A guest column in Sunday’s Norman Transcript from Norman City Councilman Bill Hickman demonstrates the problem of paralysis by analysis that causes governmental bureaucracies to fail.
The issue in Hickman’s column concerns changing the name of DeBarr Avenue, a city street named after a KKK leader, to something that doesn’t honor a racist. For those wondering, the city street is named for Edwin DeBarr, who was the Grand Dragon of Oklahoma’s Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s. The Norman street is one block long and abuts the University of Oklahoma campus. Changing its name seems simple enough.
Instead, the city (and its council members like Hickman) imposed a name-change policy a few years ago that requires 75 percent of property owners on a street to petition for that street to be renamed. The policy also puts all of the cost of a re-name on those who own property along that street. The residents on DeBarr Avenue don’t want to pay for the change.
You would think city hall believes this issue of removing a racist’s name is like changing “Oak Drive” to “Elm Drive.” The city council is hiding behind the street name-change policy — which city officials came up with themselves and can easily change with one vote — to avoid changing the name of a street that is only one block long. At the very least, the initial cost of changing the DeBarr Avenue name is the cost of two new signs (one on each end of the street).
No matter the actual and final costs, the city has a street-naming policy that discourages homeowners from asking for it, which might be just fine if changing the name were to create some pastoral aesthetic that matches the current lawn decor. This issue, however, stems from the symbolism of racist ideology in our community.
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In his Transcript column, Hickman, who identifies as Cherokee and Catholic (as if that is supposed to mean he is genetically and religiously immune from the racist bug) takes a page from President Donald Trump’s “some have said” tactic by suggesting DeBarr Avenue homeowners were bullied to try to petition the name change. Hickman even alleged an altercation was “… narrowly averted during a recent protest march on the street by non-Debarr [sic] residents.”
Well, I don’t know what he is talking about, since I was present for the entire march down that street on Aug. 17, and I observed no altercation at all. (If there had been one, I would have photographed it — it would have been quite the photo). The Norman police actually led the marchers down the street. Nothing bad happened (or nearly happened) that I saw.
Hickman’s charges are obviously intended to impugn those seeking to rid Norman of racist symbolism by accusing them of being unruly riffraff. That’s an embarrassing tactic by an elected official.
This is my business
To make it clear: I am indeed a non-DeBarr resident, but I’m also a 34-year-long Norman resident. Does that mean I have no say in whether my city honors a KKK leader because my house isn’t on the street? That’s insulting, city hall. That’s insulting, Mr. Hickman. How is that different from telling me to mind my own business, like a certain 1960s Alabama governor told the rest of the country when he perpetuated discrimination in public schools?
As a Norman citizen, this is my business. As a Norman property owner, I am more than willing to contribute my fair share of the cost of changing the street’s name if it means Norman no longer honors a KKK leader. A city with a population of 120,000 should be able to pay for it without making the change dependent upon a dozen citizens’ reluctance to foot the bill.
Changing this street name for moral reasons should not be bogged down in a bureaucratic mechanism that discourages doing the right thing.
Norman will fail to progress under stigma of DeBarr Avenue
Hickman went on to write that the city’s historical records show the city did not name the street DeBarr Avenue. Huh? I don’t think those street signs sprouted on their own. If he writes this to somehow defend past city hall administrations from the taint of racism, I don’t get it. What’s the point in that?
The bigger issue is what the current city leaders are going to do about it. That includes Hickman, Mayor Lynne Miller and the rest of the council, who likely want the rest of the world to think Norman is some forward-thinking bastion of tolerance and equality. The longer city hall perpetuates the DeBarr name, however, the longer that image of Norman remains fiction.
Perhaps to make them feel better about themselves or look better to voters, the city council is scheduled to vote today on a resolution to affirm the city’s stand for racial justice and equality, Hickman wrote in his newspaper column. They will also move to have a committee “study” whether to change the street name-change policy. Then, they can have public hearings and more analyses, resolutions and delays for many more months or years on what this city council should have done long ago.
Why not just vote to change the name? We could call it Equality Street.