Like many cities in the United States, Louisville has a race problem. It is not now boiling over like it is in St. Louis, Chicago, or Los Angeles, but it simmers below the surface, in the alleys and in the jails, and in the comments on local news websites. Simmering, and slowly building to a boil.
The heat was publicly turned up last month. On Aug. 19, WDRB president Bill Lamb aimed the barrel of his “Point of View” segment at the tragic events in Ferguson, Mo. After misstating the circumstances of black teenager Michael Brown’s shooting death by white police officer Darren Wilson (Brown was killed in broad daylight, not at night), Lamb blamed subsequent “riots and looting” on “outside agitators” (a historically disingenuous tactic common in the dominant narrative of civil unrest in America).
Mr. Lamb then directed his ire toward Metro Councilwoman Attica Scott, who had traveled to Ferguson to meet local leaders and help clean up debris left by the police crackdown on demonstrators. Ms. Scott also was an “outside agitator,” he said, and after quoting comments she had made about police violence during a previous radio show appearance (not on the streets of Ferguson), Lamb told the councilwoman to “shut up.”
Controversy followed and eventually led to a rebuttal by Scott during a “Point of View” guest editorial on Aug. 26. She demanded an apology and reminded Lamb that his unwillingness to consider her perspective was not a justification for trying to shut her up. “Your childish outburst will not stop me from acknowledging the fear and pain of so many mothers,” Scott said.
This rebuttal was posted on the WDRB website, prompting a flood of comments, overwhelmingly by white viewers (mostly men) with a lot to say about Scott, Ferguson, and African-Americans in general. Their comments followed the familiar “dialogue about race in America” playbook; they dismissed her, called her names, accused her of reverse racism, demanded she change the subject, and regurgitated misinformation about the circumstances of Brown’s death.
One commenter called Scott a “moron,” while another agreed with Lamb that “she just needs to shut up.” Then there was the accusation that she is “always playing the race card.”
Commenter Lynn Miller had some advice for Scott and all black parents: “If you raise your children properly and they are not committing crimes or hanging out in the wrong end of town, they are not in the position to be shot, killed, injured, etc.” Another commenter helpfully pointed out to Miller that the “wrong end of town” to which she referred is where many black families actually live. Not to mention that police routinely kill black men in a wide variety of places all over the country, often unrelated to any criminal act.
Others demanded that Scott change the subject, and instead focus on the nefarious scourge of “black-on-black violence” (while ignoring the ongoing epidemic of white-on-white violence).
Let us not mince words. Much of the vitriol aimed at Ms. Scott is the product of privilege and ignorance. When your view of the world is confined to your own experience and perception, it’s difficult to understand other people who make different choices or express different concerns.
I am a white man who grew up in white Louisville neighborhoods to middle-class white parents. I went to mostly white public schools, got two degrees at mostly white universities, and have not run afoul of the police (in any capacity other than civil litigator) since I was a teenager. I have lived a privileged life, and at times this has clouded my vision, too.
But in my experience, the best way to combat my own prejudice and ignorance is to honestly consider the anger and concerns of other people and broaden my knowledge of history. Since most white people know few (if any) non-white people, I offer the following books, essays, and videos about race in America and in Louisville to provide perspective where interpersonal relationships may not be enough.
The autobiographical “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass“ helped me to better understand the horrors of slavery. For a historical view of race in America after slavery, I learned much from “The Strange Career of Jim Crow“ by C. Vann Woodward.
One of the greatest American writers on issues of race was James Baldwin. His books “The Fire Next Time“ and “Notes of a Native Son“ helped me to understand why so many African-Americans are so frustrated and angry. If you have time, I recommend reading everything else Baldwin wrote. Also, Baldwin’s 1965 debate with William F. Buckley Jr. is incredibly powerful. Many of the injustices he described 50 years ago still plague our society today.
“Crabgrass Frontier“ by Kenneth Jackson helped me to understand how Louisville and other American cities became so geographically segregated. Joshua Poe’s excellent essay “A City Divided” exposed me to the racist motivations behind Louisville’s grim urban renewal era. And the recent Frontline special on Louisville’s Beecher Terrace housing project illustrates the inequality and inefficiencies in our local criminal justice system.
Finally, I can’t recommend enough Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent long essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” I acknowledge that the very mention of reparations instantly offends many, but Coates’ essay is worth your time and contemplation. It’s actually a moderate call to action by one of the most thoughtful contemporary writers on issues of race in America. He also helpfully provides a multi–part bibliography.
I wonder how the responses to Councilwoman Scott’s “Point of View” would change if those commenting took the time to seriously consider the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of others who have lived in a different place or in a different way than they have.
Immediately reacting angrily to those we disagree with is rarely constructive. Sometimes we all need to shut up to better listen to each other, especially when the gulf of our understanding is so wide. We can all help turn down the heat.