Lessons from the Mayor of Ferguson for White Leaders

Mayor-Ferguson James Knowles

The images and stories emerging from Ferguson have been shocking.  What is also shocking is to hear the Mayor of Ferguson confidently proclaim that his city does not have a racial divide, and further, that nearly all of the residents of Ferguson, 67% of whom are African American, agree with him.  In reality, proclamations like Mayor Knowles’ are repeated every day – people in the dominant culture simply don’t see or recognize problems related to race and they minimize issues that arise.  The Mayor’s interview with MSNBC reporter Tamron Hall is a perfect example of these phenomena.  The old adage, “you see what you want to see,”  applies here.

On Monday, the Pew Research Center released results from a poll that found 80% of blacks said Ferguson events raised important racial issues.  Only 37% whites said the same.  Three out of four blacks found the police response to be over the top.  Just one third of whites said the same.

Each group has a completely different take on the same situation, and each group believe that they are in the right.  Sadly, the battle over determining absolute truth becomes the goal, instead of learning about the variance in perspective, instead of focusing on expanding knowledge and awareness, and instead of coming together as a community.

Let’s take a closer look at the Mayor of Ferguson’s behavior and remarks in his recent interview.  Qualities of the interview included bold statements of denial, defensiveness, and assurances that no problems exist – in the face of days of strife and turmoil within the city of Ferguson.  Denial, defensiveness and assurances that there are no problems (or fewer problems than others have pointed out) are a common response to allegations of racial disparity.  However, as long as leadership maintains that defensive mode, there will be no path to learning, no attempts to gather valid information about the situation, and no movement to explore change options.

Here’s what Mayor Knowles said when asked about racial issues in his city:

  • “There’s not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson.”
  • “That’s the perspective of all residents in our city, absolutely… most African Americans are happy in Ferguson.” [referencing above quote]
  • “This has affected about a half-mile strip of street in our community.”

The statements above first reflect denial; perhaps personal denial and definitely public denial.  Then the Mayor circles the wagons and attempts to show how his view has support – stating that he is not alone in this belief and that there are many others – strength in numbers.  He also makes a very common assertion – that the current complainers are a small vocal subset of the larger group affected: “Most African Americans are happy…”  Lastly, he minimizes the geographic impact the current crisis is having.  All of these statements reflect denial and minimization; none reflect an openness to learning about the problem, gathering more information and moving towards a collective resolution.

Let’s take a step back now.  This is actually not unusual behavior in situations involving race.  What’s happening in Ferguson right now is an extreme example of something that happens every minute of every day in smaller ways.   Perhaps you have a Mayor Knowles in your organization, business or community.  Perhaps it’s even closer to home; perhaps you are the Mayor Knowles in your sphere.  Perhaps you have been told that your community, business or organization has an issue with race and you don’t see it or don’t believe it.  You may be doing much the same thing as Mayor Knowles.  It’s quite common and you may be the person who needs to read this.

When a person of color has stated that he or she has been mistreated based on his/her race within your organization, do you think or say any of the following:

  • “That can’t be true – we don’t have a race problem here.” [denial]
  • “I’m sure the person of color misinterpreted the situation. Whatever happened wasn’t intended that way; they’re just being over-sensitive.” [blame the victim]
  • “That guy is a little rough around the edges, but he’s like that with everyone, not just people of color. It’s not a race-thing.” [denial]
  • “It’s just one instance. I’m sure it’s an isolated occasion.  None of the other people of color have a problem here.” [minimization]

In the case of Mayor Knowles, his claims are so outrageous that his assertions have lost any sense of credibility.  But in most cases, the response to allegations of racism is much more subtle and understated.   And they are so commonplace, that their use has become normal and comfortable.  They can feel true to the white person in a leadership role.  They are also often based on our own lived experiences.

We all live different lives based on our personal identities (which include race, gender and many other characteristics).  All of the ways in which we make sense of the world – ways we determine what is true in a given set of circumstances – are shaped by the experiences we have as we walk through this world in our skin.  We all have lived truths.

I don’t doubt that a white person could genuinely have a difficult time believing that someone they view as a “fine upstanding citizen” could treat another person, a person of color, in a racist way.  That white person hasn’t had a negative experience with the person in question.  That “fine upstanding citizen” may even have received awards for good deeds.  When asked about the situation, that “fine upstanding citizen” claims they were put in a bad position; they had no choice; that the other person was actually in the wrong.  Who are you likely to believe?

The truth is, white people won’t have the same experience that a person of color does.  In order to bring about real change, we need to try to understand those experiences that are different from ours.  The real work begins when we seek to understand the experiences and truths of others, our impact on them, and the ways in which we can work together to grow caring, connected communities.

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Kathleen LaTosch at NCRC Annual Conference 2012Kathleen LaTosch is a diversity and inclusion consultant specializing strategic planning for organizational change at nonprofit organizations. She works in Michigan and nationally, assisting organizations in making systemic and lasting change.  For more information, visit www.LaToschConsulting.com.