Grade on different curve John Brummett
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.
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.