After Front Door Shooting, Kansas City Grapples With Race

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From one vantage point, a post-pandemic boom seemed to be taking hold in Kansas City. It was the only Midwestern city selected to host World Cup soccer games. A sparkling airport terminal had just opened, replacing dingy old gates. And downtown, construction crews were at work on a giant stage outside Union Station, a remade train depot that will soon host thousands of visitors for the N.F.L. Draft.

But the shooting of a Black teenager named Ralph Yarl this month by an older white man on the city’s northern edge jolted residents and shifted the civic conversation. By the time prosecutors filed felony charges last week against the accused gunman, Andrew D. Lester, 84, Kansas City found itself uncomfortably in the national spotlight, and residents were asking how a teen could be shot for something as trivial as ringing the wrong doorbell, and why it took four days to bring charges.

For many, the case reopened big questions about racism and segregation that have been fused into the city’s history for generations but never fully reckoned with.

“We need to clean up our house so that we can be proud and not performative when we have company,” said Gwen Grant, the president and chief executive of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. She said her city needed to “address the root causes of these problems, and address the systems, and not run away from the tough race and racism conversations.”

The shooting of Ralph, 16, who is recovering from his injuries after mistakenly going to the wrong house while trying to pick up his younger siblings, horrified Kansas Citians across racial lines.

“The man should have said, ‘Who is it?’ Or open the door and look if he didn’t know him,” Paul Long, a 68-year-old resident of Kansas City, said as he waited at a bus stop last week. “This kind of stuff happens to Black people for the wrong reasons,” said Mr. Long, who is Black. “It’s not the city. It’s the people. Some are good and some are not so good.”

As days have passed since the shooting, Mayor Quinton Lucas said, “You start to see a different racial reaction,” with Black people like himself feeling upset and wanting to talk about deeper issues that were highlighted by the shooting. Some white people, the mayor said, seemed ready to move on, content to chalk up the case as a tragic aberration and to point to the criminal charges as a sign of the system working.

“I think what they’re missing is just how much this impacts a lot of us who exist while Black,” said Mr. Lucas, a Democrat, who has been mayor of this city of 508,000 people since 2019.

“The immediate answer anybody wants to have is, ‘Yeah, we’re a great place,’” Mr. Lucas said. He added: “I think we’re a wonderful place. But I think we’ve got a hell of a lot of things that we should confront to be the best place we can be.”

In the earliest days of Kansas City’s history, Black people were brought to Missouri as enslaved people, and a pattern of entrenched segregation has shaped the city ever since. In the late 20th century, city leaders struggled to integrate the school system, leading to a legal fight that stretched for decades and extended to the Supreme Court. Even now, a major north-south street, Troost Avenue, is seen as a dividing line, with more Black people living to the east and more white people to the west, including downtown.

That lasting segregation, along with sprawling municipal boundaries that span more than 300 square miles, has created a Kansas City in which many Black and white residents live separate lives. A rush of investment over the past 20 years has brought more people and businesses to the once-struggling downtown. The Northland, the suburban-feeling area north of the Missouri River where Ralph was shot, which is known for being more white and more conservative than the city as a whole, has also continued to grow. But parts of the East Side continue to struggle with high crime rates and a feeling of being overlooked.

“If you live in a privileged part of town, a less privileged part of town may as well be across an ocean,” said Jason Kander, a former Missouri secretary of state who lives in Kansas City and who is white. He said his city “remains a place that is defined by the old-school red line,” and a failure to replicate the economic growth seen in largely white parts of town in mostly Black neighborhoods.

Old dividing lines have blurred some over the decades as Black families have moved west of Troost or north of the river, and the city’s record on race is complicated. Mr. Lucas is the third Black mayor of a city that remains majority white, and its first Black mayor, Emanuel Cleaver, now represents the area in Congress.

But in interviews across Kansas City, residents described a place where progress has been uneven. Michele L. Watley, who lives in Midtown, said racism in the city was sometimes overt, like the time someone called the police on her after wrongly suggesting that she was stealing from a store. But often, she said, the bias was more subtle.

“It’s almost like this veil of nicety and smiles that kind of overlays microaggressions and all kinds of crazy stuff,” said Ms. Watley, who is Black and the founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower Black women.

At a Kansas City community center, Deja Jones, who is white, said she had noticed that her fiancé, who is Black, regularly faced racism around town, including once when she was in the car with him and parked close to a building to drop something off.

“There was a white man who mean-mugged him and said, ‘You can’t park here,’” Ms. Jones said. “I came out and told the guy, ‘Hey, you don’t talk to him that way.’ You can just tell their attitude around him.”

Ralph, an accomplished high school student and musician, was out on an errand in his mostly white, middle-class neighborhood this month when he made an error anyone who has tried to navigate Kansas City’s street grid could relate to: He ended up on Northeast 115th Street instead of Northeast 115th Terrace, one block away, and went to the door of Mr. Lester instead of the house his siblings were visiting.

Ralph told investigators that he merely rang the home’s doorbell. He said Mr. Lester opened the door and began shooting, striking him once in the forehead and once in the arm. Mr. Lester, who has pleaded not guilty to assault in the first degree and armed criminal action, told investigators that he was “scared to death” to see Ralph at his door and believed he was in physical danger. He has asserted to the police that Ralph pulled on the door handle of an outside storm door; Ralph has told the authorities that he did not.

In the first day or two after the shooting, it received little notice in Kansas City, where gun violence is a daily reality and the homicide rate is consistently one of the country’s worst among large cities. It was not until April 15, two days after the shooting, that Mayor Lucas said he heard about the case after being tagged in the comments of an Instagram post by The Kansas City Defender, a local media outlet that grew out of the 2020 national protest movement and focuses on Black Kansas Citians.

By the following day, demonstrators were marching through the neighborhood where the shooting took place, outraged that Mr. Lester had initially been released without charges in what many saw as a clear-cut case of racial bias. When the Clay County prosecutor, Zachary Thompson, announced charges a day later, he said there was a “racial component” to the shooting but did not elaborate. Activists have called for a federal hate crime investigation.

The lack of public attention from local officials early on and the delay in bringing charges highlighted longstanding distrust between Black residents and law enforcement officials. Activists point to the 2019 police shooting of Cameron Lamb, a Black man killed by a white Kansas City detective while backing into his garage, as a reason for their suspicion of the police force. The detective who killed Mr. Lamb, Eric DeValkenaere, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Many in Kansas City also disapprove of their Police Department’s unusual governance structure, in which the police answer to a board made up mostly of residents appointed by Missouri’s governor, rather than solely to the city’s mayor.

Stacey Graves, Kansas City’s police chief, said in an interview that she was working to improve trust with residents, and that new conversations had started within the Police Department since Ralph was shot.

“You have to recognize that, when you’re looking at the situation and those involved, that brings back a picture from a painful past,” said Chief Graves, who is white.

Fifty-six percent of Kansas City residents are white, 27 percent are Black, 11 percent are Hispanic and 3 percent are Asian. But police data shows that 75 percent of homicide victims this year have been Black. There have been more homicides so far in 2023 than during the same period in 2022, which local media outlets have described as the second-deadliest year in city history.

Chief Graves said she has worked to balance simultaneous forces: some residents who feel policed too aggressively and other residents who are hoping for a greater police presence.

As Ralph recovers from his injuries and Kansas City attempts to move forward, Eric Bunch, a member of the City Council who is white, said he saw a pressing need for more frank discussions of racism.

“I think we’re afraid of it, and we’re afraid to call it out for what it is,” said Mr. Bunch, whose district includes downtown. He added: “I think we all too often want to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it doesn’t exist and that we’ll just figure it out by treating everyone nicely.”

Traci Angel and Julie Bosman contributed reporting.

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