June 4, 2004


Checked in, and out
by Patrick Dobson

Let me just get it out in the open:

White Kansas Citians ignore the city’s racial divide. Their churches, social institutions, clubs and businesses aren’t making the necessary steps to temper the minds of their members that people, not color, are who count.

The city’s African Americans, for the most part, haven’t moved either.

Let me tell you how I know.

I’m a white guy who lives in an African American neighborhood. It’s a good place, friendly. I love it here.

Now, just across Troost is Brookside, which used to be white as snow until Price Chopper moved in at Brookside and Meyer.

Finally, there was a grocery alternative to the price/quality rape going on at the stores on the Eastside—and regular, working people could afford to shop in Brookside, which had traditionally been pricey. When I go to this grocery store with my T-shirt that reads, “I’ll vote for Bush when they pry my cold, dead fingers from my dick,” a white woman and her daughter chase me across the store to read the shirt in full, shake my hand, ask where they could get one, and tell me how “brave” I was.

Then, the white guy with bad color at the register yells across the store, “Yeah, he’ll lose again.” He’s some kind of manager and treats black customers like children. He has a moustache and reminds me of the guys my dad used to drink whisky and kill deer with, the kind of men I know whose lives revolve around those hateful little circles of anti-logic consisting of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Paul Harvey. Everyone besides “us” is either crazy, an asshole, or just plain evil.

While I’m standing in line, a couple of sandaled young anarchists “just adore” my shirt. These people are cool, kinda. But I feel I have to remind them to start conversations with dirty, unwashed masses, people they don’t know, and all the Republicans they can find.

The kids bagging groceries for the black men and women are those employees the white store managers won’t let handle money. They are high school age or older, computer savvy and very tuned into the popular culture, and across the racial spectrum.

I’m paying White Man With Moustache, and the grocery clerks gathered around, whispering about the T-shirt. It was cool, they said. Where could they get one, they ask. We began a good chatter, which Whitey shut down pretty soon with, “It’s time to work, not talk.” We all looked around. There was no one in line.

All I could think was that Al Sharpton was absolutely right. The major parties are missing great opportunities here. These kids are smart, stoked and checked in. But because most are black, from the city and working poor, Whitey’s not giving them the time of day.

And, here’s the kicker. They’re not taking it either. Their older brothers and sisters, moms and dads were checked in, but after some difficulties, began to feel that their votes held no sway, that their own leaders swaged more off the process than they delivered. In short, black leaders and voters settled for less. Just like white Americans have.

Later that day, I brought up race to Jamie Metzl, Democratic candidate for 5th Congressional district in Missouri, a seat Karen McCarthy now holds. We were waiting for John Kerry to show up at an airplane hangar at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City.

Metzl’s been all over Brookside campaigning, and for good reason. Politically, Brookside’s much more important than the Eastside. Both areas are solid Democratic strongholds, but Eastside voter turnout is generally dismal—so few bother to work to get out the vote.

Metzl says he’s campaigned “some” on the Eastside. But he knows, like everyone around him, Democratic primary opponent Emanuel Cleaver will carry the Eastside. Metzl has to take Brookside if he’s to get a majority of the Jackson County Democratic vote, and he has to crack Cleaver’s former hold on the area.

So, Metzl’s hustling the crowd at the Kerry rally, shaking hands, smiling. Cleaver is on the other side of the cattle fence with a phalanx of what looks to be bodyguards and media types with microphones.
Cleaver’s clearly the insider looking to further his career. Metzl’s hungry for a job.

I ask Metzl: Will he be willing to use the clout of the office to go to high schools, gather the kids in assembly and ask the tough questions of race, such as: Why do you feel the way you do about the white kids? The black kids? Native, Asian, and Hispanic kids? Where did you learn those things? How do you feel about the kids of your own race? Why do you feel that way? What kind of world do you really want to live in?

Just questions. Nothing liberal or conservative. Nothing economic or about cops. Just an honest assessment. Black schools and white. Hispanic kids and native. Asian.

Metzl said he would think about it. “Race, I believe, is the issue of our generation,” he said.

Bad answer to a political columnist because it sounds like Metzl is going to settle for less. Just like Cleaver and all black leaders this city has Freedom Inc. and every other black political organization, and the Jackson Country Democrats, the unions and all majority white political organizations, along with the town’s Republicans and conservatives.

Sounds like I’m blaming everyone. But I’m not.

All I really want is to walk into the Price Chopper and feel the absence of the tensions of race. I want to walk in my neighborhood and not be told to go back where I came from—though I am standing on the ground from which I was formed. I want my kid to know those checked-in kids at the grocery store because they are savvy, smart youngsters.

That’s what I want. And it’s going to take disappointment after disappointment, and never, ever being happy with anything less than the ideal.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at 


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