Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Racism in Kirkwood

Racism in Kirkwood

On Saturday morning, April 12, there were a couple hundred people from Kirkwood and surrounding areas at the Kirkwood United Methodist Church. I saw about 10 or so folks from Eliot that morning. Pastor Dave Bennet and a few others gave some opening remarks.

We were reminded that 99.9% of the human genome is the same, and that only .1% is different among the human races. We were reminded that the US Senator Barack Obama is a distant cousin of the movie actor Brad Pitt.

We were also reminded that there are significant cultural differences between blacks and whites, and certainly Kirkwood is no different than other places in that regard. There are economic and educational differences.

Mostly racism in Kirkwood is the corporate, silent kind. We don’t have Klansmen walking around town in hooded robes.

We reminded of drug and prison statistics: 11% of white teens use drugs; 9% of black teens. But white teens were 1/3 more likely to have sold drugs, and black teens represent half of those jailed for drug use. We were told there are more black men in prison than in dorm rooms. And that even if there are more black police, things don’t seem to have changed much.

We were given a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “a religion concerned about souls but not about conditions that hurt the soul– that religion is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of doing something.”

As in March, we broke up into one of about 20 different groups (I’ve been in group #12). And we talked about our racial & ethnic backgrounds, when we first came to realize what ethnicity we were, when we’ve experienced racism, and ideas for improving race relations in Kirkwood.

There was an old timer from Meacham Park there. I remembered him from last time. Fascinating guy. He talked about how in the old days, Meacham Park was part of the county, not Kirkwood. Most people didn’t have indoor plumbing. It was a ‘rough’ neighborhood in some respects, there were drug houses.

Even though white people saw blacks as more or less monolithic, some of the blacks saw themselves as being in different ‘sects’ depending on where– exactly– they lived.

Come to think of it, I have to wonder if that isn’t the whole thing about ‘what high school you went to’ in Kirkwood, as being such a defining thing. I guess it is defining because by saying where you went to high school, you say what neighborhood you grew up in, and that– somehow– brands you for life.

I heard a story about how 5 black girls died in house a fire in 1965 and no fire truck showed up. And that shortly after that, there was a black fire chief for a while. An article from the Kirkwood- Webster Times had this to say:
[Kirkwood Mayor] Reim said he was shocked and saddened to learn of the disaster. Meacham Park's volunteer fire department was unable to respond to the house fire, because of a broken-down fire truck. Reim speculated that with proper fire equipment or a building code, the children might still be living.
I heard another story about a black woman going to a restaurant at Station Plaza, just across from our church across the railroad tracks. And that not only was she the only black person out of a couple hundred people, but that people kept looking at her– as if she was out of place. She felt so uncomfortable, she finally got up and left.

And we heard more stories about black men simply walking through a traditionally white neighborhood, getting questioned by police. And about police pulling over black folks in cars for the crime of ‘driving while black.’

We heard how Meacham Park still has only one entrance and exit, and that there is no polling place to vote there. Part of the reason there is no polling place is that you need 100+ registered voters in an area to get a polling place, and that a lot of folks in Meacham Park feel disenfranchised enough to think it not worthwhile to vote at all.

We don’t like to admit racism exists, but it does. What shall we do about it? You might join folks for the next meeting of the Community for Understanding and Healing ( which is on Saturday, May 3 at Grace Episcopal Church on the corner of Argonne & Woodlawn. Registration and coffee is at 9:30 a.m. with the program running from 10 to noon. All adults and teens are welcome, and no child care is available.

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