Jones: How is Scottsdale measuring up to the promise of Dr. King’s dream?

As Black History Month ends, reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. are not far away.

This past February has been a tumultuous month for African Americans. Between multiple incidences of blackface stories making national headlines (including the Governor of North Carolina not knowing it was slaves who came to America in 1619 and instead of indentured servants), TV actor Jussie Smollett allegedly perpetrating a tragic hate crime against himself, a Coast Guard White Nationalist charged with attempting mass slaughter, and our current president’s former private lawyer testifying under oath that our president is a patent racist.

Alexia Norton Jones

So how do we hold hope 51 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the grim reality that racism is on fire in America in 2019? And how is Scottsdale measuring up to the promise of Dr. King’s dream?

Nearly three years ago, I moved to Arizona after a complex and harrowing journey across the USA in search of an orphan drug for one of the rarest diseases seldom ever seen in medicine called Primary Periodic. I am an orphan in my disease category known as “one of a kind” and yet as Dr. Martin Luther King stated in 1966, “Of all the forms of inequity, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and most inhuman.”

I had been volunteering stateside for a research lab in Berne, Switzerland for more than two years in patient driven research, but with my health in decline, attaining this orphan drug was my last and final hope of any chance of survival based upon the severity of my paralysis episodes, risking respiratory collapse and heart failure.

By grace, my answers were heard soon upon arrival to Scottsdale after buying a ticket for a fundraiser at TGen Labs in Phoenix; a doctor at the event made a referral to an expert who helped me attain the newly discovered drug that less than 75 people in the nation had begun. I felt my life had been saved.

I felt hope within severe limitations. However, I did not fully understand the depth and breath of racial cultural and racial disparities beyond knowing this was Barry Goldwater’s state of my childhood, and Arizona had been known worldwide for Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s alleged Civil Rights violations.

I was about to learn that the hopes of the dream I had come to know of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had shaped my life, would be forever be changed in Arizona.

I knew that no matter where one goes in America, people with disabilities are seldom to ever accepted as equal, barely treated fairly, kindly, or even with compassion in society. Neurological diseases in particular are the least accepted and most abhorred — segregation isn’t just about race — able bodied people want to be as far away from the sick and disabled as possible.

Scottsdale is known for its spas, outdoor activities, healthy lifestyle, plastic surgery, outdoor beauty, and uncanny, unnatural beauty, which can be purchased in high-end salons and even strip malls. Despite Mayo Clinic treating diseases from around the world, this is not a city of a lot of acceptance of “differences.”

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law Martin Luther King Day honoring the slain Civil Rights leader. Dr. King had once took solace and protection in my family home in August of 1963 in Riverdale, New York as my mother Anne hosted Dr. King and his wife Coretta along with their children Martin, Jr., Yolanda, Dexter, and Bernice while my father Clarence drafted the I Have a Dream speech.

Dr. King was not popular as he is today and many did not want to be associated with him (the FBI was busy wire tapping my family along with physical surveillance because of this mistrust). But that August, in front of a historic crowd with a prompt from gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who sat front row at the March on Washington, she urged Dr. King to “Tell them about the dream!”

And so Dr. King shook the world by going off text and leaving my father’s words behind by speaking extemporaneously with exuberance saying, “I have a dream today!”

The world listened and history was made.

Reflecting on his legacy decades later, as a biracial woman who once sat on his knee as a child (and who lost him as a family friend in the third grade in a terrifying moment, which changed this country and my life forever) I want to take this moment to reflect as Black History Month wraps up here in Scottsdale.

I have seen the best and the worst over six decades and I have earned the right to have a voice at the table.

I have met many kind and good people here in Scottsdale. City officials who are kind and generous. Fireman Jim Ford who has a love for the legacy of Dr. King in a way my mother Anne would be in awe of as I witnessed at a city counsel event. But I also wonder if there is a kind of self-appreciation in the city’s efforts to believe Scottsdale is further along on race and diversity than it is.

I know Police Chief Rodbell is perhaps the most authentic person I have met because I believe you can fake being a fake but you can’t fake being authentic after speaking with him on two occasions.

In addition to listening to Don Logan speak last year about the mail bomb he received 14 years ago by two white supremacists that could have killed him, it was Chief Rodbell who earnestly was there for him every step of the way.

This kind of injustice for a black man is very real every day in America. It is reported that hate crimes have increased by 17 percent just this past year.

But when I moved to Scottsdale I was taken by the daily azur blue skies and would wake up each day and say, “They’ve painted the sky blue again!”

The streets are exceptionally clean, the highways are without graffiti, and mountains in the distance are a friendly reminder that nature is not far away from this concrete desert. There is seldom the sense of crime and danger, and statistics bare this out.

My first week here I went to do new tenant de rigueur shopping at Target and was tickled when I encountered a family of Navajo Indians with a new baby shopping for their brand new bundle of joy. As a child growing up, where a bodyguard cleaned his gun at breakfast, my education taught me that American Indians are the American Royalty of this country.

This was a deep part of my elite eduction. But here in Arizona it was not long before I learned this is not a sentiment shared.

I believe Dr. King would be heartbroken if he were alive today: the poverty, the violence, the invisibleness. Native Americans are treated terribly in Arizona and it is discordant to everything I ever learned.

Another first week event, a neighbor asked me to go shopping with her one evening. What I thought was a kindness and interest in friendship was instead a ruse to lecture me about how she did not believe that, “Blacks and whites should live side by side.”

While this kind of ignorance ignited what Dr. King would call Agape Love, it also aroused pity. I felt sorry for this woman. She has likely lived her whole life in this racist darkness.

Within weeks, I began to hear words around me I thought were retired by the agreed racist lexicon of educated adults that I had not heard since the 1970s like “Mulatto” and “Colored” by people not trying to be offensive, but by sheer ignorance. I tried to educate and explain why these words are no longer used.

Next, I was alarmed by an incident at a gas station, which resulted in a man losing his job because it was seen on video that showed he both spat and washed his hands after I bought Chia tea and whispered to me how “filthy and disgusting I was” — my blackness.

I thought he was joking until he threatened me. Their media relations relayed to me they now have new hiring questions with applicants.

It was once written that being black is an extreme sport. Unfortunately for me it has been like the Special Olympics because many times I have ended up on the ground injured or in and ER. Heartbreakingly, when in distress, to be told to “get up” when you cannot walk is about as accepting as being told to turn into a Leprechaun.

To become spontaneously paralyzed without acceptance of a disease is as cruel as life gets. There is no lower, evil, or disgraceful lack of acceptance in diversity than refusing to accept the disabled.

I admit a great level of naiveté and stupidity on my part.

When a new friend recently came into my life and kept saying to me “Hello my new friend” every time she called or texted, it become more of an otherworldly moment from the film “Get Out” during Christmas dinner at her home when her husband began to attack me verbally about

“Obama being the cause of all the violence and hatred in the country” out of the clear blue…The Sunken Place.

She was kind enough to be concerned about the right food at supper so I would not paralyze during the meal, but her husband thought nothing of going Far Right on politics before our first bites were chewed.

My heart sank and I thought to keep my integrity and honor intact and tried not to fall out of my chair. All I could do was to remind them that white nationalist Alex Fields had just received a 70-year sentence for the hate crime of killing an innocent white woman named Heather Hayer in a crowd of people in North Carolina whom our president called “some fine people.”

There was a quieting at the table.

My heart was broken anyone would want to ambush me like that.

It’s pretty common talk here in Scottsdale to be asked about The Wall, Hilary Clinton, and Obama, randomly. These are but tiny examples of what it is to be a black woman in a mostly white community where being white is so predominant that to eat in restaurants and shop in stores is not uncommon to be the only brown skinned patron. And more than this — others don’t notice the homogeneous flatness of the city patting itself on the back for diversity.

To quote a former police chief who was very, very kind to me on MLK Day this year after a white male was deeply offensive to me in public in a moment of Mansplaining (not understanding how as a woman I have been sexually harassed when he has not). This very kind man stated eloquently and truthfully “The problem with Arizona is people here don’t even think of you as equal.”

It was the most honest moment anyone has had with me in three years. It was epiphany and agony at once.

I was born both “black and blue”; Negro and Blue-blooded as black was not in our lexicon until the 1970s, and my mother Anne was an Anglo-Saxon Aristocrat of means.

I’m the granddaughter of the only woman in America to co-found a publishing company, Mary Dows Herter Norton Crena de Iongh with my grandfather William Wader Norton. And the only grandfather I would ever know was World Bank treasurer and interim director, Dutch banker Daniel Crena de Iongh.

Five languages would be spoken at afternoon tea. My great uncle Christian Archibald Herter was Secretary of State while Goldwater was governor. And yet, when I wrote former President Barack Obama about an urgent insurance matter and received a case manager out of the White House in 2016 before Obama left office, it was not believed and it became the most terrifying moment of my life.

Arizona is very, very racist.

Blacks do not have the presumption of innocence but the assumption of guilt. Even in the single moment of my life of public violence… no one was interviewed as a white male high on drugs and another simply enraged, will have more credibility in America than a biracial educated woman with a rare neurological disease even if I have never had a mixed drink or done street drugs.

I am definitely a fish out of water in Arizona. But this is not just Scottsdale. This is nearly any place in America.

If diversity and racism are going to one day to be in sync with the dream of what the Scottsdale city believes it is today, it is going to have to take the voice and actions from Dr. King’s words from his letter from a Birmingham jail to truly change: I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than justice.

My mother Anne gave her life to this country. Most Americans will never know such courage.

She told me to always do as Dr. King would ask of me. Weeks after I moved to Scottsdale an undocumented immigrant secretly disclosed to me a horrifying story of being held against her will in what appeared to be a case of human trafficking.

I made a report and arranged for her to flee for her life. At the time I had zero trust of her not being deported due to what I knew of Sheriff Joe. I am in touch with this woman three years later. She is doing great!

Law enforcement did everything right. Under the Women Against Violence Act of 1993 this woman is now happy, free, and thriving. As Dr. King once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question, What are your doing for others?” I knew that if I could not get the orphan disease drug and if did not work, at least I had saved a life. And I did.

This undocumented immigrant is gained asylum and is now an American citizen. This too happened in Scottsdale.

Editor’s Note: Alexia Norton Jones is a Scottsdale resident, civil rights, human rights and rare disease advocate.

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