“The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.”
– James Brown
Recently I participated in the taping of a television report for TV station WJBF in which reporter Renetta DuBose led a discussion on whether racism exists in local government. I held forth with Metro Courier Publisher Barbara Gordon, Augusta Technical College President Terry Elam and community activist Lori Davis.
We all come from different backgrounds and have different life experiences. We don’t all share the same age, race or sex. For that matter, we don’t all share the same opinions, which of course makes for good television.
The timing of our discussion couldn’t have been better, given the high-profile premiere of the James Brown biopic in Augusta later this month. I daresay no other Augustan, black or white, male or female, old or young, rose to the level of international fame and acclaim reached by Mr. Brown.
At the same time he was both beloved and vilified in the city he called home. His honors in Augusta came late in his life, long after the rest of the world had acknowledged his genius.
Whether local people embraced or rejected James Brown had more to do with his behavior than his race. Mr. Brown was born black and grew up black; nothing would change that. Whatever lessons he learned from time in jail both early and late in his life were clouded by drugs and women.
MR. BROWN WORKED hard for his success, and along the way taught young people that they owed it to themselves to get what he never had – a formal education.
But the man dubbed the Godfather of Soul never let color be his litmus test. His song Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud is not an anthem of black liberation, but one of black pride and accomplishment. Lord knows, growing up in a poor, segregated neighborhood could have instilled a lifetime of bitterness. For many it did, but not for James Brown.
Unfortunately, some in this community use that bitterness to sow the seeds of discrimination like picking at a scab on an old wound. Our TV discussion might have carried the title of racism, but to me it was more about economics. The haves vs. the have-nots. The west side vs. the south side. Us against them. Even conspiracy theories.
It would be naïve to think we live in a colorblind society. We even go out of our way to encourage diversity and sustain cultural institutions. Our tax money follows public policy that says the black community should have what the white community has. But that is a rocky road to follow.
With a poverty rate well above 20 percent and the city center losing about 1,000 residents a year, Augusta reflects many of the same issues other urban areas across this country are facing. These cities are finding that poverty consumes a lot of public resources that government might rather spend on something else.
SINCE MUCH OF THE poverty is represented among our minority citizens, it’s convenient to play the race card. But if you want to see examples of people being treated unfairly because of the color of their skin, you don’t have to go back that far in history. I remember what it was like going to segregated schools and living apart from black people. None of that was by choice – segregation was the law of the land.
I suspect that some of the last reminders of public segregation will be demolished with the $40 million remodeling of the Municipal Building. It was built with separate water coolers, jury rooms and restrooms for “white” and “colored.” Many people here will remember that time, not so long ago.
Government discourse has gotten way too contentious – and personal. There was a time when we debated, negotiated and compromised to solve problems. Now the path to public policy is through a blender that grinds ideas into meaningless sound bites and personal attacks. Even our local government lurches from problem to problem, crisis to crisis, with endless debate along the way.
No, the problem in local government is not racism. It’s about everything but that. One of the TV show panelists suggested a lack of trust; even the Chamber of Commerce’s much-heralded Community Trust Initiative imploded six months after its launch.
So, maybe it’s not a coincidence that the James Brown movie is premiering the same month this discussion is taking place. Mr. Brown’s life lesson is that we will succeed with hard work, and we can all get along if we want to.
(The writer was Augusta’s mayor from 1999 to 2005, and a former assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.)