Reckoning with racism in Johnson County: An enduring struggle

This summer's nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd have sparked activism in mostly white Johnson County and forced some into a reckoning with the county's racist past.

Editor’s note

This is the final part of a three-part series examining Johnson County’s history of racist housing policies and the impact those policies still have on our community today. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This is the third story in a three-part series examining Johnson County’s history of racial exclusion. Previously, we explored how prominent local figures like J.C. Nichols pioneered racially discriminatory housing policies to realize a hyper-segregated vision of Kansas City, some of the disastrous ramifications this continues to have on Black communities and some of the ultimately unsuccessful efforts by local activists in the decades since to remedy inequalities.

In this final story, we’ll take a look at more recent efforts to challenge systemic inequality and the legacy of racism in Johnson County. 

Many local community leaders, experts, and activists agree: Education and awareness are critical if Johnson County wants to redress its racist roots.

Johnson County Commissioner Janée Hanzlick speaks at a Commission meeting. File photo.

In a recent interview, County Commissioner Janée Hanzlick repeated what she said in a commission meeting in June: “Johnson County needs to do more to acknowledge the racism in the county’s past and to seek out ways to change.”

That’s why United Community Services of Johnson County (UCS), a local nonprofit organization that aims to study and promote health and well-being, is taking steps to address historic race-based inequalities through education and advocacy. 

The organization recently released a video explaining Johnson County’s history of residential discrimination, and their annual housing survey (which all county residents are encouraged to take) aims to bring together a host of community organizations to examine the ways housing and other social determinants have shaped outcomes like health, education, and income in Johnson County, especially for people of color. UCS’s annual housing summit based on that survey’s results is slated to kick off next week. 

According to Kathryn Evans, leader of UCS’s Race, Equity and Inclusion Committee, the survey ensures city planners “don’t repeat past mistakes” and “take into account the conditions that currently exist that were shaped by racist housing policy.” 

Evans says the work is vital, but the need to transform an awareness of the problem into action is felt more urgently now than ever. 

Symbolic or substantive change?

For County Commissioner Hanzlick, real change starts with a culture shift in county leadership to better “consider impacts on communities of color” when making decisions — which means listening to and boosting diverse voices and perspectives. She also noted the County Commission’s responsibility to “appoint people who represent the diversity in our county to boards and commissions.” 

The success of such a cultural shift might best be measured in real policy changes it produces. This spring, the city of Roeland Park became the first in Johnson County to outlaw all discriminatory language in housing covenants, which Mayor Mike Kelly stated was an effort to “continue to improve and make sure that [the city of Roeland Park’s] history isn’t lost — but that we also remain that city for all races that we hold ourselves out to be.”

Racially restrictive deed restriction still present in Johnson County HOA. Ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, many housing covenants still contain such language barring members from selling to certain racial, ethnic, and religious groups to this day. Source: Prairie Village Homes Association.

But local municipalities’ steps to address race and discrimination in response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests have also engendered frustration and controversy. Roeland Park’s amendment to its non-discrimination ordinance officially banning racial deed restrictions was labeled “toothless” and a “vanity ordinance” by former city councilmember Linda Mau, a woman of color. 

Several city leaders and community members also expressed disappointment that, in their view, statements by certain cities were largely symbolic.

The city of Lenexa’s statement included a paragraph praising the city’s police department, an addition some councilmembers and community leaders feared would detract from the intent of the statement. Local pastor Eric Cobbins, who is Black, said the statement, instead, “should keep the focus on the main thing… and that is, that Lenexa will be a city of diversity and equality for all people”.

Meanwhile, Fairway’s statement (found in this link on pg. 79), conspicuously lacked the word “racism,” and was drafted by Fairway’s all-white city council without input by Black city residents. 

The city of Mission, for its part, has explicitly stated that “Black Lives Matter” and has pushed beyond a singular statement, drafting a 5-step action plan to address racial justice and inclusion. A revised statement promises “on-going review of policies, practices, and sustained dialogue relating to issues of racial inequity and social injustice in Mission.” However, the plan was proposed only after the Mission City Council’s failure to involve its sole member of color, Councilmember Arcie Rothrock, in drafting Mission’s initial Black Lives Matter resolution in June. 

Mere words don’t solve problems if they aren’t followed by real reforms, according to long-time metro community organizer Gwendolyn Grant. She is President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, a social justice organization that has, in her own words, “been on the battlefield for justice and equality for 100 years.”

She has ideas for the specific changes needed to work towards dismantling systemically racist institutions in the Kansas City area.

Housing, health care and police reform

President and CEO Gwendolyn Grant, right, speaking at an Urban League event. Photo courtesy Gwendolyn Grant.

For starters, Grant has called on local municipalities across the metro, including more affluent suburbs in Johnson County, to use “an equity-based approach [to] the design of housing policies.” Specifically, she says cities should define affordability based on the “median household income in distressed communities,” which are often significantly lower than citywide averages. She thinks this would better focus resources towards historically marginalized communities that need it most.

Likewise, Grant thinks a similar approach needs to be taken to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and other health concerns on communities of color. 

More resources should be invested in communities with the greatest need. Plain and simple,” she says. 

Missourians’ recent vote to expand Medicaid could have significant ramifications for improving health outcomes in that state. But despite years of debate in Topeka, conservative Republican legislative leaders, so far, have blocked attempts to do the same in Kansas, much to the consternation of Grant and other local community leaders.

Housing and health are important, but social justice advocates say conversation about reckoning with racism in Johnson County must also address the hot-button issue of policing. 

The recent controversy surrounding police conduct in Overland Park in response to a July protest serves as a reminder that Johnson County is not exempt from the same tensions that have boiled over in cities across the U.S. this summer, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police.

For Gwendolyn Grant, reform starts with a “total reboot within local police departments” across Kansas City, including in Johnson County, which should involve “major reforms in use-of-force policies.” In Kansas City, Mo., the Urban League, NAACP, SCLC and other social justice organizations have called for local control to be brought back to KCPD, the removal of Chief Rick Smith, and other policy reforms.

In Johnson County, Commissioner Hanzlick recommends collaborative community programs like mental health and drug courts, as well as boosting “co-responder programs” that supplement county police work with social workers and mental health professionals — “so police don’t have to fill roles they aren’t trained to fill.” 

Individuals’ actions matter

Leaders like Hanzlick and Grant admit that progress can be daunting, especially on the scale needed to turn the tide of centuries of racism and systemic oppression. But just as national movements are composed of smaller, local movements banding together, change on the local level begins with the concerted efforts of individual citizens. For those wondering what their own role is in redressing Johnson County’s ongoing history of structural racism, Gwendolyn Grant had this to say: 

“First and foremost, every local citizen must make a conscious decision to unapologetically hold themselves and others accountable for any behaviors, comments, action, or silence that perpetuates or supports systemic and structural racism. It starts there. Next, speak out against police brutality, economic suppression, and the blatant lack of investment of public dollars in distressed communities.”

She adds, volunteering with the Urban League and other local social justice organizations is a good place to start. In the end, Grant says echoing a famous quote often attributed to Gandhi, Johnson Countians “must be a part of the change you wish to see in your community.”