Race and ethnicity are the great divides in America, yet nearly every community – and certainly every city – is diverse, some dizzyingly so. But if it’s so hard to reach across racial and ethnic lines, how can we ever make our communities better places? We couldn’t except for one thing: People do reach across those lines. Not as frequently as we’d like, but enough to help us move forward.
We have a profile of one of those remarkable boundary crossers in an article in the New York Times Magazine. Its title: “The Visible Man.” It’s the story of how James Fields, a 55-year-old black Methodist minister and former state employment agency worker, came to be a state representative from Cullman County, Ala., population 81,000, less than 1 percent of whom are African American.
It wasn’t just a demographic tide that Fields swam against. He’s a Democrat and supporter of President Obama’s in a state where 88 percent of whites voted for John McCain. Cullman County is staunchly Republican and deeply distrustful of Obama. And that’s not all: Cullman County has a history of being one of Alabama’s most racist places, which is obviously saying a lot. And judging by what the writer, Nicholas Dawidoff, learned in his reporting, racism (or, at least, racist language) is still part of everyday life there.
So how did James Fields, a black Democrat, get 59 percent of the vote in one of the unlikeliest – and, on the surface, inhospitable – places you could imagine? According to the article, Fields had three things that made most white voters pause, consider him seriously and mark his name on the ballot. First, he was local. He had been born and raised in Cullman County, and in such a place – out of step with the rest of America and proudly so – that meant a lot. Second, he was known by many white families because he had helped many of them find jobs in his days at the employment agency. From these experiences, white families knew him as hard working, thoughtful and far more like themselves than they could have expected.
Finally, he emphasized the thing that bonded him mostly closely to his white neighbors: their shared religion. When he began his campaign for state representative against a white Republican candidate, Rev. Fields took out a newspaper ad urging that the candidates conduct a campaign that was “God-driven and Christ-centered.” This might cause eyes to roll elsewhere, but in small-town Alabama, where almost everyone is a Christian and many passionately so, it conveyed the message that James Fields is “one of us.”
And it’s not just in Cullman County that such cultural boundary crossings occur. Dawidoff interviewed other black political leaders from mostly white constituencies in Alabama and Mississippi and heard similar stories. Locy Baker, a former teacher and school administrator who is serving his fourth term as a state representative from Southeast Alabama, said it helped that he was local and known. “I (have) been living here all my days,” Baker told Dawidoff. “Grew up here. People know me.” And if you’ve spent time helping others – particularly those from different backgrounds – that’s a big help too. James Young, the mayor of Philadelphia, Miss., said, “It took me 30-plus years of working in this community to be where I am. It did not happen overnight. I tell younger people, live your life serving people, and it will come back to benefit you.” (Yes, Young is mayor of that Philadelphia, Miss., the place where three young civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 and the setting of the movie “Mississippi Burning”.)
So what are the lessons that James Field could teach other community leaders? First, establish your bona fides. If you weren’t born in the community, show how you’ve accepted it in the way you talk and what you say. Second, go beyond networking – networking is fine, but actually helping people is much, much better, especially if those you help are different from you. Third, look for opportunities that help others see what you have in common. For James Fields, it was a shared faith. In other places it might be a love of the local team, the neighborhood festivals, a respected charity or a beloved restaurant.
In the end, it’s about building relationships in spite of the forces that keep people apart. James Fields knows how to do it in Cullman County, Ala. You can do it in your city too.
Photo by Jeremy Wilburn licensed under Creative Commons.