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Commentary: What Will St. Louis Do Now To Combat Racism?

aug 23
File photo | Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

Once again we in this region are faced with racism and alleged racist actions to be determined by the courts in the month ahead. Sadly this is not new.

We have faced it since Missouri permitted slavery and African Americans were not allowed to be educated. In fact in 1847 the Missouri General Assembly made it illegal to educate African Americans, as reported in my book,“Unending Struggle, The Long Road to Equal Education in St. Louis.” There has been a deep record in our area of inequality in race relations and there has been deep institutional inequality for several hundreds of years.

Missouri’s history in this arena is terrible. Thus when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, these deep-rooted feelings surfaced. The racial tensions and concurrent incidents that happened for so many days and weeks could have been anticipated.

The big question is: “What will this community do to get at this long time systemic ill?” While we have made many strides in our schools and housing and some in hiring and businesses, we have a long way to go.

St. Louis had a very successful interdistrict transfer program for many years in the late 1980s that allowed more than 15,000 African Americans the opportunity to receive a better education. Many inservice programs for suburban teachers have been held to help them become more successful in working with African-American children. This community worked on housing equity with the Freedom of Residence Program which was moderately successful. And existing programs work with racial profiling for police officers.

But here we are again. So now what? Is racism so ingrained in us that nothing will help? I cannot accept that belief.

We must again work on many of these issues through workshops, additional training for the police and teachers and communities at large. We cannot allow this status quo. And we do not want to be known across the country as a racist city.

We cannot accept what has happened, and we cannot give up. We all know that change comes about slowly but these attitudes cannot continue.

I do believe that those students who were part of the interdistrict transfer program, both the transfer students and suburban students in the schools where they got to know one another, have a different perspective and will in time become part of both city and county workplaces where they can help change attitudes.

In the meantime, communities must work to re-educate police departments, city workers and others whom are in integrated settings. This is the only way we can begin to make a difference and hope that we have no more “Fergusons.”

Susan Uchitelle is the former executive director of the St. Louis Voluntary Interdistrict Coordinating Council.