A post-election question: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”

I gave this speech before a group of community leaders and academics in Austin on November 15, reflecting on recent political events and the importance of integrated communities for social justice.

Near the end of his life, in the midst of his final battle against slums and for open housing in Chicago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his last book and gave it a provocative title: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

In the wake of an ugly election campaign, it is appropriate to reconsider Dr. King’s prophetic call for what he envisioned as the Beloved Community, where racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice are replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. His book calls for a united social movement that would act within both the Republican and Democratic parties.

I would like to ask you to reflect on where we go from here and suggest to you that the choice of chaos or community remains the question before us. As a nudge to get you to think about this choice, I’d like to tell you the story of how I have come to answer this question.

As a middle-class white kid in a Dallas high school undergoing desegregation I was first confronted with racism and poverty. In the tension accompanying desegregation, in the fistfights and the fear, in the revelation that ours is a much more diverse community than I ever knew, that our country faces problems I did not understand, I found myself face to face with racism and income inequality.

Shortly after I graduated, white parents in Dallas began pulling their kids out of the public schools, leaving the enrollment of whites today at less than 5 percent. “White flight” ended school integration. I cannot help but feel that school integration was one of our greatest missed opportunities to build an inclusive community. Looking back on that brief experiment today, I am grateful that integration compelled me to learn things more important than anything I learned in my classes.

We find ourselves today at a crossroads, like the era of school integration for my classmates and me in the 1970s. Once again, we are confronted with divisions born of our age-old challenges of poverty and racism.

Many of my friends tell me how depressed they feel after last week’s election. Yet this seems to me to be one of those rare moments when people are facing what divides us and holds us back. We must decide whether we will build a nation where we will live together or withdraw like white parents did in the wake of school integration into separateness. If we avoid this moment we leave our country to devolve into chaos.

There are many people who limit their role as citizens to sticking up a yard sign, writing a check and proclaiming, among their like-minded friends, their allegiance to their candidate. Citizenship is much more than a once every four-year, inconvenient and stressful electoral interruption in our lives.

I learned about citizenship from two people in my late teens. Tom Philpott, the urban historian of race and the American city, was my mentor at the University of Texas. Tom enabled me to pursue the most unusual undergraduate education you can imagine. I read independently and spent most of my undergraduate years working in the then African-American community of Clarksville to assist residents’ efforts to save their neighborhood from destruction from freeways, poverty wrought of disinvestment and displacement through gentrification.

My other mentor was Mary Frances Baylor. Mary was a third-generation resident of Clarksville, a poverty and civil rights activist for whom I volunteered. Mary was the community organizer, political and social fix-it woman and the essential moral leader of Clarksville’s black community.

John and Mary Baylor
John and Mary Baylor

Tom Philpott introduced me to the historical causes and context of racism and poverty in cities and neighborhoods. Mary Baylor taught me that racism and poverty can devastate the lives of good, decent people and their communities and the importance of strong women in building, nurturing and preserving those communities.

They both gave me their passion and outrage.

This was in the 1970s, a time when a number of us were exploring the proper role for white folks in social change and racial justice. Mary Baylor and the other leaders I found myself working for over the years in African-American and Mexican-American communities helped me find a way I could contribute. They and others continue to help me redefine it every day. This work and the people I have the privilege of working for has been great.

I joined with grassroots leaders and a small group of others of like minds, including my longtime associate Karen Paup, to set up and operate a small nonprofit as a center to support community leaders fighting for equality and justice. Over the years we have expanded our team to include a remarkable, dedicated, diverse group of young people. Our work has evolved to encompass research, empowering and supporting the leadership of people of color and people living with low incomes at the community level to overcome racism and poverty.

The way we work is based on Dr. King’s six steps for nonviolent social change set out in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”

1) Information gathering: Information is our middle name at Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

2) Education: Informing others, including your opposition, about injustice.

3) Personal Commitment

4) Discussion/Negotiation: Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.

5) Direct Action: When the opponent is unwilling to change, impose a “creative tension” into the conflict, supplying moral pressure on your opponent to work with you in resolving the injustice.

6) Reconciliation: Compromise by both sides resolves the injustice through a plan of action. Each act of reconciliation brings us one step closer to the goal – the beloved community.

In Dr. King’s vision, the beloved community is where racism in all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice are replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. The audacity of proclaiming the intent of building a beloved community, in today’s dark political environment, is spiritually invigorating and awe-inspiring.

Our small team are researchers, educators and advocates who support low income community leaders to take creative action to prod, challenge and bedevil government, elected leaders and private institutions to pursue policies that end racism and economic inequality. This is the work that Dr. King characterized as creative non-violence. We seek to educate and persuade, not destroy or humiliate the folks we work to change.

People deal with racism and poverty in one of four ways:

  1. you can ignore it;
  2. you can deny it’s a problem;
  3. you can accept it as being unsolvable; or
  4. you can fight it.

While most people today settle for one of the first three approaches, the people I work for choose the fourth way – they fight it. They believe that ignoring, denying and accepting racism and poverty is killing us as a country. For when we ignore, deny or accept these evils, we lay ourselves open to political demagogues who use race to divide us for their political benefit. The demagogue who tells the electorate that the distribution of rights and benefits in this country is a zero-sum gain: That the modest gains of people of color, gays, and poor people come at the expense of poor and middle-class whites. I remember George Wallace’s and Richard Nixon’s campaigns. The similarity to today is striking. They told voters, if blacks or Hispanics get equal rights and opportunities, it means you will have less. This is zero-sum gain politics.

The politics of the zero-sum gain is reinforced by what some are calling the “fear narrative.” The fear narrative is fueled by subconscious and explicit bias and distrust of “the other.”

As a Texan, I’ve seen this all my life. I’ve seen it growing up in the bigotry, racism and fear toward Hispanics and African-Americans felt by myself, my family and my white neighbors. As I struggled to pull away from this fear of “the other,” I saw it in my high school classmates during desegregation. I saw the racist use of “the other” by Austin city leaders to exploit African-American Clarksville residents as the city took their homes in order to preserve adjoining white folks’ homes. I’ve seen segregation maintained by zero-sum gain political calculus combined with the racism of “the other.” I have been infuriated at white folks’ expropriation of black folks’ homes through gentrification in Clarksville in the 1980s and ’90s. And that gentrification continues down to today in East Austin, frustrating the opportunity for integration and diversity in our city.

My experience has taught me that for America to progress we must end the fear narrative. We cannot do this through a political candidate alone. If that were possible, then the election of Barack Obama would have accomplished it.

We have to do something infinitely more difficult than recruiting better candidates and developing better messaging or even winning a presidential election. This is work we have to do ourselves, not delegate to a political candidate. We have to start here in Austin and in each of our neighborhoods.

We must complete the unfinished work of the civil rights era: Integrate our communities racially and economically. This requires us to overcome residential racial and economic segregation. This is not going to come easy for either Republicans or Democrats. Consider our presidential candidates.

Donald Trump’s company was caught in the overt act of denying African-Americans the opportunity to rent apartments. On the other hand, broadly practiced forms of housing segregation, that have huge impacts on maintaining racial and ethnic isolation, are almost never challenged. Democrats struggle with discrimination as well. Secretary Clinton was noticeably quiet when Westchester County, N.Y., a county that voted decidedly for Obama and voted 62 percent for her this year, fought a fair housing court order to integrate its white towns, including Chappaqua, the 2-percent-black town where Clinton lives.

Community leaders in low income communities I work for have confronted racism and economic inequality through the housing crisis, their displacement from historic neighborhoods of color and their long struggle to win for their neighborhoods access to public services and infrastructure. These basic public services and infrastructure are things that residents of white, privileged neighborhoods take for granted. In fighting for better homes and more equitable public services, we understand the centrality of residential racial segregation to the perpetuation of racial prejudice and economic inequality.

This is why we fight for residential integration. Neighborhood integration is not an irrelevant artifact of some long passed civil rights era. It is today’s essential prerequisite to end racism and end poverty.

The community leaders I work for are optimists even as they confront challenges the like of which many white and non-poor citizens will never experience: Poverty, segregation, blight, racism, substandard housing, low performing schools, disinvestment, crime and physical insecurity, denial of basic governmental infrastructure and exposure to inconceivable environmental hazards. Each of these ills are created in the petri dish of racial segregation and concentrated poverty. Despite enduring these conditions, these grassroots leaders believe in and act to make our nation better through civic engagement, organizing and interracial and intergenerational coalition building.

Let me cite a few examples of what they are doing…

At the end of a polarizing and disheartening presidential election campaign, if you find yourself depressed and cynical, do what we do and take some inspiration from these Texas neighbors.

They are using the power and dedication of their activism not to polarize and insult others but to advance equality…

…not to selfishly enrich themselves personally but to fight for better homes for struggling neighbors, for the poor and the elderly…

…not to build walls to keep others out, but to tear down the walls of segregation to make our neighborhoods racially and economically integrated, inclusive communities.

They choose not to plunge our nation into chaos but to build a united, integrated community, and in doing so they make America great.

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