Reno And Race: Progress, But "Trayvon Martin Stereotype" Persists

By  | 

RENO, NV - Walk down a busy Reno street these days and you'll encounter a fairly diverse crowd. It was not always so.

In the 40's and 50's Reno was known at times as the "Mississippi of the West."

There were no "Whites Only" signs, but the barriers were here.

There were perhaps three places where an African American could get a meal. Our hotels and casinos... with one exception, the New China Club on Lake Street... were closed to them.

Sammy Davis Jr. Might be headlining at the Riverside. He couldn't stay there.

A black teenager like Lonnie Feemster grew up following the advice of his elders, where he could walk, where he couldn't.

"I didn't have the ability to go on the other side of Reno until I was out of high school." says the longtime local civil rights leader. "We were pretty much confined to one area of town."

Leaders emerged from the black community and as elsewhere things changed.

"Because of the work of the local NAACP and having a working relationship with the local police department and some of our faith based leaders we have made some improvements," he says, "but we have a lot to do."

"We have a crisis among young black males in Nevada," he adds, noting while the state's black population is small, it represents a much larger percentage in our prisons.

And he says the place to address it is in our schools.

He's hardly the first to point to the link between failure here and failure in life, graduation rates predetermining a future of arrest and incarceration.

And he says all too often, we think we see that failure in any young black.

"Perceptions cause people to look at them and judge them harshly, deny them resources and the result is we have what I call the Trayvon Martin syndrome or perception."

But he argues our education system tends to paint a more optimistic picture.

He says he's tried for years to get accurate data on the issue, but still believes our schools' failure of young blacks remains hidden, school districts using racial stats to gain grants while inflating graduation rates.

"They need to tell the public the truth," he says. "We keep hearing things are getting better, but we can't get an accurate count of black suspensions, disciplinary actions and dropouts because of the desire to present a rosy picture. We're doing great."