I live in Missouri. Normally, people make fun of this state (hell, even my native-Missourian fiance does) because there is nothing here. And there really isn't, which in the winter leads me into sometimes deep issues with SAD. It's a state with a great beer, wine, and bike culture but I wouldn't recommend anyone move here because of the beautiful climate or tasty food.
It's recently in the headlines for shootings of young black men. Some people seem genuinely surprised but I'm not. Why? Well, let's start back in the beginning...
I moved here 4 years ago for my job. I was excited. On my first day as a teaching assistant in American Government, the prof laid down some state history on our students. He declared "remember always the history. This used to be a slave state." There was segregation as well. He made that clear. I was taken aback. I had known this, of course, but now it was staring me in the face. Moving from Chicagoland to here shouldn't have been a culture shock apart for the horror of Imo's Pizza, Provel, and, of course, the Cards.
However, Missouri is different. There are parts of it that remind me of my mother's ancestral home in Southern Indiana on the Ohio River. My fiance's river hometown - stocked with similarly-linked German last names and hills- is just like my mom remembers her first place of residence. It's more "southern" as well. People eat catfish a lot on the river (which I completely live for now). There are accents that sound different throughout the state -many of which sound deeply southern to my ear. People aren't usually in a hurry. They're generally more friendly and welcoming. And boy oh boy is it like a sauna in the summer.
But I think the thing that scares me the most right not and what bothered me a lot when I moved here was both racism and the denial of its presence. Now, I grew up seeing racism here and there - we all do. I attended a university that is right next to the seat of the KKK in Indiana. And I lived in a state which was once run by the KKK for most of my life. I am not under the impression that somehow Indiana is immune to racism. It's definitely not. However, in terms of being OPEN about it, the first year I was here was a doozy. People were debating a new school being built north of town. It was going to have impressive facilities, a better opportunity for football stars (what matters most in this town, it seems), and it was going to require existing school lines to be redrawn.
As you talk about busing, parents tend to get angry. They either want their kid to stay in their primo white school or to go from their urban, older school to the new school for better opporunities. No one seems to want to mix these things, though. There is a lot of talk of which kids should "deserve" the chance. As it stands, the new school is in a decidedly black part of town. It is in the most DANGEROUS part of town. Two weeks ago, there were 3 shootings in two days half a mile from there and all in 5 block radius. And when they started talking about busing white kids from nice, middle-class, white neighborhoods nearer to the center of town, I heard a lot of talk. "I don't want my children to go to school with 'those people'". They would defend it by saying "I mean, those poor kids" and I would go "How is that any better?"
Most of my friends and new family are pretty progressive. They don't fall for this stuff. However, I have had to cull some people from facebook recently over Ferguson and again this morning over a similar shooting in STL. Still, it's sad to say that it doesn't surprise me. My students come to me thinking the world is colorblind - most of them from areas outside St. Louis - and are adamant about this until I show them proof they may have been duped in my race in politics lessons. Plenty of people deny racism despite the extremely segregated makeup of most cities and towns. Even in small hamlets, white people have high ground, poor black people live in the bottoms, waiting for their house to flood in the next flash flooding event. This is not unique to Missouri, of course, but it's all evidence of how this can happen here or anywhere like it. We should not be surprised by such things.
Still, I find this particular set of incidents particularly hard to handle. This morning was reading the post of my friend whose 17 year old is starting his senior year of high school this month. She posted a birthday message hoping that people see past his imposing black stature. She feels helpless and guilty, being his white mom. Knowing that she, her husband, and daughter all have a privilege he doesn't. They can walk down the street un-noticed because they are all white. She hopes they don't think ill of her honor student because he's built like a linebacker and happens to be black.
I wish I could do more. I feel her pain. I worry about my friends, my students, and my loved ones who share his fears. I fear for the people whose peaceful protest last night fell under a dark shadow of death threats right here in my town - far away from the stress of Ferguson.
I worry about what I can do. I try to do something. I send emails, sign petitions, call legislators. I try everything. I want to help. But it all goes back to the school buses. No one should be surprised that here and now we have these problems. I want this state to move forward, to heal, to advance. There is much good here even if it's not exciting. I just want people to have a chance regardless of their skin color. I want everyone to feel safe walking down the block.
I know we are not unique. That's the most heartbreaking part. Missouri is really just anywhere, USA. My only hope is that we learn from it and the buck stops here.
Edited for a mistake on rivers. Mind is shot already today.