Shawn Williams for Paris (Texas) News: Concensus on race will take effort by all

Here’s an article that I wrote for the Paris News -my hometown paper- that appeared in last Friday’s paper.  Thanks to Mary Madewell for the opportunity. 

The 2008 Presidential Election has forced Americans to examine race in a way that we haven’t in years. But in my estimation, the uncomfortable analysis of the subject — especially between Black and White America — began last year.

Early in 2007 the nation focused its attention on Paris, Texas, and the case of a former Paris High School student that citizens are all too familiar with. The racial spotlight then moved from the Red River Valley to Don Imus and degrading comments that he made about the Rutgers University Women’s basketball team. Eventually the light was directed towards Jena, Louisiana and the plight of six black males involved in a melee at school. That fracas was reportedly set off by unwarranted images conjured up by the hanging of three nooses in the Jena High courtyard.

But after the light dimmed, and as the media and big city experts rolled away, the citizens of a town like Paris are left to pick up the pieces. As a former resident following the proceedings from afar, I felt the media portrayal of Paris as a bastion of racism was short sighted and unfair. But the racial harmony that was expressed by others was naïve and narrow in scope. Now the death of Brandon McClelland has brought back conversations that Parisians may have thought were long gone.

The case has been recently made that Paris is suffering a collective fate that has been undeservedly wrought by the action of individuals. But when does the exception become the rule? I once had the opportunity to interview Barbara Trepagnier who is a professor of sociology at Texas State University and author of the book Silent Racism. In her book, Barbara often uses the term well meaning white people and I asked her to expand on the concept. “Well-meaning white people care about racism, and would not do anything intentionally racist.” Ms. Trepagnier said. “However, they (we) often don’t know very much about race matters, and occasionally we say something that is patronizing or downright insulting without even knowing it.” She goes on to mention how racist jokes are often told and folks sit quietly rather than address the person who tells them.

When does the community begin to take responsibility? Elected officials in Paris have some soul searching to do. So do the voters. There needs to be an examination into how juries are selected in Lamar County. It’s easy to blame individuals and their egregious decisions for the problems of a community, but at some point the group will have to share in the blame.

Each year, America becomes more segregated and we are getting back to the days when Blacks, Whites, and Latinos will only come together on the athletic field. The lack of day to day interaction is leading to the need to task forces and action coalitions that deal with issues of race. It’s a necessary evil due to the fact that we don’t live work and play together in any meaningful way.

In Paris, citizens would do well to over communicate with one another and go above and beyond in their efforts to seek out diverse opinions. Folks can’t be expected to agree on everything, but some effort must be made before true consensus can be built.

The most difficult part of finding common ground on issues of race is the fact that emotions are involved to such a great extent. When tempers and tensions rise, accusations start to fly and so do the insults. One side shouts “racist” while the other cries out against “radicals.” Name calling and finger pointing don’t get anything accomplished.

If folks are interested in how things have gotten to this point then a slew of questions need to be asked:

How well does Paris Independent School District acknowledge the history of segregated i.e. Colored Schools?

How many African-Americans in the county trace their roots to the same Slate Shoals plantation?

Does the Lamar County criminal justice system sentence Black criminals the same as Whites ones?

What percentage of African-American parents are involved in the PTA?

There is more on the line than just the moral aspect. For many years Paris has been viewed as a great place to do business. If companies begin to perceive Paris as a city that fosters racism, that reputation could take a hit and so could tax revenues. Future opportunities for economic development could go elsewhere if these issues are not addressed.

I pray that residents will survey the current climate in Paris and not ignore its declining perception outside of the city. Hopefully citizens will make the investments and evaluations needed to repair Paris’ municipal standing and make the city great for the generations that are to follow.

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