End racial paranoia

The city's charter? Work harder to improve the city's character

Yogi Berra's wry advice -- "when you come to a fork in the road, take it" -- would be of even less use than usual to Augustans right now.

 

The two forks in front of this city lead to vastly different places -- and eras.

Some local black leaders -- Augusta commissioners, legislators and black ministers -- seem to be telling the community, like the haunted forest sign in The Wizard of Oz, "I'd turn back if I were you!" They appear to feel as if any step forward might be a land mine for blacks.

So, eschewing progress, they're opting for the tired, well-worn path of racial conflict.

They've sought a state legislative opinion and even filed a lawsuit against the city for its ongoing reorganization that would give city Administrator Fred Russell more power to hire and fire employees.

They won't let go of their anger over white commissioners being slow to agree to name the new courthouse for a local prominent black jurist.

And they oppose closing a portion of Laney-Walker Boulevard to create a pedestrian mall for students and faculty at Georgia Health Sciences University, which the street intersects -- even ludicrously claiming blacks would be asked for ID to stroll it.

"They'll take your soul," one black leader warned with no sense of the hyperbole.

"They seem to think we are out to get the black employees," one white leader told us regarding the restructuring at City Hall.

As The Augusta Chronicle's Sylvia Cooper reported Sunday, regarding comments at the Augusta Baptist Ministers Conference's town hall meeting last week, "The overall message I heard was, 'Wake up, or the white people will screw you over.'"

Local white leaders are, in these scenarios, assumed to be racist and cynical and diabolical.

The problem with that is twofold: 1) the fact that it's farfetched, anachronistic and paranoid; and 2) that some folks in positions of leadership actually believe it's true.

We can argue and fuss and go to court all we want about the city government restructuring -- but it's clear the area's problem goes way beyond the city-county consolidation agreement of 1995.

The problem isn't the city's charter. It's the city's character.

Racial healing? We're not there yet, obviously. But some want to take us down a road that leads back in time to paralysis and racial distrust. Been there, done that. We need a new direction -- the other fork in the road that leads to unity and a better future for everyone.

That's the spirit of Mayor Deke Copenhaver's calm and reasoned reaction to all this: "That's just not pervasive anymore," he said of the distrust expressed by local black ministers and other leaders. "I'm just not going to worry about it. I'm trying to focus on Augusta's future, and not its past."

Absolutely admirable. Yet, we fear the good mayor is being overly sanguine about the situation. Racial distrust certainly isn't as pervasive as it used to be -- when the distrust was infinitely more warranted. Still, the paranoia is getting in the way -- of city business, of progress for the medical college, and of individual lives and their potential. The "victim" mentality, after all, is a claw trap that holds people firmly in place.

So, while going forward, we can't ignore the baggage we carry with us. We need to deal with it. The community can take the road that leads back to conflict -- or can work to put the paranoia to rest.

Everybody involved has that choice to make.

We call on the black ministers, as men of the cloth, to take the lead in choosing the wiser fork in the road. Don't go to court; go to City Hall. Seek out common ground and understanding. Lay your concerns on the table and see what can be done about them. Let go of rotting grievances.

As for local white leaders -- six of the 10 commissioners, as well as the mayor and others: Reach out to help put the paranoia to rest as best you can. Find ways to build trust.

The first step, for all, is to stop assuming the worst in each other. There's no good place you can go from there.

Which fork will it be, Augusta? Conflict? Or camaraderie?

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