide on that (move toward equity) is to interrupt that pattern and stop doing things that we previously maybe didn’t notice were inherently inequitable. Again, conservatively, half the people who live here also believe, because of many rankings and our long list of disparities when it comes to race, that St. Louis has an extra bad problem with this, and that in order to be an awesome city where people want to live (well, half of the people), we have to deal with it. Half the people (conservatively) believe the Delmar Divide, the state of North City, accredited public schools with only 30-some% of kids reading at grade level is not an accident or by happenstance, they believe it is by design and that to change it we have to design differently. On purpose.

The communication strategist in me looks at that (conservative) reality and comes to one conclusion: Regardless of what you believe, enough people believe systemic racism exists that it’s a real thing that it must be understood, considered and addressed.

Go out into public and say something that doesn’t take that (conservative) 50% into account, and you might well be out there not just pushing 50% of people away, but making actual enemies of them. It’s like the jokes where someone is speaking another language and because they get the verb tense wrong they are actually saying the opposite of what they mean and/or grossly insulting the host. You get the picture.

This article about the upcoming vote on Proposition 2 (the proposed MLS stadium financing) is what prompted this post. In particular, its discussion of the community benefits agreement, which I posted about yesterday.

I know a number of people who know SC STL investor Dave Peacock personally, people I know and trust. I also know how interviews and articles go. Those two things have me offering the benefit of the doubt while I simultaneously feel almost sick about the following passage:

Peacock is also concerned about the message it would send to future investors if city voters reject the proposal. “If I’m a developer and I see a bunch of people vote ‘no’ on the first community benefits agreement, why would I do another one?”

You can read the article as well as my post and the comments to see the pros and cons put forth surrounding the community benefits agreement (including a lack of public input and funding to an org without a physical presence in the city). I have felt, from a communications standpoint, that the weight being put on “what this will do for kids” in the whole Prop 2 campaign has been disproportionate, uncomfortable and a disconnect from the details of what’s actually in the community benefits agreement (and what’s actually going on in our city). To build a narrative that then threatens the “chance” of future benefit agreements on the acceptance of this one feels a step too far. Not to mention how that could be read and interpreted by the (conservatively) half of the people who have the frame and understanding of the “haves” and the “have nots.” I am also willing to believe that what he says is true, but it doesn’t change the way it reads, given what I also know to be true.

After appearing throughout the city while promoting the soccer stadium proposal, Peacock said he’s discovered “how divided we are. I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know how you bring these divergent views together to try to get something done.”

It was that passage that drove me to write this post. Because it’s spot on. It no longer matters if you agree or believe that our city’s history with racism and segregation are holding us back. Enough people do that it’s real. Can we accept that for some “real” means failing schools and a forgotten neighborhood, for some it means living in a city full of heartbreak and for some if means not being able to get done what you want to get done because (conservatively) half the people you need on board subscribe to a different reality.

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