What happened after Ta-Nehisi Coates visited our city?
By Sue Ellen Christian
Everything and nothing, as you would expect. But also, for me, old ideas from the American psychologist Gordon Allport and the journalist Robert Maynard got a new hold on my imagination.
The auditorium was packed with 2,500 people and could have held more but word circulated that it would be standing-room only, so many people stayed away, though they didn’t need to, as the upper balconies still had seats. Still, the joint was pleasantly full that evening, November 4, 2015. It was the most ethnically diverse crowd I’ve ever seen in the Western Michigan University auditorium. People were talking about it as the cultural event of the fall. That is, until Gloria Steinem came two days later; then she was the cultural event of the fall. Interestingly, she was joining Coates in New York City the evening after her visit to Kalamazoo. In her Kalamazoo speech, she naturally married their two platforms: “You cannot be a racist and a feminist,” she told the audience.
Coates’s 30-minute talk, primarily about the disproportionately large number of incarcerated black men in America, was characteristically straightforward, frank, and steeped in historical references. One comment that drew a lot of applause: White supremacy is the longest-running and most lethal campaign of domestic terrorism in our country. His talk wasn’t covered by the city’s main news outlet because its small reporting staff was already stretched to cover the local elections also taking place that day.
Within an hour, the event was over, but only after a Q and A between Coates and two community representatives who were seated on a sofa that was brought out to the stage. Coates sat opposite them in an upholstered chair. The idea, apparently, was a Barbara Walters-style interview. But the interaction was awkward, and the queries were at times disconnected from the guts of Coates’s comments. And then the award-winning author of Between the World and Me and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, Coates, was gone from little ol’ Kalamazoo, best known for the song about the gal from here. And we were left with each other again.
In the wake of Coates’s visit, everything happened. The local organizations focused on racial equity and healing, which were already seeing increased interest in their programming due to national protests over the increasing number of black men killed by police, got even busier. Just one example: The Society for History and Racial Equity held a Summit on Racism a couple weeks after Coates’s visit. It drew many more participants than expected—close to 200, and the room’s capacity was 150. The organization’s racial healing retreat the following month quickly reached its maximum number of participants: 25.
And nothing happened. Kalamazoo remains divided largely along racial lines, with the 22 percent of the population that is black on the north and the 68 percent that is white to the west and south. The 6 percent of the Hispanic population generally resides in a pocket on the east side. County statistics from 2010 indicate that almost 44 percent of African Americans live in poverty, as compared to 16 percent of whites. And among the Christians of Kalamazoo, as elsewhere in the nation and as Martin Luther King Jr. noted years ago, Sunday at 11 a.m. continues to be largely segregated.
Inter-ethnic mixing doesn’t often happen spontaneously. Cultural happenings for adults remain largely divided by ethnicity, as do social outings and many clubs. As a rule the most diverse audiences are for local school and college athletic contests, at movie theatres, the shopping mall and downtown festivals.
An old idea has gripped me since Coates’s visit. And now I find myself emotionally attached to it, and this gives me the courage and motivation to better live the idea. In the 1950s, Allport, who studied personality and personality traits, devised the “contact hypothesis.” In a chapter in his book The Nature of Prejudice, Allport posited that intergroup relations could be improved if the contact involved four conditions: equal status between the groups (such as black and white people), common goals, intergroup cooperation, and the support of authorities, law, or custom. The contact hypothesis urges us to go beyond surface relationships and drive-by greetings. As applied to Kalamazoo, it would urge that blacks and whites do something meaningful together. We have to find situations in which we must cooperate, depend on one another, and pursue shared goals. If we do so, when we do so, “them” can become “us.”
Scholars following on from Allport’s work have found that the more we perceive a common identity that contains both “them” and “us,” the less we are biased against the original outsider group. The two subgroups find a common identity in a bigger group. We become Kalamazooans instead of North Siders and South Siders.
The simplicity and power of the contact hypothesis has never seemed more urgent to me. To escape prejudice and build the larger group, you have to purposefully seek out one-on-one meaningful relationships with unlike others. And in our city of 76,000, which I imagine is not too different from many small American cities, the lines are clearly drawn by neighborhood, income, schools, and occupations. So one must make an effort to cross the divides. The late Robert Maynard, a journalist, editor, and publisher who founded an institute for journalism education, called these fault lines—the boundaries of race, class, gender, generation and geography that shape and create social tensions.
As a journalist, I learned somewhere along the way—I don’t recall if it was from Maynard’s teachings or from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies—that a good rule of thumb is to cross two fault lines with each source. As an example, if I were seeking out residents to interview for a story about local water quality, I shouldn’t interview my mirror image— another white, heterosexual, middle-class, middle-aged woman. I might look for a senior citizen who lives in another neighborhood, or a gay man, or a resident come from Mexico. This ensures that as a reporter, I don’t simply seek out those sources that look like and act like me, sources that are easily within my comfort zone.
Coates’s visit got me thinking about applying Robert Maynard’s fault-lines approach to regular life outside of journalism. Seek out people who cross my fault lines, and do this as intentionally as the contact hypothesis’s prescription for creating meaningful relationships with unlike others.
When I shared these thoughts with Donna Odom, the executive director of the Society for History and Racial Equity, she responded: “Exactly what the retreats, community discussions, and book club are all about!” She was kind to hold back from a simple “Duh.”
My son, who is in the 7th grade at an ethnically diverse public school, is already easily crossing the lines. He invited a friend, who is African American, to come along with our family to hear Coates. When we picked up the friend, I stood talking with the boy’s mom on the front porch of their home on our city’s North Side. We didn’t talk long due to the chill and the fact she was still in her short-sleeved medical scrubs from her work shift. We were talking about what time we’d get her son back that evening and what it was we were taking him to and who Coates was. It was mom stuff, not race stuff. And, I realized later, that was exactly the point.
Sue Ellen Christian is a professor of journalism in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University. She is the author of Overcoming Bias: A Journalist’s Guide to Culture and Context (Holcomb Hathaway, 2011).
In order from the top:
- Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking in Kalamazoo, Michigan, November 2015
- Map of Kalamazoo, Michigan, by race
- Gordon Allport
- Robert Maynard (1937-1993) at his first newspaper job, in York, Pennsylvania, in the early 1960s.