Color Bind

Who says the mayor is a racist? You'll be surprised by the answer.

And these two ladies, Earnestine and Bertha, just love each other. Smiling and laughing, pausing to listen, nodding, clapping. They made me want to get my hair done, too.

On a subsequent Saturday I went to Cadillac Heights to listen to a news conference put on by residents of that very poor and river-plagued area who are seeking an environmental buyout from the city. The group, whom I have come to know and respect over the years, is made up of African-Americans and Latinos, with help from Anglo and Indian community organizers. They complained bitterly about a recent proposal put forward by the mayor for a limited buyout.

I have not kept up with the latest round of offers and counteroffers. I have no idea and no opinion on whether the mayor's proposal is good or bad.

At a September 15 hearing on Terrell Bolton's firing, the ex-police chief's supporters called Mayor Laura Miller a racist. They've called her worse in the past.
Peter Calvin
At a September 15 hearing on Terrell Bolton's firing, the ex-police chief's supporters called Mayor Laura Miller a racist. They've called her worse in the past.
City Councilman Leo Chaney may not trust Miller, but he won't call her a racist.
Peter Calvin
City Councilman Leo Chaney may not trust Miller, but he won't call her a racist.

I waited until the TV cameras left. Then we gathered in a little circle. I asked the people in the group if they thought Miller was racist. Barbara Williams, who is African-American and who had just finished bitterly denouncing the Miller offer, blinked and looked at me as if I were crazy.

"No," she said. "I'm not going to say that. I'm not pleased with her, but..."

I pushed. I did. We do that. You're not supposed to know. But it happens. I said, "You're very unpleased with her. You are at loggerheads with her. But you won't go to the point of saying, 'And the problem is, she's a racist?'"

She shook her head again emphatically. "No. I'm not going to say that." This from a person who has joined in battle with her, locked swords politically.

Anna Albers, who is white, said, "No. I think she's ill-informed, and I think she's allowed herself to be influenced by city staff. I think she's gone over to the dark side, and I don't think she's representing the interests of the people who elected her."

But is she a racist?

"No."

Diana Flores, who is Latino, looked shocked by my question. "I wouldn't say that directly about her. No."

I asked how she compares with her predecessor, Ron Kirk. Everyone in the group immediately said she was a better mayor. Alfred Flores, a 15-year-old student at the Townview school of science and engineering, said Kirk never once visited their neighborhood. He said the one time they all went to City Hall to try to speak to him, Kirk ignored them and talked on his cell phone.

"At least she makes promises," he said. "She doesn't keep them, but at least she makes them."

I went to City Hall and caught Councilman Leo Chaney hurrying down the corridor to a meeting. Chaney represents the council district where Earnestine's Beauty Salon is located and where Miller was most trounced by the voters.

If you haven't been to Chaney's district recently, you should make the drive. Sure, there is poverty, but there also are big things happening--new apartment construction, new major retail, infrastructure, serious signs of serious change--and Chaney has been a broker in much of it. Love him or hate him, Chaney's in the game, unlike Stephen Nash.

Chaney definitely was trying to dodge me in the hallway until he heard my question: Is Laura Miller a racist? He stopped dead, came back, looked around to see who was near, then got up close to my face: "Oh, Jim, come on."

I tried not to blink.

"Is she a racist?" he repeated. "Come on. You know, I don't think she is personally, no more than all of us who are embedded with the issue of institutional racism. But other than that, I think she's just an impulsive person. She's a seasoned politician who lives with a politician, and she has goals just like all of us do."

Ehh. That wasn't quite the quote I needed, sir. I pushed a little: "I hear people say she's tone-deaf," I said. "OK, she's not a racist, but she's tone-deaf to the black community. She's just offensive to us, something about her."

See how I operate? The guy won't go for racist, so I've offered him three lesser offenses: 1) tone-deaf, 2) just offensive and 3) something about her.

He shook his head no and looked at me like I was offering him dirty postcards. "I don't see it, and I've served with her. I don't trust her, but that's the nature of our business. But to constantly say that Laura Miller's a racist, I don't see it."

But he did make a distinction: "I think the leadership in the African-American community just despises her so much, the old-guard leadership, the old guard. They hate her so much that they will always be opposed to whatever she does. The old school. Old guard."

Old Guard. The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, as in, "You owe us, because we kept the civil rights down."

I also talked to Miller. Eating fruit for breakfast at a conference table at City Hall, she was much cooler and thick-skinned about it than I remembered her being four years ago when black pickets held up signs outside her house calling her real bad names.

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