Thursday, November 17, 2005


Kansas City Slums: Terra Incognito

Leawood Dead Pool Causes Stir

The posh Kansas City suburb of Leawood, Kansas, made local headlines recently when city employees were fired because of an office betting pool. This betting pool involved, not college football or basketball, but homicide.

The wager was on how many murders would be committed in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2005. That town's murder rate increased significantly this year. Over the last few months, the local press has engaged in some hand-wringing over the skyrocketing murder rate, and local activists have staged some marches to raise awareness.

But the outrage over the betting pool seems to exceed any feelings of outrage at the murderers. Murder in Kansas City is part of daily life, and rarely attracts much attention. But when people place bets on it, well, that's news.

Most of the victims and suspects are black, and poor. Most of the crimes occur in the vast slums that make up large parts of the city.

Leawood was listed as one of the best suburbs to live in by the Kansas City Star during the same week that the story about the dead pool first surfaced. Leawood is 95% white, and average household income of over $100,000 per year far exceeds the area norm. None of the employees disciplined actually lived in Leawood; in fact, only four of the 250 people employed by city hall actually live there. Most simply cannot afford it.

What does it mean when employees of a wealthy, white suburb bet on the number of their black neighbors who will be murdered?

It means the gamblers feel no connection to the victims or their families. It places the death statistics in the same category as football scores. The lives of the poor, black people who are affected become the equivalent of a televised sporting event; distant, mildly entertaining, but not affecting the safe haven of Leawood city hall.

The firing of two employees and suspensions of eight others sends a clear message. The outward manifestation of indifference will not be tolerated. So we again find ourselves treating symptoms instead of disease. We place the emphasis on the symbol, the wager, while paying scant attention to what the symbol represents.

This alienation, this disconnect from one's neighbors, disturbs me profoundly. The victims and their families live about 15 minutes from Leawood by car. Crowded interstate highways cut through the afflicted neighborhoods. They may as well be on the far side of the moon.

Let's be clear.

The vast majority of suburbanites do not give a rat's ass what happens in the ghetto.

Leawood soccer moms and their doctor and lawyer husbands could say a prayer for the murder victims; but probably won't. Why pray over something literally invisible? Even after the headline, the tv coverage, and the speech by the indignant Leawood mayor, the invisible neighbors remain unseen.

Not that Leawood is unique. The murder rate in Kansas City does not enter into conversations with my Shawnee, Kansas neighbors. We don't discuss it at church.

In this regard, we are exactly like any other American city. St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans; we all suffer from the legacy of slavery embodied in racism. We all suffer from indifference to the plight of poor people.

You may say, you may even think you care deeply about those unfortunates. But when was the last time you supported a tax increase to pay for more Medicaid? Did you speak out when the Congress cut food stamps? When they raised the price of college for disadvantaged kids? Do you always put a dollar in the outstretched hands you see in our downtowns? Do you make any sacrifices to allow you to donate more to charity? Only when you can answer some of these questions in the affirmative can you say you really care.

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