What happened during a special meeting called by members of the Durham Human Relations Commission was an illustration of what has crippled progress in Durham for a long time. It didn't take long for the meeting to shift in emphasis. People came to formulate a plan to bring the city together. Within minutes the meeting took on the look of a Board of Education meeting.
"You don't want people who understand the problem at these meetings," school board member Jackie Wagstaff said. "The problem is you want the comfortable people. You're never going to solve the problem with comfortable people. We know you don't want to hear what we have to say."
Wagstaff stood in defiance throughout the meeting. One by one, members of the group that has been most vocal at Durham school board meetings, the Concerned Black Citizens, stood before the crowd to make their case. In their opinion, crosses were burned because parents are speaking out against the school system.
"I think this is all my fault," said Jim Fields, also known as Uncle Bubba, as he introduced himself. Later he shared his story. Fields produces a cable access television show that aired for the first time two days before the crosses were burned. "I received 34 calls that night. They were very negative," he said. "'We're coming down there to kick some nigger ass.'"
Callers demanded that he shut the show down. "A couple of days later three crosses burned," Fields said. "All of the callers said they are white. They were negative about the parents on the show. The school board refused to allow people to speak out, but Open Mic [the name of his show] gave parents a chance to speak."
"Help these parents out who say they have a problem," Wagstaff said. "Call elected officials and ask what are you doing. No one wants to give or take on either side."
She said it! The words sounded like a confession--"No one wants to give or take on either side." As Wagstaff spoke I was hoping for something to help us as a community, some plan of action that would work. I was waiting for the impossible. I wanted her and other members of the Concerned Black Citizens group to become more humble. It didn't happen.
Of the 60 people in the room, 20 were white. They came searching for a way to help. They came depending on black leaders to help them understand what they can do. "White people are waiting for blacks, but what do we do while we wait for them to tell us what to do?" John Friedman, rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation, whispered in my ear.
Wagstaff blasted white people for responding before getting permission from black people. I sat wondering if she understood that others are under attack by that symbol of hate, the burning cross. Gays and lesbians, Latinos and Jews are also the target of hate groups who hide behind hoods and burn the cross. But that's not where the discussion went.
"My mother taught me hand-to-hand combat because the school hasn't done its job," said Anita Keith Faust, known for her organizing efforts in the Kentington Heights neighborhood near Southpoint mall.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It helped when I placed her comments within their proper historical context. I understand being the only black person on a bus in a school that didn't want her there. But justifying acts of violence was the last thing we needed during a time like this. I kept looking for something more positive, something that would help us heal. It didn't take long before I came to a sad conclusion: The problem with Durham is many who were in the room that day aren't ready to see Durham mend.
I do give them credit for understanding one thing--we shouldn't be intimidated by a cross burning. But finding who burned the crosses isn't as important as uncovering the stuff we, as a community, have stirred up to nurture an environment where people feel it's appropriate to burn not one, not two, but three crosses. Something is in the air, and it smells real bad. We have two options. The first is to keep doing business as before. That won't work. The second is to come to grips with how race hinders the progress of Durham. It is time for Durham to heal from within.
Step into my office
I wasn't surprised when I learned about the cross burnings. As a columnist for the past eight years, I've had my share of run-ins with narrow-minded people. I've received numerous phone calls, e-mails, letters and face-to-face attacks involving people prone to get that lifetime membership with the KKK. I'm aware that Durham is filled with some backward-thinking people. I'm also certain that Durham isn't the only place where people love to hate.
My first run-in with this type of stupidity was 1982. At the time, I was working for a television station in Columbia, Mo. I was at a classy restaurant with other station employees when a huge man walks up to me, pats me on top of the head like a puppy and utters in a thunderous bass voice, "I hate niggers like you." I looked up at him with evil thoughts circulating my mind. Thoughts like, where should I punch first. This big mother is going down.
It was an opportunity for me to call on some of my street moves. I've never been afraid of a fight. The contrary is true. I love to fight. It's especially satisfying when the person is bigger than me and hates black people. Instead of reaching back as far as I could to launch a right hook on his left cheek (that's the place I decided to hit), I asked him a question.
"Why do you hate niggers like me?" The fact that I asked the question rather than deliver the punch was proof of the power of God. I surprised myself. For some reason I remained calm. I waited for his answer.
"I hate niggers like you because my daughter came home the other day and asked if we and niggers are the same. I hate that my daughter asked me that question," he said. The words have remained with me for all these years. Not because of what he said, but because of what I said next.
"Sir, I hate niggers too," I started. "I hate niggers because being a nigger is defined not by one's skin tone, but by their character. For me, a nigger is one who is presented in a disruptive manner. For that reason, I'd have to say that you are acting like a nigger. Despite your actions, I will not allow myself to lower myself to becoming a nigger. I'm not the nigger, you are."
Those words changed my life. In them I discovered true power. The worst thing I could have done was to lash back. In the minds of my co-workers and the other people in the restaurant, I would have been the bad guy if anything went wrong. Because I'm black, it would have been assumed that I started the fight. I would have lost my job, and the person I am today would not be.
That was my burning cross. Most black people can tell a story like that. Confronting racist people comes with the territory. What matters most is the way one handles the cross when it burns in your front yard. It can be used as the fuel to flame the hostility you already carry, or it can be used to force transformation.
The burning cross is a symbol of hate and intimidation. I feel sorry for anyone who refuses to take the time to get to know the real me. People have a way of making assumptions. When I walk down the street, people may imagine certain things about me. I'm tall, I'm big, I'm black, I have 'locks and an earring in both ears. Sounds like trouble.
People may be intimidated by what they see. I've had my share of people crossing the other side of the street as they see me walking in their direction. Intimidated people use intimidation to shift the power in their direction. Could that be part of what's wrong with Durham? Crosses are being burned all over the place. They are there to intimidate. They are there to remind those on the other side who has the power. You don't have to wear white hoods to burn crosses. You don't have to be white, either. Signs of intimidation and hate are being burned all over the place.
Don't get me wrong. Burning crosses are serious. Historically, they were a warning that someone would be lynched if things didn't change. It's a symbol of hate and intimidation. It's a warning that something worse will come if black people refuse to step in line and do what white people say. That symbol is real. Across the country we have read horrific stories on how hate can get out of control. And when it does, innocent people die.
Sadly, you can't stop those lunatics. The good news is Durham isn't defined by the few who decided to take a trip down memory lane. This is not the old South. Most white people don't burn crosses. We shouldn't be so consumed with a few burning crosses that we fail to celebrate what we have in Durham. People live in Durham because they love the diversity. They have other options--Cary, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. If you live in Durham, more than likely you make that decision because you like what the city offers.
The best of Durham is events like the Blues Festival in the fall and the Taste of Durham festival Saturday at Brightleaf Square. When Durham comes out to play, it's a wonderful celebration of diversity. Taste of Durham reminded us that we are not defined by hate. What we love most in Durham is getting together and stirring the pot.
But our diversity sometimes makes it difficult for us to get along. Crosses burning provide us an opportunity to explore how we burn crosses all the time. It's time for Durham to heal. The trick is in doing what we need to begin the process. Is Durham ready to take its medicine, or would we rather remain sick?
Open wide and say AHHH
The hardest part about being sick is going to the doctor. Once you go, the doctor may tell you what you don't want to hear. You can pretend you're not sick as long as you don't know, for sure, that you are. Once you know, you have to participate in a therapeutic process. A few pills may do. Surgery may be required. What does Durham need--a few pills or emergency surgery?
Durham functions like a hospital. The problem is that those in leadership pretend to be doctors, and we don't have anyone willing to be a patient. We need fewer doctors and more patients. Correction. It's time for everyone to open wide and say ahhh.
This is my diagnosis. Mind you, I'm assuming that I need my share of medication, too. I refuse to recommend a prescription that I won't take myself. Durham suffers from a severe case of I'm right and you're wrong.
At the root of this illness is a long history of misperceptions. The two divergent sides can't hear one another because they assume themselves to be right, when, in truth, both sides are right and both sides are wrong.
How can that happen? If you asked that question you are in need of your first dose of medication. We have assumed that the other side is far off track. The strategy has been to force an agenda to counter the goals of those on the other side. What happens as a consequence of this game is name-calling, false accusations, and opinions based on one side of the issue. In the end, we get a process that is ruled by power politics rather than a critical analysis of what is needed to make Durham better.
Wagstaff said it best--no one wants to bend. No one compromises because of the assumption that those on the other side are void of the ability to see the truth. What they fail to acknowledge is how the inability to find truth beyond their own understanding helps rouse those who are seeking a reason to hate.
Truth can be found in a variety of places. John Stuart Mill taught us that the key to forming an authentic democratic system is through embracing the differing perspectives in the marketplace of ideas. Whenever we create a world where the goal is to lock out a voice within the marketplace, we stir a consciousness that assumes truth can only be found where people agree with their own point of view.
Let's take a look at how this works in Durham. Side A is angry at the direction the city has taken. Over the years there has been considerable mismanagement in all branches of government in Durham. Durham has been beleaguered with negligence--problems within the city housing department, a loan scandal, issues with hiring a police chief, the ousting of a few city managers and misconduct at the Housing Authority. In the minds of those on side A, one thing seems constant. Those who run things are black.
Their truth is simple: Black leadership equals inefficient government. Those on side A were willing to give black leaders the benefit of the doubt, but things got out of control. Something needs to be done, and fast, to stop this avalanche from destroying everything we have. Enter Charlotte Woods and the folks from Concerned Citizens of Durham.
Their truth requires a remedy. The first step was to fire the former city manager. They got other like-minded citizens to sign a petition to force the City Council to move on the matter. Now it's time for them to fix the school board. Their truth demands a change in the way board members are elected. There are too many backward-thinking people on the board. It needs fixing. In their minds, these truths are not about race, but rather better management of government.
Then there's side B. Side B sees conspiracy in everything. In their minds, there's an attack on black leadership and a push to silence their voice. No one listens to them as they talk about problems with their children. They demand that their history not be forgotten. Too much of what is happening in the present is connected to what happened in the past, they say.
Their truth believes race is at the heart of all problems. White people can't be trusted. They base this on what they see. White people stay together. They vote the same. The only way to overcome is through elections. That hasn't worked, so now they are relegated to making a lot of noise at school board meetings. They didn't want to do that, but they were left no choice. They have been denied their rights, they say. Side B begs for respect.
If only these clashing sides could see the truth on both sides. You can never gain compromise and healing until you are willing to give up something. The thing that must be negotiated is each side's position of truth. Side A, the white side, has to sacrifice the notion that the future demands controlling the black people who have, in their opinion, ruined the city. They need to sacrifice some of their power. They should trust the process. Durham will be better served in the long run if power is relinquished long enough to give the city a chance to heal.
Those on side B, the black side, should trust the process long enough to give up their militant posture. The remedy is not in forcing a plan down the throats of those who disagree. People will listen if you stop yelling long enough to be heard. Stop placing all white people in the same basket. This is not a conspiracy. We have a few people on both sides who keep the merry-go-round moving. Side B should stop long enough to see the truth on the other side. You are acting like fools. You don't represent the best of what black people stand for. This is not time for hand-to-hand combat. We need civility, understanding and patience. You can't push the medicine down their throats. Work with them. They will take the pill in time, but they won't if they can't trust you enough to say ahhh.
The recovery room
One of the biggest problems with Durham is we love to talk. After we do that, nothing changes. We are a city enamored with doing nothing. All talk, no action. The good news is at least we talk. We talk a lot. You can't help but hear what people have to say.
So, what do we do after all that talk? The problem is in how we communicate. People don't listen when you yell at them. Take a look at past Board of Education meetings. Have you noticed how people walk out after being yelled at and disrespected? Let's try a different form of communication. Some are trying to do that now, and we should support those efforts.
We need communication that serves a purpose. The purpose is to hear the truth coming from the other side. That can't happen until you acknowledge the potential for truth to be found in disparate places. It's humbling to admit that the person you've been fighting may possess a part of the truth. Once both sides agree to consider that possibility, we can begin therapy. Let's review. Step one: Admit there is truth on the other side.
Step two: Given we have created an environment where lunatics believed it was appropriate to burn three crosses, let's commit to engage in ongoing conversations with a person who is different. Imagine people from across the city busy meeting, eating and getting to know someone completely different. The commitment has to go beyond a one-time affair. You can't get to know a person after eating chicken one time. Spend considerable time together. Don't limit the conversation to just race. Have a conversation with a gay person or a person of a different faith.
Beyond what we commit to as individuals, let's make some institutional pledges. I'm going to ask members of the church I pastor to join me for worship with members of the Judea Reform Congregation. Imagine that, a group of black Christians worshiping with Jews. Members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People could meet with members of The People's Alliance and the Friends of Durham.
If race really matters in Durham, and it does, why not make healing a priority? Why not put it on the front burner? In time this thing will spread. Members of the Board of Education will stop yelling at one another, and those who burn crosses will have nothing to work with. Not in Durham.
It all sounds good. The sad truth is, we may not be willing to be healed. Like I said before, it's easier to remain sick than to acknowledge you need help. Durham needs help.
Carl W. Kenney is minister of Compassion Ministries of Durham and a columnist for The Durham News section of The News & Observer. His last article for the Independent was âGays and the Black Church,â Jan. 12, 2005.