You may have seen this recent New York Times story about the failure of Marathon County, Wisconsin, to declare itself “A Community for All.” It’s a fascinating account of how communities are wrestling with historic racial inequities, as a matter of understanding the past and dealing with the present.
The article describes how after the George Floyd murder, many counties and cities issued proclamations meant to acknowledge systemic racism and provide a shared baseline for new policies and practices. Marathon County, which is 91% white, struggled to come up with the right language for its proclamation. They tried “No Place for Hate,” but that was considered too inflammatory, so they settled on “A Community for All”:
After six revisions and countless hours of negotiation and debate, [community officials] arrived at a document calling for the county to “achieve racial and ethnic equity to foster cross-cultural understanding and advocate for minority populations.”
Advocates stated that the proclamation would foster greater unity and equality for all residents of the county. Opponents stated that the proclamation would highlight racial disparities and promote the interests of non-white residents over white residents. Widespread disagreement persisted among community members around these interpretations. Ultimately the resolution was put to a vote, with people arguing before the board on both sides (18 against, 10 for):
In the end, the executive committee of the county board rejected the resolution by a 6-to-2 vote on Thursday night, a result that both sides say is worse than never having considered it in the first place.
The reason the result is worse than never having considered the resolution in the first place is that the vote crystallized the disagreement in the community, leading to a sense of hopelessness for the advocates of the resolution (indeed, two of the advocates quoted in the article said they were thinking about moving) and increased aggrievement for those opposing the resolution (one board member felt like the conversation around the proclamation was unfairly labeling white people in the county as “racist and privileged”). At the end of the article, one advocate said that she was undeterred, because she felt like the unfavorable vote was a reminder that we need to continue having conversations. But you can imagine that for many, the increased polarization in the community will make it harder to talk about these issues, not easier.
There is a good DSD/conflict management question here around whether bringing this matter to a vote at this time given the situation was the right move. On the one hand, votes provide useful clarity and can create opportunities to mobilize and engage. In addition, they can provide more information on the “temperature” of the community around a given issue. On the other hand, votes serve to flatten and simplify the issues, leading to an inevitable us-versus-them mentality that is often counterproductive and inaccurate.
And of course there is the larger question of what these proclamations are supposed to achieve. Both sides clearly felt like the proclamation would have significant consequences, which helps explain the different views around whether to adopt the proclamation in the first place. Certainly there is nothing obviously objectionable (or especially desirable, for that matter) about “A Community for All” on its face; it’s a pretty bland statement. But for the people involved in this dispute, the proclamation was fraught with meaning around who belongs, who is entitled, who has access, and who decides what “life is like” in the community.
More broadly, what happened in Marathon County provides some insight into the practical realities of the racial reckoning in the United States today. It’s possible for us to approach this reckoning as a matter of positions and votes, both in private settings (e.g., aligning ourselves with one side or another on Twitter) and public ones (e.g., becoming political partisans). In taking this approach, we sacrifice some of the nuance of discussion and disagreement for the certainty of having allies and enemies. And in turn, this certainty may, depending on the numbers, create leverage that leads to some measure of social or political change.
It’s worth remembering, however, that positional approaches to conflict often do not work, in the sense that they will not (cannot) make our aspirations a reality, at least not a reality that endures. This is not to say that no one should take positions, but instead to reiterate the importance of always interrogating and ventilating the often complex interests and values underlying those positions. Remaking our public institutions and public conversations along the lines of actual and inclusive dialogue, not just performative position-taking and majority vote-getting, is a central challenge of the current moment.