Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 30th 2014

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Outtakes: Tough Talk


By Rick Outzen

We need to have a difficult conversation without finger-pointing or denials. The topic is one that inflames many and almost immediately shuts down any meaningful discussion. We need to discuss race in Pensacola and Escambia County.

An ember of discontent is smoldering in our African-American neighborhoods. The have-nots see themselves cut off from ever earning a piece of the “American Dream.” The public schools in their neighborhoods are failing. Children are hungry and left to fend for themselves on the streets. Guns, shootings and robberies are commonplace. Health care is inaccessible other than by waiting hours at the community clinic and in hospital emergency rooms.

A few blocks away, most of the white community is oblivious to day-to-day struggles for survival in the black neighborhoods. The public schools in their neighborhoods are fine. Kids are enrolled in after-school programs and don’t roam the streets. They have family doctors. The crime occurs when the poor get tired of feeding on each other and begin looking for bigger paydays.

The gap between two races is growing, not shrinking. We’ve written about it several times, but, other than Commissioner Lumon May and City Councilman Gerald Wingate, few local elected officials want to discuss the huge disparities. The few attempts to make a difference over the past few years have failed miserably.

In 2009, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas wanted to turnaround Warrington Middle School, the worst junior high in the county. He fired all of the teachers, created what he thought would be an elite faculty and pumped millions of dollars into the school. According to the Florida Department of Education, the school’s grade has dropped from a C in 2009 to an F for this past school year. Less than one out of four of its students read, write or can do math on their grade level.

The initiative failed, partially because Thomas never really engaged the parents and African-American community. He mistakenly believed that he could do it by proclamation and with dollars. And I bring this up not to lay blame on Thomas, but to show how difficult change is, especially when there is no conversation between the races.

The death of Trayvon Martin can be an opportunity for this community to come together and begin a dialogue on race and how we can work together to narrow the gaps between us. There are no shortcuts available, and the conversation will be emotional and difficult.

But we have to talk and listen to each other.