Almost a month has passed since the Rev. Alex Gee’s electrifying town hall meeting on race disparity.
That south side gathering caused a traffic jam on the Beltline ramp outside his Fountain of Life Covenant Church, while inside his sanctuary and a packed overflow room, it provoked outsized emotions.
As it ended, I walked up to Ron Johnson, our staunchly conservative Republican U.S senator, who had stood to the side through much of the meeting.
I told him I was impressed he was there, because some other prominent elected officials, mostly liberals, were not.
“You shouldn’t be,” he answered, and he explained to me, sort of nose-to-nose, almost in my face, how he wants what Gee and others want — a strong, family-centered African-American community. He suggested I read a book that reflects his thinking titled “Joseph and the Gospel of Many Colors: Reading an Old Story in a New Way.”
Well, I haven’t, at least not yet, but I did note that its author, Voddie Baucham Jr., is an African-American minister from Texas who was recently quoted in the New York Times opposing equating gay rights with black civil rights and is a frequent critic of President Obama.
But my point in mentioning Johnson is that the Gee event brought together a surprising assortment of people.
It was moving, distinctive and served to spotlight the struggles of African-Americans in and near Madison on issues of education, employment and incarceration.
Of the 600 or so attendees, about 450 signed note cards pledging ongoing involvement. Gee says Noble Wray — Madison’s recently retired police chief and just-installed interim leader of the Urban League of Greater Madison — told him there has not been a community gathering of such a magnitude in 30 years.
In the weeks since, Gee has said little publicly, but don’t mistake that for lack of movement.
Actually, the opposite is true. “We want this to be a movement,” Gee said as he outlined the path forward this week for Capital Times colleague Katie Dean and me at his office in the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, next to his Badger Road church.
His master plan is scrawled on a white board in multicolored markers.
At the center are names of his coalition of black community leaders who shared the stage at the town hall. Two additional African-American experts have agreed to join that expanding critical core, he says. They are Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s department of curriculum and instruction who wrote a Cap Times op-ed about racism in “nice” Madison, and Floyd Rose, president of the group 100 Black Men of Madison.
Also on the white board, off to one side, is a growing roster of major organizations — Gee calls them “community allies” — that will be invited to participate. Some names are predictable, some not.
Gee says that Wray has agreed to coordinate those relationships. Gee says he realizes his own strength is vision, not management, and that Wray is an outstanding manager, having run the 567-employee police department for nine years.
The plan also has arrows pointing toward the three key topics of student achievement, job opportunity and issues surrounding incarceration.
Gee’s movement is titled “Justified Anger,” adapted from the front-page headline on his powerful first-person essay in The Capital Times in December. His call to action came on the heels of the Race to Equity report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, which contained a flood of troubling metrics. Together, they seemed to ignite what has occurred since.
Gee says it is crucial that the initiative not be seen as a “small group of black people, but really is a community approach.” He promises meetings with members of African-American sororities and fraternities, whose alumni members are often just as active as those on campus, as well as with African-American church leaders. They will listen to wise elders in the black community, he says.
Gee plans a town hall meeting for black families, “and we need to sit down and talk with black boys,” he says. Gee also wants a meeting to hear from ex-offenders.
Gee says the group is raising the money needed for the first year but is planning for an initial three years. The project, in fact, is regarded by many of its leaders as a permanent one that will succeed only by meeting carefully chosen benchmarks.
As I listened, I thought, this really is something different, not only for its ambitious scope, but also because of the grass-roots passion behind it. It’s as if Gee has been working up to this project for the past 30 years, and he says as much.
But there is something else going on that is more difficult to talk about: This time, Madison’s African-American community has decided that because it has the biggest stake in the outcomes, they’ll do the driving. After all, it is their children whose lives are in the balance.
I started immersing myself in the topic of race last summer, when Gee, Phil Haslanger, a pastor and former Cap Times colleague, and I talked about how to bring Gee’s personal experience with police profiling and subtle racism to a large audience.
In the months since, I have come to two conclusions.
One is that African-Americans, whether leaders or just regular people, talk differently about their experiences in Madison when whites are not in the room. By and large, I believe they are more disparaging, perceive racism — subtle and otherwise — and are keenly aware of race as a social barrier.
They talk in a shorthand that no amount of sincere white empathy can penetrate. And I think for white leaders — elected, nonprofit, business, media, whatever — this can be hard to accept, but we must.
When Kaleem Caire resigns as head of the Urban League of Greater Madison and there are questions about his use of his business credit card, white journalists — and perhaps much of white Madison — regard it as straight-ahead example of pursuing anonymous tips toward colorblind journalism.
Many blacks, I believe, agree among themselves that things would play out very differently had Caire not been a black man and the aggressive leader of a controversial effort to create a black-centric charter school, a proposal that upset the white-run teachers union in Madison, among many others.
And I cannot overstate how objectionable I think blacks find it when schools and other institutions, including media like the Cap Times, wring our hands and say we understand, then employ virtually no one of color their children can emulate. Our actions, they believe, speak louder than our words.
So there really is a chasm between well-meaning, liberal white Madison and the African-American community.
That’s why I’m delighted that, in 2014, they are taking the lead.