Critical Conversations: Politics and the State of Black and Brown America

A discussion about how communities of color can gain and deploy influence
A protest demonstration

Local political and community leaders participated in a virtual panel discussion, “Politics and the State of Black and Brown America.”

The event Feb. 18 was the seventh in the Critical Conversations series of panel discussions addressing systemic racism, sponsored by the UMKC Division of Diversity and Inclusion.

UMKC people are taking thoughtful action on campus and in our community to ensure lasting and comprehensive change through Roos Advocate for Community Change, a campus-wide effort announced in June.

The Critical Conversations are part of that initiative. The goal of each discussion is to enlighten, educate and explore the causes and potential cures for racism.

Panelists for the Politics session included:

  • Tom Carignan, Overland Park City Council member
  • Irene Caudillo, president and CEO of El Centro
  • Kelvin Simmons, co-founder of the Nexus Group, a full-service government affairs firm
  • Beth Vonnahme, associate professor of political science and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UMKC
  • Gary O'Bannon (moderator), executive-in-residence, Henry W. Bloch School of Management
  • Charisma Sewell (co-moderator), UMKC political science major

Excerpts from the conversation are below. View the recording of the conversation.

Job opportunities for people of color in the private sector

Caudillo: It has been proven that if you have diverse staff, it improves decision-making and enhances growth. In the private sector, the representation isn’t there. Even in the public sector we still don’t see us in leadership positions … What we truly seek are opportunities in companies that are breaking down the barriers leading to those leadership positions.

Simmons: The private sector traditionally has to be pushed into moving. If they’re not pushed, it’s business as usual.

Advocacy for change

Simmons: Decades ago, there was a large grassroots movement to pressure investment funds to divest from investments in South Africa to protest apartheid. We ae seeing something similar today with the MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. Grassroots movements can be effective as long as they are large enough, have the right message and have the courage to protest.

Carignan: With the technology and communication capabilities we have today, it is easier to organize a movement to push corporations to change.

Are we lacking a central leader like Martin Luther King Jr.?

Carignan: Hispanics come from 20 different countries with all kinds of different political and social structures. Our population is so diverse that it’s difficult to find that central leader.

Simmons: In the African American community, drawing from our biblical culture, Moses was our figure, the one who delivered us. We grew up understanding that there was a deliverer … We’re shifting today to where social media moves people and the voice of people in a very significant way.

“What we truly seek are opportunities in companies that are breaking down the barriers leading to those leadership positions.” - Irene Caudillo

Tax abatements for developers

Simmons: These incentives were created to address blight and to create job opportunities in distressed communities. It has become something vastly different from what it was intended to do.

Government-sanctioned voter suppression

Vonnahme: There are ways that individual voters can work against these initiatives. One is to act through state legislatures. One thing they benefit from is low public attention; it’s easy to pass policies when no one is paying attention. Ballot initiatives can also be used in some states to expand voter access. The courts are able to come in to defend the 15th amendment requirement for fair and equal voting. You also can mobilize grass-roots efforts to help people meet the requirements.

Suffrage is the ultimate right in a democracy. This is something we should all be concerned about. It does give me a little bit of hope that a lot of this has been coming to light ... the best defense is informed, involved community groups.

Caudillo: Community-level activity played a vital role in last election. We have to continue to educate the community, get people registered, get them to the polls.

Strategies that can lead to desired political outcomes

Caudillo: Holding the people who represent us accountable. Civic engagement beyond the vote is really important.

Vonnahme: Policy success comes from electoral success. Recruitment, funding and voter mobilization are all vital. Electoral success comes from good candidates with resources.

Carignan: Build relationships with elected officials. Become a resource for them. Never go alone – you want them to know you have people behind you.

“Suffrage is the ultimate right in a democracy. This is something we should all be concerned about.” - Beth Vonnahme

 

Police reform

Vonnahme: You can have policy change imposed from above; leadership change is another means. Culture shifts are really important but really hard to impose. They require fundamental shifts in membership, or for the membership to undergo fundamental change. This one is the most effective but the hardest to bring about.  

Simmons: The role of police unions is very powerful. Under union contracts, police officers have certain protections the average citizen does not have. It allows cases to be handled differently than if a citizen did the same thing.

Carignan: In Overland Park, a citizen panel signs off on police department promotions and demotions. A separate civilian review board reviews complaints.

The digital divide

Caudillo: The gap continues to widen. The same people who lack digital resources are also more likely to struggle with food insecurity, and to be essential workers exposed to COVID. When virtual learning was introduced at the onset of the pandemic, the resources were not there in communities of color.

Political and civic education

Caudillo: We’ve lost the civics education we used to have. Our organization is stepping in to do those things now, like taking kids to the capitol, letting them see the legislature in action. On college campuses, we have to have mobilization.

Vonnahme: We teach a sanitized form of politics. We don’t explain the nuance behind politics. We have to talk about politics and civics in a more realistic way – talk not just about compromise, but also about conflict.

Building trust in the coronavirus vaccine

Caudillo: Throughout history transparency just wasn’t there, so there is mistrust in the system overall. When it comes to health care, we’ve got to listen to the community, find out what those issues are, what those concerns are, and use the people who have already established trust in the communities of color, like pastors and community organizations.

Learn more about College of Arts and Sciences

Published: Feb 19, 2021

Top Stories