Moving Raleigh's racism off of city property | OPINION: Peter Eichenberger | Indy Week
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Moving Raleigh's racism off of city property 


Raleigh, bless its heart, is being dragged—blinking and stunned—into the light, judging from SparkCon, last month's symposium of artists and business people. I attended the inclusion workshop and was buoyed by what the speakers had to say about the black/white thing, something Raleigh has had problems with.

Change is often unbidden and inexorable, thought I, seeing Raleigh sanitation workers picketing the Municipal Building. Judging how badly city "leaders" got their ding-dongs caught in a wringer, I still say they need to be flogged at the site of the old slave market off Fayetteville Street until they understand that change occurs whether one wants it or not.

The sanitation workers were protesting being forced to work extra hours for compensatory time, not overtime, on new trucks that are supposed to be more efficient, and the use of long-term, temporary workers who get lower pay and no benefits (see "Progress for Raleigh sanitation Workers," Sept. 27, 2006).

City Hall's delayed reaction to the sanitation workers' unprecedented work stoppage, followed by an agreement to talk to the union, start paying overtime and look at the issue of temporary workers, has shown Raleigh to be little short of a share-cropping community imbued with reactionary racism of the most obvious, ignorant and dangerous sort. I say that because the self-congratulatory hairballs coughed up by the city administration to address the problem are little more than chaff to induce delusional realities: "Oh, that was the old days, we are enlightened now, we have made such strides."

I see something profound happening in this town. We must confront the past if only to see where we are going.

Nineteen forty-six brought two notable deaths woven into the warp and weft of Raleigh. Thomas Dixon, world-renowned author of The Clansman, the book on which Birth of a Nation was based, died that year on April 3. Dixon was the clerk of federal court here, a close confidant of avowed racist Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and equally vitriolic News and Observer editor Josephus Daniels. Daniels' poisonous newspaper helped ignite the 1898 Wilmington massacre, a race riot that has been kept from the average citizen until recently. Gov. R. Gregg Cherry had this to say upon Dixon's death: "North Carolina has lost a distinguished son who has made a distinctive contribution to North Carolina and the nation," a sentiment that the survivors and descendents of the Wilmington massacre might quibble with.

On June 10 that year, former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson died after crashing his Lincoln Zephyr in Franklinton and being turned away from old Rex Hospital. There is a local story that Johnson may have been run off the road, something I do not automatically discount. Daniels' News and Observer, also not unpredictably, lingered on Johnson's "white" wives. You know what a taste of the forbidden can do, I suppose.

Since then, we are deemed to have progressed because the White Only signs are gone and lynching is over. The rest is mostly illusory and fictional, spread around in ample quantities like some soft Raleigh brand syrup. "I've been working since 1966," said a picketing sanitation worker. "It has gotten worse since then."

But now that race has been proven by geneticists not to exist, to be the work of the ignorant, stupid and savagely greedy, we can now call race what it really is: prejudice against poor folks, a disproportionate number of whom, for reasons of history and greed, happen to be "of color." I say these things not to be mean-spirited, only to induce folks to look in the mirror and behold what the reflection displays. All humans share 99.97 percent of the same genes. We really are all brothers and sisters.

Amid the chanting and beating of the Municipal Building protesters, I couldn't help but marvel at old Joe Daniels' statue in the background in Nash Square, his back appropriately to the people. I have wondered for years why this toxic monster rates a statue in a city park, as puzzling as that of Confederate Brigadier General Albert Pike in D.C. To this day, many of the callers of shots seem to still be afflicted with poisonous, racist thinking, concealed behind a comforting middle-aged paunch, male pattern baldness, and wrapped up in an oh-so-reasonable manner--reassuring and calm--as long as the cameras are not around. Some examples that form what detectives call "a pattern" follow.

I was riding with one of these critters in his automobile one rainy day. Talk shifted to downtown. "The biggest problem with getting downtown going is ..." and this in-with-the-in-crowd fellow used the N-word. Another day at a coffee shop, I couldn't help overhearing a City Council member, a Raleigh police captain and a tall fellow fitting the above description discussing "graffiti," "gangs," "drugs," and, of course, "them."

I had to restrain myself from standing up and shouting, "Why is it when you guys talk about 'them,' there is never one of 'them' in attendance?" Or the another recounting I heard recently of how a car was tagged by a young Latino who stomped the gas and split. "He was probably a member of a gang."

I could only think about the Justice Department's description of a gang, basically distinctive clothing, patterns of speech and criminal activity to make money. How about Ken Skilling or Kenneth Lay? And drugs? Shoot, I know a place in a very tony, very white neighborhood where the businessperson asks his prosperous, white customers if they want their cocaine "powder or rock?"--cooked while you wait. Or, years back, a house in Boylan Heights where district attorneys would come and buy quarter ounces. I know. I was there, nearly a child.

Talk about two systems. Then there's the story of Batrone Hedgepeth, hosed with pepper spray and mushed to death, followed by Nyles Arington, shot by off-duty cop Michelle Peeler for driving her car without permission. Poor woman has shown her contriteness over the murder by saying she'd do it again.

"You're kidding! Not even in gun-crazy Texas could you get away with that," said one of my contacts, a state official in the Lone Star state. Are you listening Mr. Willoughby? What do you reckon would happen if things had been reversed? You can call it what you wish, but these sorts of extrajudicial killings rise to the level of officially sanctioned lynching.

Poor folks often stay poor because they have to live with systemic problems more difficult than anyone can be expected to handle. If the United States has magically been converted into this grand pluralistic City on the Hill, and since the latest findings on race are in, there can be no question but that the relative success of one race versus the other can only be a function of external forces. I might point out that Wake County is preparing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new courthouse because it's run out of room to deal with its failings.

A proposal: If we really are growing up, we need some visual cues so we can see how we're doing. I would suggest, for starters, that the statue of Josephus Daniels be moved across the street onto News & Observer property.

Having a vicious white supremacist like Daniels standing in a city park sends a wrong message for a city that claims to be repudiating its past.

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