We are traveling through a nasty social patch in America and it lives with us in Tulsa.
The dysfunction in our social realm may be manifesting, even intensifying, as a consequence of our still fragile economic situation, the increasing evident, rough edges of globalizing trade, explosive transformations in America's demographic composition and the disruptive impacts of accelerating technological change.
And while some Tulsans may believe that the latest instances of "fear of the other" and its too frequent consequences should only concern black people, Hispanic folks, Muslim Americans or other "new comers," the reality is that our country and Tulsa will do well or go downhill to the extent that we come to grips with living, working and even thriving in an all points, multi-hued society.
Some would argue, as does developmental economist Richard Florida, that the measure of a truly vibrant society, a key metric for securing a more dynamic Tulsa, is the extent to which people from every spot -- from every racial and ethnic tribe -- feel fully empowered, safe and respected in Green Country.
The Trayvon Martin "vigilante" killing in Florida, and the less noticed, but no less outrageous, hate linked murder of Shaima Alawadi, 32, an Iraq American in San Diego, are repellent events that call for a tough look at the state of play in social/racial/cultural relations in the U.S. Unfortunately these two tragedies are simply the most recent markers in a long, recent timeline that is populated with monstrosities committed by feckless cops, racist vigilantes and simple nuts. And the uber embarrassing "greeting" that President Obama received on his recent visit to Cushing, here in Oklahoma, is a different, but incomprehensible episode that has an important, if tangential connection to the current outrages.
My "Truman's World"
I grew up in a world quite different from what most Americans experienced. My childhood/early teen world featured a lot of racial, economic and social mixing and was animated by a sort of top down, pro-active racial/ethnic integration campaign. This was the world of the American military community aboard -- a space created, in huge measure, by President Harry Truman's epic 1948 order to desegregate the American military.
Moreover, during the '50s and early '60s, military salaries were very compressed: that is to say, U.S. officers didn't make a whole bunch more, comparatively speaking, than enlisted soldiers, so housing and other accommodations were pretty much the same across the board.
I spent much of my childhood and early teens on these strangely liberated enclave communities/military bases -- mostly in Germany. The American kids who lived in these settings, and there is a good deal of empirical work that is available for UTW readers who might fancy a look at it, grew up to be very much at home in a wide spectrum of social, racial and cultural settings.
And while it's always provincial to use your own experience as a measure of anything representative, I can say that my own ease in multicultural/mixed racial/social settings stems almost entirely from this exotic upbringing -- one that I am very glad to have experienced -- and one that is a new American norm.
Part of our new and grim social tone is spawned by the unbelievable negative atmospherics created by the Republican primary contest: a lurid, circus-like process that has focused in huge measure on topics like immigration: but ironically immigration has been, and is, a wild social/economic agility "machine" that has helped America secure the intellectual, artistic and entrepreneurial fruits of the planet for generations and is arguably the part of the spark we need to continue to lead the world economically, socially and technologically.
I recently attended an annual event in the state capital of Tulsa's Dream Coalition -- a multicultural advocacy group that seeks sane state immigration policy. Oklahoma officials last year tried to enact a draconian immigration bill, modeled on the Arizona "where are your papers" legislation.
Do The Right Thing
At City Hall we have the bizarre spectacle of a multi-points north side park shut down/transition plan that is being poorly executed, and has generated unnecessary anxiety -- a "crisis" that could be solved by a forceful and expeditious effort on Mayor Dewey Bartlett's part to speed up a park replacement effort by actually exercising some leadership.
And we have the pointless opposition at City Hall and the Police Chief's office to creating a civilian oversight panel that could make the Tulsa Police Department more accountable and forestall racial profiling at the core of the special unit/drug war outrages -- last year's "cop rot" trials in Tulsa.
But the way forward for Tulsa -- the road away for senseless violence, may rest in large measure with our kinetic civic society --our churches, non-profits and our rich philanthropic community.
Efforts like the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar's audacious gambit at All Souls Unitarian church in Tulsa to effectively merge the country's largest Unitarian congregation with the legendary Carlton Pearson's church organization -- a far and away more theologically conservative, and largely African-American church -- is a grand project we can all learn a lot from. In the event, executed over the last three years, All Souls/Pearson group became, almost overnight, one of the most diverse and socially/racially integrated institutions in Tulsa -- a truly integrated, vibrant space that "lives" in what many sociologists call "the most segregated hour -- the church morning" in America.
Other ongoing efforts led by long-standing Tulsa-based organizations like the local National Conference on Community and Justice chapter, formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the Tulsa YWCA's anti-racism campaign merit renewed attention on the part of Tulsa's social, political and business leadership -- and what may be far more important, by ordinary Tulsans as well.
Part of what we need to become a world-class, racially sophisticated town entails stealing some of the energy, some of the imagination that we've put into aviation, the oil patch, our cultural world and into the novel, pan-cultural riffs that long propelled Tulsa's rich musical culture. We need a new round of strong, locally fashioned social innovation -- maybe something like a cool conflation of advanced social networking, the old '60s style encounter group regimes, and the business "mixers" some of us once attended -- a dash of stout "cultural" engineering that will allow Tulsans of every stripe, tribe and outlook to get much closer to one another and jointly experience the panoramic, can-do crib that we jointly inhabit: we simply have got to do the right thing.
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