Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Openness–The Road Less Traveled By

Probably because the word “tolerance” has a condescending ring to it, various research studies conducted over the last three or more decades which are designed to identify what makes a community attractive to talented people and thus economically vibrant shifted instead to using the term “openness.”

Durham, North Carolina, where I live, has been scientifically documented to be 2.3 times more open than the benchmark for communities in this state or across the nation.  The value of openness also surfaced as a key element in the community's personality as distilled a few years ago from a series of balanced focus groups and scientific surveys of the opinions of both residents and non-residents.

Maybe it was because I was new and people sought to influence my initial perceptions, but in the few weeks after I moved here in 1989 to jumpstart Durham's official community marketing agency or destination marketing organization, a position from which I have now been retired for two years, I had several encounters that shed some light on the struggles of the previous decades that most likely shaped the value Durham places on openness.

In one experience, a high-level state tourism official in Raleigh told me that Durham had always been a “black town.”  In another encounter I quickly terminated a recently-hired employee when I overheard him tell a Raleigh-based state association meeting planner that downtown Durham was just for Blacks.  Neither person meant their reference in a good way.

On another occasion, a prominent physician took me on a tour during lunch and pointed to a now-defunct shopping mall as “Durham's real downtown,” explaining that it “had to be built” because downtown Durham had been surrendered to Blacks.

I also heard firsthand about the family experiences of two friends who are nearly a decade younger than I am and who entered high school at the time of desegregation of the Durham public schools.  Both were raised in homes less than a quarter mile apart located not far from where I live today.

One friend’s family elected to send their high school aged children to the nearby recently desegregated high school where the student population is predominantly African-American. They went on to graduate with honors and have lived and worked in Durham to this day.

The other friend’s family, also Caucasian, elected instead to buy a second home in South Durham in which they lived one week each month so their high school-age children could attend a school where the students were predominantly white.  They went on to graduate with honors and also live and work in Durham to this day.

The descendants of both families celebrate the openness of Durham today.  Their stories along with two books I highly recommend gave me insight into how Durham's openness evolved.

One book entitled The Best of Enemies is the true story of how a man and a woman living in Durham, he the head of the Ku Klux Klan and she an African-American activist, worked together to desegregate schools here. The other is entitled The Provincials by Eli Evans which includes the true story of his father Mutt Evans a Jewish six-term Mayor of Durham during the 1950s and early 1960s who was also head of United Dollar Stores and who took the seats out of the store’s lunch counter so that standing Whites and Blacks alike could be served together while, at the same time, defeating a law and a judicial order intended to segregate them.

Jazz saxophonist performing and recording star Branford Marsalis eloquently articulated Durham's openness when, during an interview on The State of Things, a program on WUNC public radio, he described why he moved here:

"Durham is everything I ever wanted in a City. It's fair…You can find everything… people who are wealthy, people who are not wealthy, blue collar workers, white collar workers, farmers. They are all hanging out together. You go in the grocery store and you see people talking. It's not like the farmers on one corner and the lawyers are in one corner. In Durham, you don't have those stringent class lines."


While it is clear that Durham chose “openness” when “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” it is also evident that many communities and a high percentage of all Americans are still conflicted if not, contrary.  It is often quoted that in 1940, only 18% of Americans received some sort of government benefit compared to 49% of households today who benefit in some way from nearly two-thirds of all federal spending, as one essayist did on Christmas Eve.

Those who quote these statistics seem to fail to grasp, though, that from the 1930s to the 1950s government programs were purposely designed to primarily benefit only White people.  It is interesting that such a large portion of the population only became concerned about how many people were benefiting when, as a result of the Civil Rights movement, legislation was passed to grant those same benefits to all Americans, regardless of race or class.

Understanding when that shift in opinion began to occur reveals a lot about the rationale behind today's polarized public discourse. Just sayin…

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