Should race matter in KCís city council race?
by Rhiannon Ross
The nation has its first African American president. But in Kansas City, MO, a question that’s being debated by some, is can a white person effectively represent the interests of a predominantly black community?
“I think that’s old-school thought,” said Durwin Rice, 56. “We need to focus on qualifications and results and I don’t think we should be talking about basing it on the color of anyone’s skin, anywhere.”
Rice, who is white, is running against two black candidates – incumbent Melba J. Curls, 69, and community activist Brandon Ellington, 30, – for the at-large seat in KC’s 3rd District, which represents a predominantly black neighborhood east of Troost Avenue. Historically, KC’s racial dividing line has been Troost Avenue.
A native of KC, Rice grew up in the northeast area of the city. He later lived in New York City, where he worked as a decoupage artist. In 2004, he returned to KC and opened a paper supply studio on 55th and Troost. Rice served as the 4th District at-Large Public Improvements Advisory Committee representative from 2007-2010, which helped ignite his passion for public service.
In 2006, he had relocated his business to 45th and Troost and founded Tulips on Troost (www.troostavenue.com), a beautification project that annually plants 300,000 tulips along Troost Avenue. At that time, he moved into an apartment one block away from his new studio. In September 2010, he moved into a house on Benton Boulevard, in the heart of the 3rd District.
One of the first protests lodged against Rice’s campaign came from Robyne Turner, PhD, a white, former professor of Urban Affairs at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is now a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In her blog post titled, “What’s race got to do with it? Tales of a white woman in the hood,” (http://imhereru.blogspot.com/2010/11/3rd-district-leadership.html), Turner urged Rice not to run for the seat because he hasn’t lived in the district long enough to represent the people living there.
“It is not color that is the issue, but rather, being ‘of the community’ in order to accurately represent through the lens of that district,” she wrote.
Turner added that while Curls and Ellington may not necessarily make the best leaders for the 3rd district or the city, they would still be better representatives than Rice because they have lived in the 3rd district longer than Rice. Curls is a lifelong resident of the 3rd District and Ellington has lived in the district most of his life.
Rice points out that his inner-city experience living one block west of Troost hasn’t been much different than his current experience living east of the avenue.
“Turner’s right that I haven’t (previously) lived in the 3rd District but she’s wrong that I can’t represent the people there,” Rice said.
“I look at the inner city and the urban core as what it is and it isn’t exclusive to the 3rd District. It spills over into a good portion of the 5th district, it spills over into a good portion of the 4th District, the 1st District, and it continues to impact the people of all of those districts … I don’t think you can differentiate between urban issues on one side of the avenue and the other side avenue…that somebody on my side can’t understand this side. That’s division and it’s not helpful.”
However, candidates Curls and Ellington agree with Turner.
In an email response, Curls wrote: “I do not necessarily think one has to be a certain race to represent the 3rd District. However, I do think that the person representing the 3rd District – and any other district for that matter – should have a history of living in the district, interacting with the residents, and be an active member of the 3rd District neighborhoods and communities,” wrote Curls in an email response.
“I am concerned that Mr. Rice has no history with the 3rd District except to plant tulips along its border. Moving into a district and deciding to represent the constituents requires more involvement than he has demonstrated so far. If Mr. Rice was concerned about the 3rd District representatives, he should have talked to leaders within the community to identify a long-standing resident to consider running instead of assuming that he would be the best representative for a district he (only recently moved into).”
Ellington said he also doesn’t think the issue is about race but about the experiences gained from living in the 3rd District.
“If you haven’t lived in these conditions, you cannot represent the people because you don’t understand what they’re going through,” he said. “He has to understand the history of that district. And he also has to understand the historical barriers of people who have lived in that district and if he doesn’t understand it and he doesn’t internalize it, I question his ability to be an effective leader.”
Turner, who has lived in the 3rd District, also addressed in her blog what she referred to as “white privilege.”
“I have seen my privilege in action as a resident of the 3rd. I have seen the discrimination that has been put upon my 3rd district neighbors by other whites. I am an ally, which means, I got your back. But I cannot be a 3rd district leader because I do not have the life experiences to represent the people of that district through the lens of their life experiences. I cannot adequately bring their point of reference to the decision table. I would only be a proxy.”
Rice said this way of thinking is more of a Mid-West mindset, not typically seen on the east or west coasts, which he said tend to be more progressive in their ways of thinking.
“We’re all of the same human race. We have the same needs. We have the same aspirations,” he said. “Why don’t we just work together to make life better?”
On Tuesday, Feb. 22, KC voters will decide which two of the three candidates will proceed to the general election, slated for March 22.
Candidate websites (in alphabetical order):
Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.