MAXWELL: The cure for Midtown ills: desegregation

4/28/2002 –  Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Nice words and understatement cannot undo the results of decades of benign neglect on the part of city and county officials and the self-destructive behavior of many St. Petersburg’s African-American residents.

For sure, St. Petersburg’s Midtown, the poor black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue, is at a crossroads on every front. Everyone involved _ officials, community leaders and ordinary residents _ must make some of the toughest decisions ever if the region is to become a vital, contributing part of the city.

Back to nice words and understatement.

In February, newly appointed Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis tried to recruit a crowd of 80 people to become “ambassadors” for Midtown. Their charge was to focus on the positive.

“We need to think very seriously about how we talk about our community, about the attributes of our community,” Davis said. “We don’t want to stereotype Midtown.”

Davis told the crowd he believes that more than 95 percent of Midtowners are law-abiding, and the area is safe for business and for rearing a family. He is right that the overwhelming majority of residents are decent and hard-working. What he misses, however, is that _ right or wrong _ perception is 95 percent of reality. The general perception is that Midtown is a violent drug zone. Even many native Midtowners say their neighborhoods are dangerous.

And why not?

During the last 30 days alone, for example, two men were killed by semiautomatic gunfire in the same neighborhood, and college students working on a Habitat for Humanity house had to duck and run when 40 black men across the street fired guns.

Sorry, but these scenarios force people, even those who earnestly want to help, to perceive the area as being dangerous.

The city hired consultants to help develop a 10-point plan to bring economic development to Midtown. No. 1 on the list was the proposal to “give Davis the power and funding within the city government to work on Midtown priorities.” An excellent proposal.

No. 10 on the list: “Continue to improve public safety efforts.” I take this euphemistic, politically correct jargon to mean more police presence and arrests.

How could anyone in his or her right mind put law enforcement _ in a crime-ridden area _ dead last?

During the February meeting, Davis said of Midtown: “There is promise. There is opportunity. There is money to be made in Midtown. We will make this happen.”

Not without a sea change in thinking.

Money will not be made in Midtown if white people do not become an integral part of life there. In short, to become economically viable, Midtown must become racially integrated. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial, based on U.S. census numbers on race, concludes that African-Americans in desegregated communities prosper.

The Journal: “A segregated society, it’s important to remember, is harmful to more than just our aesthetic or moral sensibilities. Residents of racially diverse communities are much more likely to have access to superior public resources _ better law enforcement, better political representation, better schools.”

William Frey, a sociologist at the Milken Institute: “We know that racial residential segregation is the last hurdle blacks in particular have had to overcome in order to be assimilated economically and socially. The places where blacks are progressing are the places where segregation is declining.”

In a word, and I have said it before, if white people and their dollars have no presence in Midtown, the area has little realistic chances of prospering.

Someone in City Hall needs to work on figuring out how to attract whites to Midtown. How, then, can officials attract whites?

I do not have all the answers, but I do have one. I will quote an editor at the Washington Times who e-mailed me in response to my recent column about the handful of black criminals who make life miserable for other blacks.

“A few years ago,” the editor wrote, “I interviewed a criminologist who said that high rates of crime among blacks are a major obstacle to integration. Even if only a single-digit percentage of young black males are responsible for 95 percent of crime committed by blacks, so long as blacks commit violent crime at disproportionately higher rates than whites, whites will view integration as a threat to their safety.”

And well they should. Which is why I commend Mayor Rick Baker, St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon and Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice for joining hands to combat drug crimes on the city’s streets, especially in Midtown.

The mayor is not just talking. He has approved an additional $200,000 in overtime pay for police in the effort.

My hope is that the mayor, the chief, the sheriff and Deputy Mayor Davis will ignore the hue and cry certain to come from some elements and press forward with plans to make Midtown a safe place where whites will feel comfortable, where blacks and whites can live together.

Am I arguing that a mostly black community cannot become economically viable? Not necessarily. What I am saying, though, is that real numbers and trends show that racial integration is good for blacks in all areas of their lives.