When Mayor Francis Slay announced that he would not seek a fifth four-year term - ending almost two decades of his arguably racially polarizing imprint on the city - it set off a near hysteria of speculation about who would inherit his reign. With the open discussion among the media and the civic and political establishment centering on the plethora of possible candidates, the unspoken discussion was whether the next mayor would, or perhaps should, be black. I would suggest that this city has never had a black mayor. I say this knowing, of course, that two men of African descent have served as mayor, the first for four years in the mid nineties, and the second immediately following for one term to close out the twentieth century. Neither, however, quite fit my sense of a city run by a black mayor - like the black mayors who ruled in Atlanta or Washington, D.C., for example, during that era - because neither saw the key to their being in office or their power being determined primarily by the black community. Hence, neither made blacks their first and foremost priority.
The first ascended to City Hall with the campaign message and symbol that he would govern a racially divided city through playing both the black and white piano keys, metaphorically meaning that his policies and programs would target both black and white residents. To the chagrin of the black community, his fingers stayed mostly on the white keys; and to the revulsion of many whites, he played too many black keys.
That revulsion led to the white community orchestrating his ouster through plucking a person of African descent from atop his perch as chief of the white dominated police force to run against him. This tactic adroitly avoided a mayoral contest between a black and a white, which would have put to the test the voting power of the city's then majority black population, and also avoided unmasking a racially oriented electorate.
In this unusual race, which pitted an African-American political veteran supported by the black community against an African-American political novice backed by the white community, the incumbent was toppled. Four years later, the new incumbent mayor was humiliatingly tossed from the office when all the white backers who had catapulted him to the position threw their support to a white candidate, Francis Slay.
Thus, for an eight year stretch St. Louis had the appearance of having progressed like other major cities to having a black mayor preside over a predominantly black city. Yet beneath that appearance lay a black populous not exercising the political power to make and shape policy beneficial to the black community. The result of the inattention to and seemingly willful neglect of the city's black community - politely referred to as "the northside"- has been a cancer that has infected the entire city as well as the region, as the black community's impoverishment and decay has migrated to south St. Louis, Ferguson, and other parts of north County.
Crime that negatively impacts the city's national image and business growth emanates mostly from the black community. Stratospheric unemployment and underemployment that depletes the city's revenue and stagnates its economy resides mostly in the black community. Educational dysfunction that is the pipeline to incarceration is housed mostly in the black community. While conversely, the creative and entrepreneurial potential that could elevate this city lies largely in the black community. In short and frank terms, the condition of the black community is simultaneously St. Louis' top problem and its best hope.
This is why St. Louis needs a mayor who thinks black. Because eliminating the city's biggest liability and utilizing its most untapped asset requires someone, irrespective of their ethnicity, who will put the black community first.
Eric E. Vickers, Attorney and Activist.
Sunday, April 3, 2016
As I watched this week the scant news coverage of the press conference held by several community organizations to denounce the Metropolitan Sewer District's minority inclusion on its billion dollar project, I thought about the owner of a construction company who sat in my office during the genesis of this city's movement for inclusion.
His hands were noticeably shaking, and his voice quivered as he spoke from across the table to me and the leaders of the black contractor's organization. His fear was obvious. Not fear of physical safety. Rather, fear of economic loss, and fear of his business as usual peace being disturbed.
He was there in response to a letter I had sent him on behalf of the group - which was to become our standard opening salvo - giving him ten days to either increase the minority subcontractors on his job, or face our shutting down the project. He acquiesced to our demand, and diligently implemented it.
I learned valuable lessons from that encounter, which stayed with me as we marched forward over the years with a movement that involved disruptive protests and cutting edge litigation, and which achieved milestones such as the city enacting a law mandating minority and women inclusion. I learned first and foremost that if the white power structure does not fear blacks exercising power, it will not change the status quo.
In saying this I realize that there are those who argue that comity yields more results than confrontation. My experiences - and I think history - cause me to beg to differ. And I think the MSD situation presents a case in point. For despite MSD and these organizations having negotiated an inclusion agreement, and despite their having had rounds of intense talks about the inclusion deficiency, MSD remains entrenched in espousing that all is essentially well. MSD views them as partners with whom they have a difference, not adversaries who pose a threat.
I also learned that engendering fear in the power structure has consequences. One being that it causes it to gravitate towards the blacks who seek to work with and inside the system in order to evade and undermine those confronting it. The head of one black institutional organization once told me that "there are tree shakers, and there are jam makers." His metaphor's meaning was that there are blacks who shake the tree of the white establishment, while other blacks make jam - i.e. benefit - from the fruit that falls.
Another consequence I learned is that the power structure will strike back at those who strike it. The fear the black contractors organization struck in the construction industry emanated from their being fearlessly driven by the cause of economic justice. We see that kind of fearlessness in the millennials - black and white - in their struggle against the police and criminal justice system.
One wonders if, in the enduring black economic struggle, the organizations sitting across the table from MSD will make it shake and quiver.
Eric E. Vickers