Subscribe for 33¢ / day

The Rev. Alex Gee Jr., right, leads a Jan. 16 panel discussion on the African-American experience in Madison, held at the Fountain of Life Covenant Church.

MIKE DeVRIES — The Capital Times

Last Thursday, other Capital Times staffers and I sat — mesmerized and silent — and listened to a roundtable of black leaders at Madison’s Fountain of Life Covenant Church, hearing many poignant threads about race in the city.

The thing that most struck me was the willingness of these African-American leaders to allow us to listen in as they discussed these sensitive topics candidly. It was as if we were not there.

You see, my experience is that white people in Madison usually interact with blacks in ones, perhaps twos, at a service club meeting or, in my case, in an editorial board discussion dominated by white journalists.

This was blacks talking to blacks, interrupting, agreeing, disagreeing, laughing, at times becoming misty and emotional. The raw power of that dynamic is hard to overstate. None of us who observed, I think, will perceive racial challenges the way we did before.

The event marked a second major step in an unfolding Cap Times project on race relations in Madison. It started last month with our cover story headlined “Justified Anger.” In it, the Rev. Alex Gee of Madison, pastor of Fountain of Life and founder and CEO of the nonprofit Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, shared a first-person account of personal experiences that illustrate the city’s racial divide, including having been profiled by police in the parking lot of his church.

In the weeks since, Gee has talked extensively on radio and television about race. For our part, the Cap Times has published many op-eds and letters and announced that we would focus on race as a major coverage topic in 2014. We have continued to talk frequently with Gee.

For The Cap Times, the meeting broadened the conversation beyond Gee to eight other influential black voices and touched on an array of topics. We thought, as did Gee, that it was important to hear other voices early. We are sharing the event with our readers, including through video and text excerpts on our website this week, and are moving to the next stages.

So, some might skeptically wonder, how is this Cap Times project different from past media efforts?

Here’s how: First, we pledge the focus of this project will be African-Americans, not well-intentioned whites, be they political, business, media or nonprofit leaders. Second, we aim to host the discussion on race relations so that citizens who want to help — and Gee’s piece has revealed that there are many here who do — can see clear ways forward.

Yes, there will be some traditional journalism, in which we write about key themes such as the achievement gap, disproportionate incarceration rates, employment challenges, and social separation between races in liberal Madison.

But the Internet allows us to create what, for lack of a better term, will be a “citizens’ guide” on race. How did we get here? What’s the at-a-glance list of current strategies? How are they working? What else is needed? If I want a more diverse workforce, how best do I go about it? And so on.

It will be some part forum, some part tool kit, some part serving the role of host. And we will do it in a way that gives Madison’s black community a megaphone.

We will also help organize and tailor community events, probably with media and community partners, and, in our aspirations, create a one-stop digital home for the topic of race in Madison — sharing its history, assessing current efforts, enabling conversations, and looking to prescriptions.

Sound ambitious?

Yes, and while I am leery of being so public about these plans early on, I think we have the best chance for success if we are transparent. And yes, I am aware there will be some grumbling loosely summarized as “we’ve talked about all of this before.”

I left the roundtable deeply moved and ever more committed to this effort. Without attribution to individuals or direct quotations, here are top themes that, to me, emerged from the conversation:

• The black community is upset — not in the “angry” way that seems to make whites uneasy — at how they are not asked, often and sincerely, how to solve problems.

• That, above all else, education is sacred to African-Americans; shortcomings there lead to problems downstream.

• That the paucity or even absence of role models in teaching and other positions of stature is massively disempowering. It is impossible to overstate the importance of black children seeing people in key roles who look like them. Whites have not adequately grasped that fact.

• That in Madison and its suburbs, blacks are lumped together as being poor and “from Chicago,” ignoring what is actually enormous diversity within the black community. White Madisonians, including well-meaning ones, often over-generalize and make faulty assumptions.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

• That too many black families perceive the battle as unwinnable. Overcoming that is crucial. The black community needs to be pulled together.

• That white Madison is reluctant to embrace the black faith community for help because too many whites do not understand the central role, both historic and contemporary, that religion plays in black culture.

• That the media frequently engages in racial stereotyping and there are virtually no blacks in significant media roles.

• That many whites seem awkward and uncomfortable around blacks, and then find subconscious reasons not to hire them. How often, one person asked, do you see blacks on construction crews in town?

• That blacks are realistic. They know many black children are falling behind and only by promoting literacy and extra-curricular involvement will the pattern improve over the arc of many years.

• That the real narrative about blacks concerns hundreds of years of slavery followed by decades of legal racism. Seen that way, the civil rights movement just happened. Their people’s history is of moving to northern cities for factory jobs and having those jobs disappear. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, most black men, more than one said with emotion, want to work.

• That successful black people won’t come to Madison, or will choose to leave, because for all its liberal pretenses, races here don’t effectively mix.

• That some in white Madison focus on perceived divisions among black voices, even when no such divisions exist.

So, this week, as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that’s where we sit. Let the critics kvetch, but thanks to Alex Gee and an expanding array of Madison’s African-American voices, we’ve embarked on this path.

Wherever it takes us, we will bring our A game.

Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.