Race Matters


African-American friends on the Square, Knoxville, September 2013
African-American friends on the Square, Knoxville, September 2013


It’s a provocative title in a time in which the most polite thing to do is pretend there is no such thing as race. It makes us so uncomfortable to talk about race that we are tempted to label any discussion of the topic as racist. I’ve heard our time referred to as “post-racial.” There’s some evidence we may be moving there, but I don’t think we’ve arrived. So today, I’ll discuss race matters and, perhaps explain why I think race matters in Knoxville.

I recently wrote about the Hola Festival, which celebrates Hispanic culture. It’s one of my favorite events of the year and I always enjoy it tremendously. Within that article I wrote, “It’s one of the few times downtown when the white population is in a minority. Spanish words fill the air, the smells of tacos, burritos, tamales and chouros mingle and smiles abound in every direction. It’s hard not to like any of that.” When I wrote that first line, I sensed it might strike a nerve with some readers. It’s direct and it’s about race, a combination which tends to make us uncomfortable.

Checking out Army Guy, Market Square, Knoxville, September 2013
Checking out Army Guy, Market Square, Knoxville, September 2013
Mother and Son on Market Square, Knoxville, September 2013
Mother and Son on Market Square, Knoxville, September 2013

It prompted a reader to comment, “I was so excited to read about this event UNTIL I read the above statement.  While true, WHY say this?  WHY is this relevant?  WHY make a distinction when this is an event that could be enjoyed by ALL races?   This statement comes off as very separatist in an otherwise informative summary of JUST the features of this event.” I began composing a reply only to realize by the third paragraph that I was writing a blog post and so I stopped and decided to do this follow-up.

I hope to explain why I think it is a relevant observation in Knoxville and why I would make that distinction. I don’t know that I can do much to address the fact that the event can be enjoyed by all races, since I never implied otherwise. I also am a bit clueless as to how the statement came “off as very separatist.” My opinions have always been infused into my descriptions of what I see and do in the city unless I feel a strong objectivity is necessary to the story.

Interracial buskers at the Market Square Farmers' Market, September 2013
Interracial buskers at the Market Square Farmers’ Market, September 2013

So, why do I think it matters and what about this is important to Knoxville? First, let’s look at our demographics. The population of Knox County is just over 432,000. The population of the city is about 179,000. According to the 2010 census, Knox County is 86% white, 9% African-American, 3% Hispanic and 2% Asian. The city’s population is 76% white, 17% African American, 5% Hispanic and 2% Asian. The county is actually much whiter than these numbers indicate, as the county numbers include the city. If you take the city out of the equation and just look at the population actually living inside Knox County, but outside the city limits, the picture is pretty shocking: 92% white, 3% African-American.

Clearly, we are a very, very white city. It is entirely possible for a person to live in Knox County, avoid the city, and go entire days without seeing people of any other race. Within the city limits that is slightly less likely, but given the persistent segregation in our housing patterns, there is still only a very small percentage of overlap. I took an unscientific survey of Market Square. I counted the people in the patio seating around 6:00 on a Wednesday evening and found 98 people eating and drinking outdoors. Rounding that to 100 for simplicity’s sake, here’s the breakdown: 1% African-American, 2% Asian, 6% Hispanic and 91% Caucasian. Also of note, the two Asian ladies were at their own table, as was the Hispanic party. There was only one integrated table on the square, with two Caucasian and one African-American woman.

Obviously, judging race by appearance isn’t perfect and I may have been a little off. That doesn’t change the point. Takeaway one table of Spanish-speaking Knoxvillians and you hit over 97% white. To be fair, I sat on the square for thirty minutes just watching who walked through and there was a little racial diversity. I saw one inter-racial couple, an African-American couple on the town with a white couple and a group of three African-American men and another couple of African-American women. Still, that’s in a thirty minute time period during which probably two or three hundred people walked through the square.

So, we’re really, really white most of the time. What difference does it make? I think it matters in several respects. I think a lack of diversity makes a city somewhat less appealing – though anyone reading this blog knows I love this city, very much. Still, think of your visits to New York City, San Francisco or New Orleans. For me, and probably for some of you, the cultural diversity is a major draw. It’s more interesting and vibrant. It stretches us as we try to understand a group which is different than our own. How many of us love going to Chinatown or Japantown or Little Italy? How about hearing a Cajun accent and eating foods you can’t get around here? In some respects I’m talking about race, of course, but I’m also talking about cultural differences. They are invigorating and enriching. It’s one of the strongest factors in making a city metropolitan.

Market  Square, Knoxville, September 2013
Market Square, Knoxville, September 2013

I also think there is a false comfort that an over-whelming majority gets when they rarely experience a truly mixed-race situation and may never find themselves in a minority. I remember the first time I experienced being a minority. My family traveled to Montreal many years ago and it was the first time I did not speak the language I heard in every direction. We also didn’t experience much empathy from anyone who might have been able to speak English. It was a good learning experience for me at a young age. I’ve since experienced being a minority on a number of occasions and it’s always instructive.

In a situation in which one race is always the majority I think it also fosters a false complaisance. It’s easy to think there is no racial tension, no racial divide and no bigotry. Clearly, none of that is true. Would we learn something we may not want to know about ourselves if the non-white population in the city increased to 20%? 30%? Over half? I suspect racial feelings that simply are never expressed now might find expression in that situation and we might learn we have some work to do.

I wish we had a greater mix of races in the city. I wish the patios on Market Square looked more like the world at large – or even the like many of the other cities in the U.S. I’d love to hear several different languages spoken on the streets of downtown on a regular basis. I think it’s good for the soul.

Do you think I’m wrong? Do you think I’m overstating my case? Look around at your job, your church, your neighborhood. Stop and actually count how many minorities you see on Gay Street. It’s likely less than you thought. It’s rare to find a truly integrated group in our city. When’s the last time you had a cross-cultural experience of any kind in Knoxville? This doesn’t make us bad and it doesn’t mean we are more racist than anyone else, but it means there’s an element to our city we are missing. That’s why I love events like Hola. I can be a minority, though only for a moment, and immerse myself in someone else’s world. I think that is a very good thing.

So, let me hear what you think. Remember to be respectful to me and to each other if you choose to leave a comment. This is a conversation I think Knoxville needs to have, but it needs to be a constructive one.