July 7, 2010

Op-Ed: Downtown needs hospitality – for everyone

By Randolph D. Brandt

It’s not hard to make people feel unwelcome, and perception easily becomes reality.

Certainly I’ve noticed a certain disparity in the way downtown applications from minority business people are handled by the city’s regulatory boards.

I haven’t noticed a particularly heavy-handedness by our police force, in general. They don’t seem to be as hard-ass as cops in some other cities. I don’t know how the private security acts.

If there’s selective enforcement or overreaction at work, authorities should examine that problem and fix it. Again, perception goes a long way toward making reality. If people are too quick to call the cops in their nervousness (and perhaps their prejudice), they should think twice. Is that crowd of color some threat, or just a bunch of people having a good time? Officers responding should keep this in mind as well. Nobody wants no response to a possible call for help, but everybody certainly deserves a measured, respectful response, not a preconceived invasion in force. In those first few minutes, it takes intelligent, well-trained officers to assess a situation and act accordingly. I’d hope our local force is up to it; indeed, I believe they likely are.

The NAACP’s report on downtown, granted, may be a little short on facts and long on assertion, but one finding certainly rings true: There’s no evidence that there’s significantly more trouble from one entertainment venue or another. As I think back over the past decade, the most remarkable (and serious) incidents have occurred in and around Main Street venues. That isn’t to cast aspersion on one outlet or another, just to note that trouble’s where you find it, and it’s no respecter of preconceived notions. You can encounter bad actors anywhere, so while authorities should be vigilant everywhere, they shouldn’t seem oppressive anyplace.

The city administration and the downtown community can take some steps here as well. The city should assess applications for minority businesses in the same way they assess other applications, not treating them from the get-go as some “problem.” (Maybe they give everybody too hard a time, but minority entrepreneurs seem to get an even harder time for some reason.)

On another, perhaps more important level, let’s take some positive steps to break down the island of defacto social segregation in our downtown. Re-opening the Laurel Salton Clark Clark fountain was one. Let’s consider another: Sponsor, host and pay for the annual Juneteenth celebration as a citywide event, centered on the very Monument Square (then Haymarket Square) where Racine residents stood up to the seizure of Joshua Glover. We put up a stone monument there. Let’s make it a human monument, each year come June, a celebration where the entire city meets and celebrates these important historic steps toward freedom for all citizens.

There are steps that can break down walls and change perceptions.

And they can make a new reality.

Randolph D. Brandt is the retired editor of the Journal Times.