The Color of Richmond 

Our obsession with race is the curse — and the strength — of the city.

The thing I love most about my hometown — and what I loathe about it in the same breath — is this, this constant breaking down of every topic, every disagreement, every public matter into issues of race. Black and white. Certainly, it's not as beautiful as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, but it's just as predictable and transfixing.

The reasons to despise this about Richmond are ample. While our leaders stay busy vetting every matter through a racial lens, not enough real work gets done. The city's enhancement has been polarized for decades; we've fiddled over race while Richmond's vitality burned. We've let lesser communities outpace us (especially in North Carolina!).

Our governmental and private leadership, newspapers, coffee shops and churches debate Arthur Ashe, Robert E. Lee, floodwalls, a popularly elected mayor, "bring your stuff," and in the meantime the rest of us count the number of ways Richmond has lagged. Our airport remains an expensive joke for a city our size. The waterfront has been poorly developed. We've lost many of our corporate headquarters. We still have no arts center downtown. We have Broad Street for one race, and a one block away we have Grace Street for another. We have white hands and black hands working, if not in opposite directions, then at least separately.

Where is the political, business and cultural leadership in this city who don't care what color a Richmonder is? Where are the voices that speak out for a man, woman or child who is poor on South Side and so calls them our brothers and sisters and children simply because they are Richmonders? Where are the voices that do not label a Richmonder's troubles by the color of skin (a "black problem," a "white problem") but instead call it a "Richmond problem?" Where are the voices that tell us that if a family pays too much tax or can't find a good school in the Fan, they are all of us, not just black or white? Where is the focus on the greatness we share, our city and — yes — our humanity, instead of what little we do not, our colors?

On the other hand, oddly, I love this about Richmond. What other American city holds this debate so openly? Who else airs this laundry in their public chambers and development policies as regularly as we, for the whole nation to watch while we explore paths to live with our colors and ways? We, Richmond, the former slave capital, we are the experiment of America still being conducted, the primordial mess of democracy still bubbling. We are at the leading edge of this dialogue, with the courage to speak, despite the fact that often what we say is so wrong. Every community in America has racial issues. But here, in my courageous little city, we bring our stuff. We get high marks for this, especially when you tote up what it costs us.

One day, when America finally does get this right, when the colors blend back into one again and that single beam of light is stronger and sharper for all the shades and forms united within it, you can bet good money that one of the places it will happen first is here. God bless us, Richmond. S

David L. Robbins is a novelist who lives in Richmond. His works include "War of the Rats." His most recent novel, "Scorched Earth," was published in March by Bantam Doubleday Dell.


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