The 1-way vs. 2-way streets debate is not the only controversy stirred up by the recent downtown design charrette. Perhaps the bigger controversy, the “elephant” in the discussion, if you will, is the divisive topic of race.

In a city that was home to the second largest slave-trading port in America 150 years ago, it is disheartening, but not terribly surprising, that many of our disagreements and debates in this city still center on race. Have we made progress? Absolutely. Do we still have problems? Without question.

One current problem is evidenced by the current debate regarding the legitimacy of any claims of racial exclusion or under-representation in the charrette process. A brief rundown of the significant players so far:

  • The Free Press ran the headline “Sea of Whiteness” to accompany its article on the charrette.
  • Mike Sarahan, a controversial city fixture, complained to city council & others about a lack of inclusion.
  • Victor Dover, principal designer of the firm running the charrette process, apologized for the lack of inclusivity.
  • Mayor Wilder defended the process: “Somebody’s done a lot of work,” he said, “and gotten a lot of people involved.”
  • The president of the Jackson Ward Association felt the process was fair for Jackson Ward.
  • Several bloggers have chimed in:

The question that occurs to me as a Richmond culture watcher is, why are there such diverse and passionate feelings about this subject?

Were folks right to point out that the group who’s historically been marginalized was missing?

Were other folks right to say the process was/is open to all and therefore immune to a critique about who was missing at the table (racial group or otherwise)?

In my view, the fact that, by and large, African-Americans didn’t show up at the charrette tells us something about the state of our city.

It tells me that we still have miles to go in order to build a just and inclusive community.

It tells me that there are broken bonds of trust that take a lot of hard, intentional work to heal.

We spent roughly the first 300 years of our history trying in various ways to exclude the voice of Black folks. And yes, slavery is long gone, but its legacy lives on. It was only 30 years ago that Richmond’s city council was convicted by the Supreme Court for trying to annex as many white voters as they could to maintain a white majority.

Folks who’ve lived through that, and raised children in that atmosphere, in my mind have every right to be mistrustful of any political process. The book Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria: a psychologist explains the development of racial identity suggests that one reaction to encounters with racism and prejudice is to seek a group of folks who share and understand your experience of marginalization.

Perhaps in a city that’s experienced so much racism and prejudice folks can’t be blamed for lacking interest in public forums run by unknown leaders (Dover & Kohl), without folks they know and trust buying into the process and urging them to get involved.

That doesn’t mean that Dover Kohl or Venture Richmond are racists.

That doesn’t mean that the results of the charrette are worthless.

But it means to me that we have work to do to heal the many wounds inflicted by years of racism. We need to build multi-racial coalitions for the improvement of our common future as a community.

And I think it’s time we recognize the concerns of an historically oppressed group when they claim that their absence is significant and unfortunate. Recognizing the legitimacy of that claim does not automatically impute racist intentions to the organizers or promoters of the event, but rather is a sign that we still have work to do to heal the wounds of history.

Perhaps those of us who are engaged should ask for meetings with Black leaders and inquire as to why they weren’t present – without laying blame- and what could be done in the future to ensure greater participation from the African-American community.

Perhaps we should ask our Black friends why they didn’t participate, if they did not.

Perhaps we should ask all our friends who didn’t participate why they did not. Most of my White friends had absolutely no interest; it was a minority of any of my friends, regardless of their race, who a) knew about it and b) cared. I guess I say that to warn against “tokenizing” our Black friends and excoriating them for not representing their race.

Let’s use this controversy as a point of learning about the health of our community. Let it make us stronger, not continue to divide us.

One of the positive realities I noticed is that, without exception, everyone who’s publicly commented on this controversy has expressed the desire for racial inclusion.   That’s certainly progress.  Now let’s talk about how to make it happen.

I’d like to see more dialogue about the legacy of racism in our community, how it affects us and how to overcome it. Race and racism are very much live issues- as seen not only from this issue, but elsewhere in our city, as recently in the comments section of one of our local ‘hoodblogs.

And for the record, I too am annoyed with the Free Press for criticizing without having promoted the event. That’s inexcusable- as long as they’d received a press release, which I hope they did.

I expect my opinion might be controversial – it’s with a certain fear and trembling that I click on the “publish” button, but I nevertheless welcome comments and discussion. I’d simply ask that it you choose to comment, please keep things as civil as possible while discussing this divisive and difficult topic.