In the days after a white man shot a black teenager who rang the wrong doorbell in Kansas City, Missouri, Manny Abarca wrote a letter.

Abarca, Jackson County Legislator, wrote an open letter to Clay County Chairman Commissioner Jerry Nolte, urging the leader to call for gun reform and acknowledge concerns about a culture of racism in Kansas City’s Northland, the large area north of the Missouri River that encompasses counties, cities, and towns .

“I have known for a long time that once I cross the North-River, I should expect a change in the way I am treated because of the color of my skin,” Abarca wrote. Nolte has not responded publicly or responded to a request for comment from NBC News.

The letter came just four days after 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot in the Nashua neighborhood of Clay County after mistaking a house for another nearby. Andrew Lester, 84, was charged Monday with first degree criminal assault and armed criminal action in the shooting. He pleaded not guilty Wednesday.

The shooting, which Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson said had a «racial component,» has sparked conversations about Northland’s reputation. For black Kansas City residents, Northland is largely made up of conservative, predominantly white neighborhoods that many say they have long learned to mistrust. Residents like Abarca say there is an unspoken rule among Black and Latino people that many of the neighborhoods are dangerous and «off limits» for people of color.

“Unfortunately, white leaders don’t accept that there is a problem and instead sidestep the real issue that there is an undercurrent of racism, if not prejudice, that is exploding,” Abarca said in an interview.

Yarl was trying to pick up his siblings around 9:45 p.m. April 13 when he mistook the Northeast 115th Street home for one a block away on Northeast 115th Terrace, police said. He rang the doorbell and the owner shot Yarl in the head and arm. Yarl ran away and was eventually helped by a neighbor until authorities arrived. Yarl, who also lives in Clay County, survived and is recovering.

Earlier this week, one of Lester’s grandsons said Lester had become obsessed with watching conservative media and following conspiracy theories based on misinformation.

Clay County, where the shooting occurred, is 79.2% white, according to census data; Blacks make up 7.7% of the county’s population and Latinos 7.5%. The surrounding counties have similar demographics, with Jackson having the largest black population of the counties bordering Clay, according to census data.

Alexis, a 31-year-old black woman who lives in Platte County, said she has lived in the area most of her life and is well aware of the arbitrary racial lines in Northland. “There is absolutely racial hostility here,” she said, adding that she lives less than 20 minutes from Nashua, where she shot Yarl. Alexis asked to use only her first name out of fear of retaliation from neighbors or other Northland residents. She said she often feels uncomfortable when she walks through Northland cities with conservative flags, bumper stickers and signs praising Donald Trump.

“I’ve even worked in Northland and it’s Trump country,” he said. “They are not shy about the racism of him. I get stares when I go to the stores. I had to quit a job in Northland because of racism.»

About 51% of Clay County voters voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, according to the county. Board of Election Commissioners.

Kansas City has seen such dividing lines for decades. Just below Northland, Troost Avenue, which runs north-south through the heart of Kansas City, has become a boundary highlighting the economic and social disparities in the city. Neighborhoods east of Troost are black. Neighborhoods west of Troost are white. In the East, black residents have experienced numerous disparities, from low household income to lower life expectancy than residents of western Troost, Brent Never, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said in 2018. Scholars trace this back to the early 20th century. , when racial segregation and racist housing practices were introduced to the city.

As for Northland, blacks have learned through experience and words of caution that venturing north of the city’s diverse core could be dangerous. Cecelia Robinson, historian and professor emeritus at William Jewell College, has spent decades studying the history of black communities in Northland. According to her research, the counties slave populations in Northland they accounted for a large part of its total population in the 19th century. The Northland counties were leaders in the production of hemp and tobacco as a result of slave labor.

US Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat who became the city’s first black mayor in the 1990s, acknowledged Northland’s history of slavery. to the kansas city starbut said its racist culture has changed over the decades.

Some residents disagree, pointing to recent instances of high-profile racism. In 2021, Platte County, the predominantly white Northland County next to Clay County, drew national attention when four Park Hill South High School freshmen were suspended or expelled after it was published in social networks a «petition» that sought to restart slavery. The students later claimed that the petition was a joke.

Kansas City Councilman Dan Fowler, who represents the Nashua area, shared similar sentiments as Cleaver. Fowler said Northland tends to be conservative and could use more diversity, but it’s getting a bad rap overall.

“I think we are being imbued with attitudes from the distant past,” he said. “And we are being shamed by the actions of one person.”

«It’s easy to tell someone is racist when you don’t know them at all,» Fowler said. «But come here and interact with the community, and you’ll get a different impression.»

James Lynch, who helped Yarl after he was shot, said he hadn’t given much thought to racism in Nashua before the incident. He also acknowledged that his Nashua neighborhood is not very diverse, but it is a «good place to live.»

“Everyone is welcome here. No one has said that you cannot live here. It is normally a safe place to live,” Lynch said. “I think what happened in this quiet neighborhood was shocking to everyone. This is a stain on a pretty nice place to be, which sucks.»

Jamie Wehmeyer, who lives in Clay County, said Northland’s reputation is one of the many reasons he prioritized diversity and inclusion when founding KC Northland Strong in 2019. KC Northland Strong is an organization made up of various Northland businesses, groups, and community members, with the goal of raising awareness about inequities in the area and the impacts of trauma.

“I strongly believe that in Northland we just don’t talk about the big issues that can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths,” he said. “There is no racism in Northland. There is no addiction in Northland. As a community, I think we play down that.»

Protests broke out in Kansas City over the weekend. Protesters who marched to the shooter’s home reported drivers speeding by, chanting, «Trump 2024!» said Ryan Sorrell of The Kansas City Defender, a black-focused nonprofit news organization. He said protesters reported being mocked by locals as they marched in Northland.

De Abarca said he almost did not participate in Sunday’s protest for fear of being harmed in the area, but went anyway. He said it ended up being the right decision, and what he found was a symbol that perhaps the culture was changing.

“I was hoping to join only the black and Latino leaders, and we would be about 20 or 30,” he said. “What I saw was a diverse crowd of Northlanders, Southlanders, a united city that had come together to protest this action and demand justice.”

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