Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Omaha: To be young, gifted and white

In one day, in one newspaper, two sections told a tale of two cities.

Both of them were Omaha, and they were as different as black and white.

Yesterday afternoon, I went out to fetch the paper -- yes, the
Omaha World-Herald still has an evening edition, and we still take it -- and at the bottom of the Midlands section front, there was this column by Mike Kelly.

HERE'S HOW it started . . . and note, please, that it's just one movement of a long and ongoing symphony of civic self-congratulation:
A U.S. women’s sky-diving champion who has lived on both coasts made a big leap of faith — and moved to Omaha.

After nine months here as as­sociate director of the nonprofit organization Kaneko, she says cosmopolitan Omaha “disrupts preconceived notions” of the Midwest as seen in movies and on TV. And she sees people con­stantly trying to improve the metro area.

“What makes Omaha very special for me,” said Jacquie Scoones, “is that people have such a strong sense of pride in the city — and they don’t just say that, but actually invest in relationships. I don’t think I’ve met anyone yet who doesn’t vol­unteer for something.”

Scoones didn’t parachute into Omaha. She drove from the East Coast in January, arriving eight hours ahead of a snowstorm. But she has come to enjoy an­other kind of local climate.

“Omaha has an extraordinary climate of possibilities that I’m growing to love,” she said Mon­day. “I want to live and grow old in a place where people younger than me are fiercely invested in building a city where their chil­dren will want to live.”

Scoones, 50, said she appreci­ates what previous generations have done for Omaha but sees a fierce community investment by young professionals and oth­ers in their 30s and 40s.
OMAHA: City of Possibilities. That has a nice ring to it.

Cosmopolitan Omaha disrupting preconceived notions of the Midwest as Green Acres writ large. Damn straight! Fly over THAT, coastal America.

It's almost enough to provoke hubris in the modest, practical Midwestern soul.

And it's true -- Omaha is a great place to be now. It's a city "on the move," with a critical mass of creative individuals determined to keep up the momentum.

Dare I say it? The Big O is the place to be, a veritable creative commons . . . for the white, the well-heeled and the well-educated.

BECAUSE ON THE FRONT of the Living section, we got to hear about Cool Omaha's dysfunctional doppelganger. the one that's largely black, bad-off and ill-educated.

The Omaha that leaves some of its citizens behind. The Omaha that doesn't dare make any sudden moves when pulled over by a cop. The Omaha that, when it does go away to college and gets that degree, doesn't come home to where the alienation is.

That's the unheralded, troublesome city that no one writes glowing columns about. But sometimes it finds its way into news stories chronicling the
rare instances where folks feel free to speak their minds:
As for the hosts, Tom Hoarty was curious. Race remains such a pressing issue. Take Obama's beer summit a few months ago with the black Harvard professor who had to force his way into his own home after the door jammed and the white Cambridge police officer who arrested him.

Margaret, though, reflected on something more personal: how her childhood friend and next-door neighbor was black, how it was OK that they played together but spending the night at her black friend's house was off-limits.

This sparked a similar memory for Loretté. She was the black girl who invited her white friend for a sleepover in 1969. Her friend couldn't believe a black family's home could be as nice as Loretté's was.

Memories and experiences segued into larger questions.

About the degree to which the news media perpetuate racial stereotypes and the degree of demand for such conflict.

About how stereotypes play out. Valerie being told more than once that “you don't sound like you're black.” Ed being told he's not black enough.

“It's probably not a whole lot different,” he told the five white Catholics, “if someone asks, ‘Are you Catholic? Are you really Catholic?'”

Tom Hoarty noticed who was missing at the table: Latinos.

“We just had a roof put on our house,” he said. “The entire crew was Latino.”

Rita pointed out that you have to go out of your way in Omaha to really mingle with other races and social classes.

“How many African-American professionals do you see?” Ed asked.

Tom Tilden reflected on his job. “There are not many. Not many. There's one, that I know of.”

Valerie: “We just don't have that. When you go to Chicago … you see African-Americans that look like me that are in power-play positions.”

Take D.C. and Baltimore, said Loretté.

“I had a blast. So many people who looked like me. Black people supported one another ...”

Ed: “What's different about Omaha? … We have (four) Fortune 500 companies and no African-Americans reporting to the CEOs.”

Tom Hoarty: “I don't have an answer. … Omaha is a very divided city.”

Margaret: What happens to successful black students who graduate from college?

Valerie: “They vow never to return.”

Ed asked what the two Toms would do if the police pulled them over.
Hoarty said he'd dig for his license and registration. Tilden said he'd demand to know why.

Ed said black men have been warned about making a move for the glove box or appearing mouthy to a cop.

They talked about where black people are missing in Omaha: boardrooms, the College World Series, restaurants.

“Why am I the only black person here?” Valerie said she asks herself when dining out at nicer restaurants.

Loretté got that feeling when she attended a classical music concert at the Holland Center.

They talked about blacks “dumbing down” to be acceptable. About stereotypes they wish would die, about interracial relationships.

Loretté really struggled when her nephew married a white woman, a pattern she felt played out way too frequently among black men. And yet she describes her nephew's wife as “wonderful” and as “my niece.”
LIFE DOES GET complicated, doesn't it? Cities, too. And people? Don't get me started.

I am grateful for the Omaha that's cosmopolitan, creative and forward-looking. I am ashamed that it's mostly for people who are white (and reasonably well educated) like me.

The Omaha I enjoy -- the one attracting all the go-getters to this former "flyover" burg -- is, alas, no reason to gloat.

It would be too easy, and too deadly, to sip martinis in the Old Market and feel so very self-satisfied that we're not like some redneck justice of the peace in Louisiana. Especially when Bad Omaha -- the place where hopes and dreams go to get they ass capped -- lurks just beyond the skyline . . . whispering "j'accuse."

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