Grade on dif­fer­ent curve John Brum­mett

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - John Brum­mett, whose col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette, was in­ducted into the Arkansas Writ­ers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrum­mett@ arkansason­line.com. Read his @john­brum­mett Twit­ter feed.

Lit­tle Rock’s prob­lems are race and em­pha­siz­ing im­age over re­al­ity. Let’s take the eas­ier first. It isn’t race.

Grim-faced Mayor Mark Stodola gave an in­ter­view Satur­day af­ter­noon to tele­vi­sion sta­tion KATV, Chan­nel 7. He stood in front of the down­town build­ing in which 28 peo­ple at­tend­ing a rap­per’s con­cert had been wounded overnight in a gun bat­tle be­tween ri­val groups.

The mayor’s first point, with sta­tis­tics at the ready, was that this cur­rent crime wave isn’t as bad as Lit­tle Rock’s in the 1990s.

His data said other South­ern cities are en­coun­ter­ing ris­ing crime prob­lems of late as well.

Here’s the thing about im­age, rep­u­ta­tion and pub­lic re­la­tions: You can work ap­pro­pri­ately and ef­fec­tively on them if they are un­fairly neg­a­tive in the con­text of re­al­ity. But if they are based on re­al­ity, and if the re­al­ity is that 28 peo­ple got shot in­side that build­ing last night af­ter 11 got shot in your city over 10 days, then you must deal with re­al­ity be­fore you can ad­dress im­age.

If the con­text is that you’re not as bad as you were be­fore, when you were so bad you be­came an HBO spe­cial, then per­haps you need to grade on a dif­fer­ent curve.

About those other South­ern cities: Yes, Jack­son, Miss., is no Eden; New Or­leans has its fa­mous prob­lems; Mem­phis is a mess; and Ba­ton Rouge no hol­i­day.

But “mis­ery loves com­pany” is a cliché, not a plan or pol­icy.

Pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship for a great city would aim up­ward, not com­pare down­ward.

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For decades, Lit­tle Rock’s motto es­sen­tially has been “Lit­tle Rock is bet­ter than some of the stuff that hap­pens here.”

For sure it’s bet­ter for one em­ployed aloft in a high-rise down­town of­fice build­ing with win­dows that frame the river wind­ing into the hills be­yond, but pro­vid­ing no view of the street di­rectly be­neath.

Lit­tle Rock has ob­sessed on im­age and de­nial at least since 1957. About all that has ac­com­plished has been to per­pet­u­ate things to deny.

And there we are, at race. Lit­tle Rock’s prob­lem, hardly unique, is that the city has be­come wholly sep­a­rated from it­self through gen­er­a­tions of white flight from black peo­ple. There are peo­ple re­sid­ing in the city who can cred­i­bly dis­miss what hap­pens across town as be­ing of some­where else.

They can do that as com­fort­ably as some­one liv­ing in Ok­la­homa. They are miles away in driv­ing dis­tance, light years away eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally, and pro­tected as long as the codes to open their neigh­bor­hood gates re­main closely guarded se­crets.

The prob­lem is that the more bliss­ful the flee­ing iso­la­tion be­comes, and the more re­sources and as­sets it takes with it, the more dire and des­per­ate the aban­doned iso­la­tion be­comes.

Once we talked of in­ner cities with chil­dren hav­ing chil­dren in self-per­pet­u­at­ing cy­cles of de­pri­va­tion and dis­en­fran­chise­ment. Now it’s great­great-great-grand­chil­dren hav­ing chil­dren in an em­bed­ded cy­cle so far re­moved from any­thing dif­fer­ent that no one has any no­tion that any­thing could be dif­fer­ent.

It’s not all the fault of flee­ing white peo­ple. Black peo­ple need to lead fam­i­lies and their com­mu­ni­ties. Their lead­ers must do more than file law­suits and be­la­bor the many ev­i­dent sins of white peo­ple.

Bill Clin­ton gave one great speech in his life. It came in Novem­ber 1993 in the church in Mem­phis where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last ser­mon.

Clin­ton said, “Work or­ga­nizes life. … We can­not, I sub­mit to you, re­pair the Amer­i­can com­mu­nity and re­store the Amer­i­can fam­ily un­til we pro­vide the struc­ture, the val­ues, the dis­ci­pline and the re­ward that work gives.”

He said that King, were he alive, would say, “I did not fight for the right of black peo­ple to mur­der other black peo­ple with reck­less aban­don.”

“Work or­ga­nizes life.” Clin­ton never said any­thing more pro­found.

With­out work, you have nowhere to go, nowhere to be, and no money. It’s not that you’re lazy. It’s that a work ethic has never been taught to you be­cause those com­ing be­fore you, like those be­fore them, weren’t taught it.

It’s that, un­til a few gen­er­a­tions ago, be­fore our econ­omy be­came na­tion­ally con­sol­i­dated in big boxes fol­low­ing the flight of white peo­ple and their money, it was or­ga­nized in a dif­fuse and grass-roots way.

Neigh­bor­hoods con­tained lo­cally owned busi­nesses pro­vid­ing es­sen­tial ser­vices with pub­lic-minded neigh­bor­hood par­ents run­ning them. They em­ployed school-age chil­dren af­ter school, in sum­mer and on week­ends.

Ab­sent that, a counter life­style arose to fill the void, one of drugs, guns and killing.

Twenty-four years af­ter Clin­ton gave that speech two hours east of Lit­tle Rock, noth­ing much has changed ex­cept, as Lit­tle Rock would has­ten to say, at least it’s not as bad as it was at its worst.

So, maybe we need to keep mak­ing the speech, dis­cussing the re­al­ity of it and maybe even try­ing to act on it.

We might try that right here in Lit­tle Rock, maybe at the Clin­ton Pres­i­den­tial Cen­ter, aim­ing up­ward, not com­par­ing down­ward.

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