RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Look Among Ourselves for Leadership

Perhaps the hardest part of writing a column like this is trying to figure out what will be interesting and timely when you, dear reader, see it. The galloping pace of technology, the speed with which world events are reported, have made our lives a fast-forward blur of unfolding events which, by the next news cycle, are over.

But here’s a story that never ends in America: Race-based discrimination. It’s a story that needs a re-write.

From the days when white folks didn’t even question slavery to the days of the Civil War to the Jim Crow era, the 1960s, the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the white supremacist march in Charlottesville and beyond, we have carried our racist instincts with us, nearly intact. How to resist what seems so much a part of our DNA?

The fear of folks who are different is a factor in self-preservation. So, moving forward to lose those prejudices is contrary to thousands of years of evolution. Sometimes it seems like our major progress is in the cleverness with which we hide our prejudices.

And when prejudice is cleverly buried, it comes back in disguise. The disguise always wears a cloak of innocence. It might call itself an effort to eliminate “frivolous” lawsuits, or “insure a business-friendly environment.”

Here in Missouri, for example, Gov. Eric Greitens (R) just signed Senate Bill 43, which changes workplace law so that if an employee is fired and s/he suspects that discrimination is the reason, s/he must prove that it is the explicit reason for the firing. It also changes the way claims are made: Rather than being able to sue an individual for discrimination, the aggrieved must sue the business itself.

And it changes the whistleblower law to take away protections from workers that see the boss doing something illegal. Such tort reform always turns out to reward bosses and threaten workers’ rights. And now, this new law, which has been successful in Missouri, may be coming to a statehouse near you.

Under SB 43, if the boss fires a worker, and the worker wants to sue, the worker must sue the entire business or agency. No longer can workers claim that the director acted in a discriminatory way. And since the law doesn’t name any one type of discrimination, it could protect bosses after firings of LGBTQ individuals, handicapped persons, women.

The implications are huge, but in Missouri the first assumption is that the discrimination would be race-based. The rollback of rights inspired the NAACP to issue its first-ever travel advisory. If you are a minority, you are advised to exercise extreme caution while traveling in the Show-Me State.

As an example of how not to make progress, SB 43 happened at exactly the time Missouri institutions are trying to break the spell of racism. The University of Missouri-Columbia, site of protests last year, has been requiring staff to take diversity training. City police departments are investing in body cams to track the cops’ behaviors in making arrests.

But our General Assembly and Governor seem oblivious. And if we look further, say, to our President, well that’s just a joke. So let’s not look for leadership from the folks who we’ve elected to lead. Instead, we need to depend on ourselves.

Maybe you think that depending on ourselves means pulling down offensive statues and marching in the streets. Those attention-getting strategies will work to bring the media out to hear our stories, but we need actual change. Behavioral change. Will those actions help? Or will they just give us an adrenaline rush?

It is time for us each to be a committee of one to build bridges with folks who are different from ourselves. This doesn’t mean that you have to give up the everyday stuff you work on, but it does mean that you need to reach out of your comfort zone to those who are different. If you are white, make a black friend. If you are black, make a white one. If you’re straight, make a gay friend. And vice versa. Bottom line, it means purposely reaching out to folks who are different from ourselves, learning about religious differences, political differences, the whole nine yards.

If you’re a person that serves on boards of directors or community committees, make sure that your board works toward policies that reach for diversity. It’s not easy to bring diversity to a group, but when membership opens up everyone benefits.

If you’re a churchy one, work to bring new types of folks into the fold. And make a habit of letting them speak. And listen. It’s interesting how having a diverse group helps you benefit from the strengths and problem-solving skills of those who are way different.

People-to-people solutions. That’s the only way we’re going to re-write this most sadly American story.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2017

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