Alvin Brooks remembers growing up as the only Black kid in an all white, but poor white, Leeds-Dunbar neighborhood during the 1940s in Kansas City, Missouri.
Although he made friends, he was reminded that in other parts of the city he was not welcome. Sometimes the streetcar’s white motorman charged him a nickel to board and other times he was allowed to ride for free — as all children under 12 were permitted. One day, Brooks got off at the wrong stop and was met by grown white men who he says “picked him up like a bag of wheat,” roughed him up and called him a tar baby and other racist terms until a white woman stepped in to stop the assault.
Decades later, the 91-year-old shakes his head while talking about Ralph Yarl. The former police officer wasn’t necessarily shocked by a white man shooting the Black teen who rang his doorbell last month, but for him, it solidified how the brutality of racism persists in a city that is still deeply segregated.
“A consciousness of racism is still very much a part of the American landscape,” Brooks says.
In the aftermath of Ralph’s shooting, many Black residents say that while they were heartened to see how people rallied to support the teen, in the weeks since, that sense of urgency for racial unity has waned. The shooting, they say, was a symptom of a range of deep problems that include structural racism, police brutality, and the long-term effects of redlining. The moment of solidarity created a space to talk about how these issues affect Black residents, but it has evaporated as quickly as it came — with little, if any, change.
Ralph’s classmates at Staley High School rallied in support as he recovered in the hospital from a bullet to the head and arm. They even held a town hall in the days after the shooting. But there was a stark difference in turnout compared to the initial protests and mayor’s press conference.
“We saw hundreds of people show up for the protest, hundreds show up for the press conference, and thousands at Staley,” says Jenay Manley, a 2nd District at-large candidate for Kansas City Council. “But at Staley’s town hall, there were only about 10 people from the community.”
Andrew Lester, 84, has been charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action for shooting Ralph on April 13. Ralph was picking his younger siblings up from a friend’s house when he rang Lester’s doorbell by accident. Lester says he shot Ralph without exchanging any words with him. Prosecutors say there’s a “racial component” to the crime, but they aren’t pursuing hate crime charges. Lester’s attorney also asked the judge to seal the case, but prosecutors have called for the importance of transparency. Lester is scheduled back in court June 1. Ralph is recovering at home and turned 17 on May 7.
Ralph and Lester live in the Northland – a predominantly white and conservative enclave. It is also an area where many of the city’s white police officers raise their families and where many Black residents say they avoid.
“Ralph got shot, almost killed because he was Black,” says Brooks, who doesn’t believe that if Ralph was white he wouldn’t have been shot. “I’ve lived too long to believe that.”
Manley, a lifelong Northland resident, is running a historic campaign to represent the community on the Kansas City Council. If elected, she’d be the first Black person to hold a council seat in the Northland. The election is next month.
She wasn’t surprised by what happened to Ralph, but she was devastated. The high school junior is a top bass clarinet player at a school that is 70% white and 9% Black, according to U.S. News and World Report.
“How do we create a Kansas City where kids don’t have to be model students and code-switch to feel safe?” Manley says. “Ralph was a model student, but even exceptionalism didn’t keep him safe.”
Manley is now raising her own children in the Northland, an experience that has led her to organizing.
“If I don’t organize, they’ll never be safe in this area.”
Manley says that “there are narratives that are perpetuated about who should and shouldn’t be in the Northland. When Black people are in spaces that are considered all white, there is resistance to our presence.”
And she’s trying to change that.
“I want people in the Northland and across the city to know that we see one another and we are going to fight for one another,” she says. “And it shouldn’t be based on what side of the river people live on.”
A complicated history
Kansas City has been rated amongst the most segregated cities in the country. But as more Black families begin to cross north of the Missouri River or west of Troost Avenue, the city’s ratings are slowly going down the charts — from 27th place in 2017 to 34th in 2020. The population of 508,394 is 55.5% white and 26.5% Black, with 15% living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.
In 2021, a student at Park Hill High School was expelled for starting a petition to bring back slavery. The petition was signed by over 100 other students before it was discovered, and the student was expelled. A few years earlier at a Northland middle school, a video emerged of a student calling a 12-year-old Black and Mexican student a monkey and the n-word.
Kansas City was built with ideologies and laws that are designed to perpetuate discrimination and segregation. Developer J.C. Nichols, who was memorialized with a fountain bearing his name that is one of the city’s most famous landmarks, was also one of the architects of Kansas City’s redlining efforts.
The legacy also can be seen, in part, in the city’s political history, which has largely excluded Black people from elected positions of authority for generations.
“We’re talking one hundred years plus. How many elections?” said the Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.
“How many budgets have been passed? How many policy reviews have occurred? How much investment has taken place” that did not consider the needs of the Black community until recently, he asked.
The ripple effects of the disinvestment in Black communities through the 1970s and the early 1980s are still visible, Howard says. There was an influx of illegal weapons and gang and drug activity, as well as abandoned buildings, liquor stores, and pawn shops popping up in the areas where Black people lived — but not in white neighborhoods.
Also during the 1980s began what Howard says is the building of Black exceptionalism, or elite Black professionals who ascended into the socioeconomic status that afforded them the ability to purchase property in the suburban white communities while their former neighborhoods are left behind to crumble.
The crumbling led to gentrification and Black displacement. Those issues are especially prominent this year, an election year in Kansas City. Mayor Quinton Lucas is seeking a second term, just as his predecessor, Sly James, did. Lucas is the third Black person elected as mayor, following James and the Rev. Emmanuel Cleaver, who was elected in 1991.
“In the previous mayor, there can be cited extraordinary successes for the advancement of wealth accumulation of the middle class and even the Black and white elite,” Howard says. “We’ve essentially had 12 years in a row of municipal mayoral leadership in the city of Kansas City, Missouri, and the Black poor, the Black working class, homeless people of all color, creed, and makeup have suffered, and what we suffer from right now is an advance in poverty and crime — the homicide rate is unparalleled.”
Earlier this month, a coalition of civil rights organizations issued a scathing statement and vote of no confidence in Lucas and City Manager Brian Platt. The organizations cited racist, sexist, and discriminatory policies toward Black women and workers. Although Lucas immediately said Ralph’s shooting stems from a “culture of fear and paranoia,” some Black residents don’t trust him and say his support of the city manager shows a disconnect with the community.
After an organizing campaign led by KC Tenants, a citywide tenant union, during Lucas’ first term, he worked with elected officials to create a tenant’s bill of rights, the Office of the Tenant Advocate, and a Housing Trust Fund that distributed about $19 million to support affordable housing projects and create nearly 1,000 affordable units, KCUR reported.
Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League for Greater Kansas City, says that while there’s a lot going on in Kansas City to increase and create better options for Black people in Black communities, it “is not going to change the psyche of someone who has been taught and conditioned to fear and hate Black people.”
‘We’ve got a long way to go’
When Brooks was 9 years old, he says a police officer called his friends “white trash” for befriending him. But when it came time for school, those white friends conveniently walked three blocks to their all-white school, while Brooks traveled a mile away to his all-Black school.
Now, no matter how much Black people’s socioeconomic status changes or if they live in predominantly white neighborhoods where they can send their children to quality schools, the mindset of white people who believe in segregation will not budge, Howard says.
“Not everybody over there in that divide is still accepting. In fact, some, who like Mr. Lester, who grew up in the Jim Crow environment, his social, mental, emotional, political DNA is Jim Crow — how could it not be,” Howard says.
Some Black residents also say that it matters that Northland is known for having a dense cop population, and they wonder if Lester was protected early on in the investigation of the shooting.
“When the media first interviewed Lester’s neighbors, they refused to speak with the news, saying ‘We take care of our own,’” says Amaia Cook, co-founder of Decarcerate KC, a Black-led Abolitionist organization. “This culture of covering up for white supremacy is a part of the Northland’s history and is still present today.”
Even after Lester was identified as the shooter, he was detained by KCPD for only a couple of hours. They then released him, arguing that there wasn’t enough evidence to make a formal arrest. He was free for four days after that.
“I strongly believe that if it weren’t for the media attention and pressure from national politicians, Lester would not have been held accountable for his actions,” Cook says. “This is an example of how our legal system and police department continue to operate.”
The shooting is not “an individual incident but as an extension of white supremacy, policing, and vigilantism,” she says.
After Park Hill High School expelled the student who started the slavery petition, the student’s father launched a lawsuit against the district. He also used the situation to launch his campaign for state representative against Democrat Jamie Johnson. Johnson defeated him and became the first Black woman to represent Platte County in the Northland. Her districts include the area where Ralph was shot.
In the wake of Ralph’s shooting, Johnson continues to work toward building a more just and equitable society for her constituents. She recognizes that the issues facing her district go beyond the individual who pulled the trigger, and that structural racism and systemic inequality are at the root of anti-Black violence in Kansas City.
The shooting may have been an overt act of racism, but everyday racism is more covert in how it plays out. One of Lester’s grandsons even spoke out against their grandfather and his beliefs in the days after the shooting. But it’s not enough.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Brooks says. “But the only way we’re going to do — that is, make a difference — is when America admits it is structurally racist and in spite of all that has occurred, it was never intended for those of us who are descendants of slaves to be totally free.”
Ryan Sorrell is the founder of the Kansas City Defender, a Black nonprofit community media platform employing innovative digital and community-building strategies to engage Gen Z and Millennials across the Midwest.