Article Executive Director's Message Chris McKenzie

The Conversations We All Need to Have, Again and Again

When President Obama spoke in late July about the recent verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and the state of race relations in our country, he seemed to speak for literally everyone. Certainly he explained what it is like to be an African-American man and have other Americans react fearfully to you by locking their car doors or clutching their purses closely.

He described the humiliation of being followed while shopping in a department store. He also seemed to be speaking for many other Americans who fear anyone who does not look like them. And he captured the frustration of young African-Americans who know they are likely to be a victim of crime, discrimination and racism in their lives.

The president closed his speech by talking about the hope he has for improving relations among the races because of what he witnesses in the interactions of his daughters and their friends. Anyone who observes youth today can appreciate what the president was talking about.

Rather than have a national “conversation” about race, President Obama suggested, in effect, that we have millions of conversations about it over the next few years. He knows that no national conference or national report on the state of race relations can substitute for the multiple conversations that need to happen in families and communities every day, week and year for a long time to come.

How Our Family’s Values Inform Our Perspectives

Reflecting on these issues, I realized that my parents frequently discussed the importance of racial, ethnic and religious diversity with my siblings and me long before it was a common topic of conversation with other people I knew. My parents regarded tolerance as a core value and often expressed this explicitly in a positive way. They believed that diversity of races, ethnicities, cultural traditions, styles, ideas, appearances and so forth enrich us, rather than threaten us.

My parents’ friends spanned a broad range of cultures and ethnicities. My siblings and I didn’t give it much thought at the time. To us, the world seemed an interesting place full of very different individuals. Visitors to our home frequently included people of other races, cultures and beliefs. My parents counted Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. among their personal heroes. Looking back now, I see what an influence my parents had on me in this regard. It didn’t mean I was devoid of prejudice, but I was predisposed to tolerance.

Unacceptable Language

In our family my father was renowned for his colorful, frequent cursing when he was angry. While my mother discouraged her children from talking the same way, we knew that in our family there was only one word that would ever lead to having one’s mouth washed out with soap. It was a word my father never used, and it begins with “N.”

My parents made us feel ashamed to judge people by the color of their skin, their language or other differences.

Although my mother and father are no longer with us, to the very end of their lives it was clear that racial and ethnic differences never mattered one whit to them — except to the extent it could be helpful in understanding the context of someone’s cultural and historical story. President Obama talked a lot about that in his excellent speech, too.

The League’s Diversity Caucuses Provide a Conduit for Conversation

California’s population is incredibly diverse. It could be argued that, in a state with such diversity, the need for conversations about race relations is even more important so that we may build communities of tolerance. Some of the most essential elements of effective local government include working together, building trust and identifying common goals that help improve the quality of life for all residents. Acceptance, tolerance and respect are fundamental to these efforts.

Within the League, our diversity gives us greater insight and strength. We have worked, albeit imperfectly at times, to be an inclusive organization. This means listening to all of our members and creating new avenues for city officials to participate in the organization. One way we have done this is through our diversity caucuses, which are the:

  • African-American Caucus;
  • Asian-Pacific Islander Caucus;
  • Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Local Officials’ Caucus;
  • Latino Caucus; and
  • Women’s Caucus.

The caucuses are important parts of the League, serving as incubators for new League leaders and providing a forum for discussing issues of importance to cities. We have been enriched by their involvement.

During the League’s 2013 Annual Conference & Expo in Sacramento, Sept. 18–20, the diversity caucuses will be hosting informational tables in the Expo Hall (on the center aisle between the rows labeled 9th and 10th streets) and holding networking events Thursday evening, Sept. 19.

I encourage you to visit the diversity caucuses in the Expo Hall and at their networking receptions to learn more about their members. Join us in our efforts as we work together to build trust, tolerance and stronger communities for all Californians. As President Obama’s speech so eloquently reminded us, we need to have these conversations on an ongoing basis. Let’s begin now.

Additional Resources

Learn more about the League’s diversity caucuses here:

This article appears in the September 2013 issue of Western City
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