A terrible approach to race relations

by Luke Pruitt (wlukepruitt@gmail.com) 1,636 views 

The Fort Smith police and fire unions have given us a great excuse to talk about why colorblindness is a terrible approach to race relations.

The two unions are joining forces to try and oust Fort Smith City Directors Mike Lorenz, Keith Lau, and Andre Good. There is a lot going on here. For instance, we could talk about separation of powers in Fort Smith, and the slippery slope of allowing law enforcers to unite to recall law makers at their whim, and potentially install lawmakers of their own choosing.

We could also talk about the underlying economic factors here — how officers are or are not being properly taken care of in Fort Smith, and how recent changes in the department have disrupted the expectations of police and fire department workers, and to what extent that is good or bad. I would like to set these talking points aside for now.

Our city directors aren’t perfect, but there is a process for removing them from office. It is, of course, the elections. All three of these men were only recently re-elected to office. Lau and Lorenz ran unopposed, and Andre Good was opposed by Bruce Wade. The police and fire unions had a chance last year to properly remove these directors from office, and failed.

To be clear, this is not about calling the police and fire unions “racist.” But we can’t be silent and allow our comfort with “colorblindness” to injure minority interests and prop up the status quo. There are obvious racial elements at play here, and we should be honest about them. Here are the reasons that the Fraternal Order of Police and Fireman’s Union have listed for wanting to remove these directors. The directors: Refuse to properly fund public safety; Do not properly staff the police department; Don’t keep promises; Don’t value city employees; and Dismantle citizen committees/boards when they don’t like a decision.

The first two reasons are debatable. The third is vague. The last two are pretty direct, however. They refer explicitly to a situation in which the Civil Service Commission  (CSC) rejected Police Chief Nathaniel Clark’s request to hire externally for non-entry-level positions in the Police Department, and City Director Good has used his position of power to add members to CSC, with a board vote.

Now, if everyone would kindly remove their “colorblind” glasses, I will explain this in racial terms.

Fort Smith hired a qualified black man to be a police chief after our previous police chief resigned when a black city employee over heard him make a joke about dressing up in black face to pacify the people’s concern that, despite having a 10% black population, they had only two black employees, had not hired any in over decade, and had not promoted any in longer. In short, Fort Smith hired a qualified black person because we recognized the importance of diversity in our public servants, and the Police Department seemed the obvious place to start. Yes and no, apparently.

Yes, we were open to the idea that diversity in hiring was a good idea. “We’ve been trying to do it for years!” they say. “Black people won’t apply!” They contend. “We can’t understand why!” They howl. Finally, after years of all these white people being puzzled by the lack of diversity, we had the novel idea to ask a black person what would be a good strategy for hiring black people. And Nathaniel Clark had a solution.

To tackle this diversity problem, Chief Clark had to ask permission from the CSC — a board of five people, four of whom were white, (and were selected by a board of 7 of whom 6 are white)— if he could seek qualified employees externally, rather than be forced to promote from within, ensuring a mostly-white power structure for at least a half a decade. Chief Clark was rejected, because the CSC thought he might hire someone who was “unqualified.” The one black City Director, Andre Good, pointed out the absurdity of these mixed signals — “Yes, we need diversity!  No, not in management!” — and after an ongoing struggle, Directors Good, Lorenz, Lau, and Tracy Pennartz voted to expand the size of the CSC to account for more diversity in the power structure. It is a bold and necessary move, if we are in fact serious about tackling our diversity problem.

Let us not be distracted by fragile attempts by the unions and the CSC to build a case for plausible deniability here. The unions are building it by going after two white directors first. This will distort the fact that Good is undoubtedly the intended target, since he discussed removing the CSC after Clark was initially rejected. Lorenz and Lau ran unopposed in last years election, and are unlikely to be removed. Good, on the other hand, requires the most plausible number of signatures to remove. Meanwhile, his opponent in 2016, Bruce Wade, an African-American man, is now suing the city with CSC member – who has recused himself from the Clark matter – Chip Sexton’s business partner, attorney Joey McCutchen, as his legal counsel.

It’s a quid pro quo, of sorts:  McCutchen and Sexton get plausible deniability while neutering Clarks ability to execute his strategy for diversity, and Bruce Wade gets exposure, (likely free) legal services, and if Good is removed, a possible City Director position.

I sympathize with police and fire department workers, and their frustration is understandable. Expected raises have not been given. The power structure they understood upon hire is changing, and they are affected directly as they seek to advance in their chosen careers. The EPA Consent Decree to fix the city’s sewer system has strapped an already tight budget, and that too affects them directly. These are all reasons to be concerned and frustrated. While I respect these organizations’ right to organize, politically, this seems a wholly irrational approach to that aim, and by supporting this in any capacity, we become a case study for colorblind racism. The national political climate is volatile when it comes to the conversation about law enforcement and racism. My hope is we find a way to resolve this without ending up on the wrong side of history.

Citizens in Fort Smith have worked hard over the last few years to rid ourselves of an image of historic racism. We have stopped mythologizing the figures who built this city by inciting conflict among Native American tribes in order to perpetuate funds from the federal government. We have instead honored the victims of “Manifest Destiny” with portraits of the oppressed on our buildings. We have rid ourselves of an embarrassing mascot that served as a dog whistle to those who fought to perpetuate the Jim Crow era. We have made aggressive efforts to ensure that our public officials are representative of our public. These are necessary and long overdue accomplishments.

Chief Clark’s strategy for diversity falls in the same category as the EPA sanctioned sewer clean up — deferred maintenance. And as the EPA consent decree has taught us: We can only hide our shit for so long before we’re all swimming in it.
Editor’s note: Luke Pruitt is a musician, Southside High School graduate and student at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s).