05/04/08 — Racial divide: Mayor King talks race, Obama

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Racial divide: Mayor King talks race, Obama

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 4, 2008 2:01 AM

Al King has come to dread the first few minutes of each day he spends inside City Hall.

He is happy as he greets the residents, department heads and staff members he passes on his way to the mayor's office, but knows all too well what is waiting on his desk behind those double doors.

"It's a list from the Goldsboro Police Department. It's a list of crimes and criminals," he said. "I get one every day."

And more often than not, the faces behind those murders, break-ins, assaults and robberies are black -- and young.

"It just tears me up," King said. "Most of these young black males, they are going nowhere."

But the mayor is not willing to write them off just yet.

He is not satisfied by the notion that children who grow up in the inner-city are destined to fail.

They are simply products of their environment, he says -- one that can change through open dialogue on race and racism, funding of parks and programs for inner-city neighborhoods and erasing the "stigma" inherited by generation after generation of blacks in America.

"From day one, the young black male has a terrible burden to bear. Others are allowed to make mistakes. They get by and will be forgiven. But not a black male," King said. "They are stigmatized. People say, 'Look at him. He doesn't know how to do anything but raise Hell and tear things up.'"

Maybe it is the way some young blacks talk or dress that sets them back, he added -- or their tendency to give in to peer pressure and to make bad choices.

But those choices are not always the child's fault, King said.

And like all children, they, too, need guidance and should be allowed to make mistakes.

"If their friends are messing around all the time, wearing their pants off their butts and making stupid decisions, they will, too," he said. "Peer pressure is stronger than anything. It takes a kid with a really strong family background to stay focused. And let's face it, many of these young men, they don't know who their daddy is and their moms are out all the time working their butts off."

So each time they hear the stereotypes, with every news story they see about a failing Goldsboro High School and the deteriorating neighborhoods that surround it, they lash out.

"If they hear those things from the minute they go to school, class after class, year after year, after a while, guess what? Those kids are going to say, 'OK. You think all I can do is raise Hell? Well let me show you just how much Hell I can raise.' And boy, they start to raising Hell," King said. "They can't understand. How could they? They say, 'What have I done for people to forsake me and label me this eternal loser?'"

Growing up in Mount Olive during the Civil Rights era, King "understood" the challenges that came with growing up black in the South.

But his mother always told him he could do anything -- that he could be anybody.

And so he saw beyond "black verses white," committing himself, instead, to becoming the best person he could be.

He hopes today's leaders begin taking his mother's approach.

"The first thing we need to do is give that black kid the belief that he can overcome, that if he perseveres, he can do anything he wants to do with his life," King said. "Then, we need to get the people who have the kids' futures in their hands to believe it, too. Rather than tell them they are no good when they make a mistake, correct them. Don't put them in the corner and slam the door forever."

Doing so creates the "bitterness" King sees in black neighborhoods across town.

"We have shut them out. We have told them they will never achieve anything," the mayor said. "What we have to do is understand that many of these kids have not ever been given a chance."

And they don't have proper role models, either, he added.

But that could change this November.

King is hoping so, anyway.

Maybe that is why Goldsboro's first black mayor is supporting the candidacy of the first viable black candidate for president, Barack Obama.

"Electing a black man president won't be the end of racism in this country. It's not as easy as that," King said. "But by electing this man, a lot of kids will stop and take notice. They will say, 'Whoa. Things are changing. Maybe I can be anything I want to be.'"

King has seen it, firsthand.

"When these young blacks see me, they come up and say, 'I just wanted to shake your hand. It's an honor to shake your hand,'" he said. "There are some who think (having a black mayor in Goldsboro) is a big deal."

King sees in Obama a man willing to discuss the divisive issue of race in this country.

And that alone, he says, can "change the world."

"We still have people in this country who, as long as they live, are not going to be able to accept a black person in any leadership role. And it goes both ways. You have some black people who will never forgive white people because of what happened years and years and years ago," King said. "Until we get past that and begin to treat everybody with dignity and respect, we are lost."

So he, much like Obama, will continue to confront the issues born during the age of slavery -- with the hope that members of the younger generations will begin to see people for who they are, not the race they were born into.

"I look at my granddaughter and my grandson. They go to a primarily white school in Peach Tree City, Ga.," King said. "I go to their home and they have friends from all walks of life. They could care less. They don't care what race they are or what religion they are. They are just friends. This is happening all over with the young generation. And they are going to change this world."