News » Janovy

Color Lines

Don't be fooled: This mayoral election has nothing to do with race.


A really weird thing happened in Kansas City on February 27: The best two candidates won an election.

I'm a cynic, so, heading into the primary, I expected a final brawl between Albert Riederer and Becky Nace. And I try to keep a sense of humor, so I would have enjoyed Stan "50-Foot Ferris Wheel" Glazer vs. Katheryn "I'm Not a Crook" Shields. But I also try to be a good citizen, so I was happily surprised when it came down to grandfatherly grief counselor Alvin Brooks and brainiac commoner Mark Funkhouser.

The good feelings may not last. Brooks, the presumed front-runner all along, looks less like St. Alvin the more he relies on political advice from Kay Barnes' princes of political darkness.

Typically, Funkhouser wears a pretty thick flak jacket; more than one elected leader has tried to murder him with mind bullets over the years. The more he survives such strafings, the better he looks.

But here's what's been bugging me for a while now: the assumption that someone's going to cast a vote simply based on skin color.

That assumption has been perpetuated by my pals in the media, such as The Kansas City Star's esteemed editorialist Yael T. Abouhalkah: "Yes, race will matter," he wrote on March 1. "Brooks will get 80 percent to 90 percent of the black vote, no matter how hard Funkhouser tries to show he's a booster of better city services for the urban core. Funkhouser will automatically get a large amount of votes from white voters.... The biggest battle will be over whites who could swing the race for either candidate."

Maybe Abouhalkah is right. But, honestly, I'm sick of race supposedly mattering so much in politics, especially around here.

Back before the primary, I was at a mayoral forum when the dozen candidates each had four minutes to say what they'd do about race relations in Kansas City. It was funny, in a sad sort of way, listening to some of them try to convince the mostly white audience that they were down with diversity. My favorite response: Jim Glover noted that he and his family lived a block away from Troost and that he picks up spent bullet casings when he works in his yard; the way to keep a gun out of someone's hand, he said, is by giving him a job — just ask the workers at Costco. (Yeah, I was tempted, next time I saw one of those fabulous greeters, to say: "Hey! If you weren't working here at Costco, would you be out committing crimes?")

When his turn came, Brooks stood up and loudly began reciting a Langston Hughes poem: There is a dream in the land/With its back against the wall ... Unless shared in common/Like sunlight and like air/The dream will die for lack/Of substance anywhere ... This dream today embattled/With its back against the wall/To save the dream for one/It must be saved for all.

The performance was dramatic and inspirational and all, but wait a second. Sure, we can all share a dream — but can we all share something more concrete, like, say, tax breaks? Not in a City Hall administration that Brooks has helped shape. As our columnist David Martin pointed out back in February, a recent study by University of Missouri-Kansas City economist Michael Kelsay found that the city's most poverty-stricken areas — namely the 3rd and 5th districts, where minorities outnumber whites — received the least amount of tax-increment-financing for redevelopment projects ("Smiley Face, Sad Face," February 8). Brooks represents the 6th District and is vice chairman of the council committee that oversees the city's financial, legal and management policies.

When it comes to City Hall's role in their lives, most people aren't feeling as though everything's equal. When I called her last week, A. Marie Young, executive director of the Black Chamber of Commerce, said "It's not about black or white. The majority of voters are going to vote for the candidate who best supports their needs." Young's group doesn't make endorsements. But, she said, "Alvin doesn't have a track record of doing anything for the businesses in the community that he supposedly supports through civil rights. Our businesses are suffering as well. These small-business people have been overlooked, underserved, disenfranchised for too long. We can't stand another four years of this."

Steve Gordon, an assistant pastor at Bethany Baptist Church on 13th Street and Brooklyn, is a member of the Metropolitan Civic Political Council. He has a longstanding gripe about what he calls Brooks' conflict of interest in earning a salary as director of MoveUp while, as a City Council member, voting to approve contracts between the city and MoveUp. Gordon says Brooks is popular as a civil rights fighter but not as a policy setter.

"I have nothing personal against Alvin Brooks," Gordon says. "I've even prayed at some prayer vigils together. In this case, I just don't think he's the best man for the job. People are looking for some efficiency in city government because there's been a lot of waste. Because Mark Funkhouser is a numbers guy and he did find waste, people are going to come out and support him. That's how I see this election: It's about more efficiency, basic public services for the people."

Same thing goes for the 5900 block of Kensington, where activist Cynthia Canady lives. "We've had more African-American councilmen in the last eight years, and I've been living in my house 39 years, and I have not seen anything happen in my area," she says. "It has definitely gone from bad to worse. We still don't have sidewalks, curbs, housing. People have moved out. We have a lot of vacant lots that are blighted areas just good for dumping. It's like living in the boondocks of Missouri, where nobody cares." For mayor, she says, "I want the one that's going to fix up the area."

Maybe these people are a minority within a minority, falling outside the 80 percent to 90 percent of black voters Abouhalkah says will automatically go for Brooks. But failing to acknowledge their voices is just perpetuating old stereotypes. Like assuming black people will elect someone just because he's black.

Sometimes this town is really hard to live in. I don't like living in a segregated city. I don't like hearing minority contractors complaining that they can't get a piece of the construction boom. I don't like the fact that inner-city black kids slaughter themselves due to what can only be, at its core, a profound hopelessness. I don't like feeling an underlying racial tension.

And I keep thinking that if all of us were driving on smooth streets, maybe we wouldn't have to dream about living in a town that's better for everyone. Don't be fooled: This mayoral election has nothing to do with race.

Add a comment