published Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Cook: This can be done on any street

On a cold evening last week, about 50 of us — in coats and scarves, some strangers, some not — gathered in Franklin and Tresa McCallie's Read Avenue home to talk about the one thing we don't ever talk about.

Being black.

Being white.

And how we can be friends.

"Trust," one woman said.

For more than two hours, we talked and listened, black sitting next to white, white next to black. We asked questions, some unanswerable. We told stories, some unforgettable.

One black woman talked about being a child and hearing white men speak to her father, calling him "boy."

"He always told us to keep loving," she said.

The evening was not one long racial storytelling session. Its larger purpose was to knock down a barrier, Chattanooga's version of the Berlin Wall, which is this: the lack of deep friendships between black and white Chattanooga.

"We're not talking about acquaintances," said Franklin McCallie. "We're talking about friends who know each other, who trust each other, who call each other on the phone, who go places with each other."

Last year, Eleanor Cooper (McCallie's cousin) heard a jarring NPR report: while our work spaces may be integrated, that racial mixing ends at 5 p.m. when everybody goes out for drinks, or dinner, or to the symphony, or to tell jokes in the men's card room after 18 holes. In those mostly white gatherings, we remain as separate as ever.

"These social areas are deeply segregated," stated NPR's Shankar Vendantam. "So if you're a member of a minority group, you're far less likely to be part of these social networks."

We talk about race in the hot moments: the election of Obama, the death of Trayvon. But a cold racism slips around like a quiet thief, keeping a softer segregation in place,

leading to a difference in wages, a difference in schools, a difference in America.

Not only is it unjust, it's also economically restrictive -- to people of color who miss out on business connections, thus missing out on business deals, and to white business owners, who miss out on the large mind that comes with a diverse body of employees.

"We are throwing away our best opportunities to grow and develop with our best ideas from all our citizens because we are allowing a debilitating color barrier to get in the way," McCallie said.

So last August, the McCallies and Coopers (Eleanor and husband Mel) invited 100 or so black and white Chattanoogans -- some you'd know, some you wouldn't -- to gather over several nights with the focused intention of building more intentional black-white relationships.

The evenings were profound, honest, beautiful, challenging. Local civil rights leaders sat near thirty somethings. Interracial couples and elected leaders sat with professors, doctors, housewives, young attorneys.

As an icebreaker, they rubbed noses. Literally. Blacks and whites stood centimeters apart, looking at one another in the eye.

"We put our nose on their nose. Then, we put our ears together. Then, the back of our heads. Then, the front of our heads," said McCallie. "That is a freeing thing."

Last week, they came together again, six months after their first meeting. Some people talked about their faith in younger generations to dismantle racism. Others disagreed. Several spoke of the joy that comes with feeling comfortable with anyone -- black, white, brown, red -- in any group. Two people said they'd had crosses burned in their yard. One white man spoke about how his white friends get angry when he talks about race, asking him: Why are you stirring things up?

Someone mentioned class, and how poverty is near-synonymous with blackness here in Chattanooga.

Many folks shared what they'd done since August. Some women -- black and white -- were meeting regularly for lunch. One black man became intimate friends with a white couple.

"The blessing has been ours," the white man said.

"He's been a father to me," the black man said.

To witness such an evening is to realize how transformative such encounters are, and, sadly, how rare. Many people spoke about how awfully different Chattanooga is from other parts of the country, how still segregated our town is.

"I am so grateful for tonight," one man said.

Such evenings -- which could be replicated in neighborhoods anywhere -- will not end racism. But they are a thunderous part of the solution, as nothing is ever won without friendships, nothing ever understood without talking and listening, no beloved community ever created without black and white folks coming in from the cold to talk with one another.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at David CookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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zulalily said...

As an educated, white woman in my early 60's, I think this was a wonderful exercise. I have lived in a very segregated society because of the situation you describe (everyone goes back to their own neighborhood after 5 p.m.) all of my life. I have an important question about your racial experiment: Were any black people who live in the downtown housing projects among the group invited to take part? If not, then you probably were only including people with more education and real jobs and it is relatively easy to accept them for friendships. The things that really divide us racially in Chattanooga and every other major American city are the downtown projects where a culture of dependence and entitlement and criminality dominate the entire lives of a huge segment of the black community. No favors were done for this group when we essentially separated them from white society and gave them housing, food, cell phones, etc. in exchange for keeping to themselves and allowing us to go about our lives with as little personal contact with them as possible. So, this is where we are now, Mr. Cook, and none of us have problems getting to know and make friends with the blacks who have an education, a job, and pay taxes and take financial responsibility for their own lives. It is the other, larger group of continual takers and baby makers that we need to talk about.

February 16, 2014 at 7:31 a.m.
Hunter_Bluff said...

The USA has benefited from its beginning due to being a beacon for daring, courageous and motivated people. Yet, we have only partially tapped this resource. Until WWII women were largely not allowed to contribute; until Johnson's legislation in 1965 the same was true for black/Afro-Americans. When the day comes that the offer opportunity and embrace the abilities of all of our citizens the pie WILL GROW and we can stop this silly DIVIDING of the existing pie which is leading us to the mediocrity we've delivered this entire 21st century.

February 16, 2014 at 9:20 a.m.
schizka said...

Why is this still an issue in 21ST century race blind America?

zulalily, if slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and misceenation laws weren't the ultimate entitlement laws no one can imagine what was. Would you have us to believe there are no individuals in your own community who do not receive subsidized housing, help with food, free cell phones? Or is it easier to point fingers at people living in public housing because they are more easily idenifiable? Do you have the same misguided beliefs for poor whites living in trailer parks, public housin? There's some public housing and subsidized housing in TN that all white. Noticed, you failed to mentioned that. Be careful. You're racial bigotry and hatred is showing.

I agree, the people Mr. Cook mentioned are ones white would normally feel comfortable around anyway. However, if these same individuals ran into one another on a dark night and didn't readily recognize one another I can assure you the whites would cross over to the other side of the street.

The original plans to gentrify certain targeted areas of Chattanooga to make way for the return of whties who fled the city in the 1960s and 1970s reopened the door for racial division and hostilities. In already racially mixed neighborhoods it gave way to community leaders, often controlled by whites, an opportunity to run blacks from the community with the assistance of law enforcement. As one cop came to note he was handed a list by a white community leader of all the people he wanted removed from the neighborhood and most all on the list were minorities. Those were the cop's words.

February 16, 2014 at 9:49 a.m.
jjmez said...

zulalily, there's crime and drugs in your world too. We just don't hear about it until someone overdose and dies or some spoil brat goes berserk and murders the entire family because dad suspended their driving privileges. And even then the media will try to downplay it if the family is of prominence.

February 16, 2014 at 3:33 p.m.
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