Thursday night’s Ethnic and Racial Conference at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was characterized by a division in focus between white city leaders and black community activists.
The white panelists expressed a desire to move past racial designations in the city while their black counterparts urged black residents to come to terms with who they are as a race before they can hope to come together with whites to build a better community.
“We all need to know that race is something we all need to talk about,” community activist Jack Foster said early in the meeting. “There are folks who want you to believe that the playing field is level but it’s not level. I don’t think anyone on this panel will say we are where we need to be.”
Conference organizer Barbara Blunt Muhammad agreed with Foster.
“When I was growing up on the north side [of Pine Bluff] there was a whole lot of love for one another in the community,” Muhammad said. “Nobody needed a key because nobody locked their doors. We had very little in the way of crime. Back then the black dollar turned over six times before it left the neighborhood.”
Muhammad said the black community in Pine Bluff needs to remember its history in order to prepare for its future.
“We must teach our children our history and once that has been done crime will not be like it is now,” Muhammad said. “Until we start teaching our history to our children we will not get better as a people.”
Community activist Obrennan Moss shared some of his experiences working in the Pine Bluff School District.
“Most of our black children, if you call them black they look at it as being a curse word,” Moss said. “They don’t want to be black. Black people support everybody’s businesses but their own. We’ve got ‘hoods but we’re not neighborly.”
City officials emphasized the need for community cooperation in efforts to revitalize Pine Bluff.
“In my position with the Pine Bluff Convention & Visitors Bureau I promote Pine Bluff,” City Treasurer Greg Gustek said. “I don’t promote a white Pine Bluff or a black Pine Bluff. I just want to be able to say I promote Pine Bluff.”
Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said that whether the community moves forward or not is dependent upon the degree of cooperation within it.
“For our community to be able to progress and be a healthy community we must all work together,” Hollingsworth said. “That’s where we need to be. Regardless of your religious beliefs it takes every one of us.”
Pine Bluff School District board of directors member Henry Dabner voiced his concern that parental responsibility was being overlooked in the discussion about children.
“I haven’t heard one comment from anyone here about the responsibility of the parent in raising their kids,” Dabner said. “When I was young if I disrespected an adult I had my behind beat. I have three children and two grandkids and I was involved in their activities. I coached baseball for years. Parents need to go to their children’s school and spend some time with them. Until black men start standing up and taking care of their children we are going to have problems. You’ve got 2,000 parents at a football game on Friday night but only five parents in the classroom. Quit making excuses for your kids.”
Muhammad provided a response to Dabner’s comments.
“Children today are not being raised like they used to be,” Muhammad said. “You have parents on medication and kids on medication. Psych meds. A lot of parents gave psych meds to their kids to get their checks from the government.”
Muhammad said that she believes children are being labeled as disruptive simply for questioning the answers their teachers give them.
“You’ve got kids who are labeled disruptive because they argue that Columbus didn’t discover America,” Muhammad said. “Then they prescribe them a psychiatric medication and after that they are sent off to an alternative school. These medications are not good for a healthy mind.”
Interim Pine Bluff Police Chief Jeff Hubanks responded in the affirmative to a question on whether officers receive sensitivity training.
“We do not endorse racial profiling but we know that it does happen,” Hubanks said. “As of March 1 the officers of the Pine Bluff Police Department got more sensitivity training than they received in all of last year. There are very few bad police officers, just bad planning in the past. When officers are not properly trained bad things happen.
“We have nearly one officer per 1,000 residents which is the best ratio in the country,” Hubanks said. “We are rich in police officers and the question is why is crime so high? This was caused by poor planning in the past.”
All participants agreed that the conference was worthwhile and that more such gatherings should happen in the coming months.
“We shall have these more often as the people want,” Muhammad said. “We as a people have issues. We need to know each other as a people. Every nation can talk about the injustices done to them except us.”
Foster agreed that more such forums are needed.
“I think this is a wonderful thing,” Foster said. “Obama is in the White House and Pope Francis is in the Vatican. The significance here is that these are both men of color. We need to come to grips with where we are as people of color. It tells me a lot that the mayor is here tonight. There is still a lot of distrust in the community and we have to bridge that.”
Hollingsworth emphasized that she campaigned on the theme of bridging the racial divide.
“I appreciate the respect shown tonight for the opinions, comments and answers,” Hollingsworth said. “We campaigned on the fact that there is a racial barrier in our city and we are working to bridge the gap. We want to remove the term ‘Crime Bluff’ from our town.”