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Northern Kansas City, where Ralph Yarl was shot, has a problem with race, some residents say

Black Kansas City residents say they avoid the area north of the Missouri River to stay safe.
Andrew Lester
Andrew Lester, 84, appeared briefly before a circuit court judge in Clay County, Mo., on April 19, 2023.Pool

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, a Jackson County legislator, penned an open letter to Clay County Presiding 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 encompassing counties, cities and towns.

“I have known for a long time that once I crossed the river-North, I should expect a change in the way I am treated because of the color of my skin,” Abarca wrote. Nolte has not publicly responded, nor has he responded to a request for comment from NBC News. 

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

The shooting, which Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson said had a “racial component,” has sparked conversations about the Northland’s reputation. To Black Kansas City residents, the Northland is largely made up of conservative, predominantly white neighborhoods that many say they’ve long learned to be wary of. Residents like Abarca say there is an unspoken rule among Black and Latino people that many of the neighborhoods are dangerous and “off-limits” to people of color.

“Unfortunately, white leaders are not accepting that there’s a problem and instead side-stepping the real issue that there’s an undercurrent of racism, if not prejudice, exploding,” Abarca said in an interview.

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

Earlier this week, one of Lester’s grandchildren said Lester had become consumed with watching conservative news outlets and following conspiracy theories built on misinformation.

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

Alexis, a 31-year-old Black woman who lives in Platte County, said she’s lived in the area most of her life and is well aware of the arbitrary racial lines in the Northland. “There’s absolutely racial hostility up here,” she said, adding that she lives just under 20 minutes from Nashua, where Yarl was shot. Alexis asked to use only her first name for fear of retaliation from neighbors or other Northland residents. She said she often feels uncomfortable when walking through Northland towns with conservative flags and stickers and posters praising Donald Trump on display.

“I’ve even worked in the Northland and it’s Trump country,” she said. “They’re not shy about their racism. I get looks when I go into stores. I had to leave a job in the Northland because of racism.”

Around 51% of Clay County voters cast ballots 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 the Northland, Troost Avenue, which runs north and south through the heart of Kansas City, has become a boundary highlighting economic and social disparities in the city. Neighborhoods east of Troost are Black. Neighborhoods west of Troost are white. On the east, Black residents have experienced numerous disparities from low household incomes to lower  life expectancies than that of residents to the west of Troost, University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Brent Never said in 2018. Scholars trace this back to the early 20th century, when racial segregation and racist housing practices were introduced in the city. 

As for the Northland, Black people have learned through experience and words of warning that venturing north of the city’s diverse core could be dangerous. Cecelia Robinson, a historian and professor emeritus at William Jewell College, has spent decades studying the history of Black communities in the Northland. According to her research, the slave populations of counties in the Northland accounted for a large portion of their total populations in the 1800s. The Northland counties were leaders in hemp and tobacco production as a result of slave labor. 

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, who became the city’s first Black mayor in the 1990s, acknowledged the Northland’s history of slavery to The Kansas City Star, but said its racist culture has changed over the decades.

Some residents don’t agree and point to recent high-profile instances of racism. In 2021, Platte County, the predominately white Northland county next to Clay County, garnered national attention when four Park Hill South High School freshmen were suspended or expelled after a “petition” seeking to restart slavery was posted on social media. The students later claimed the petition was a joke. 

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

“I think we’re being tarred with attitudes of the distant past,” he said. “And we’re being shamed by the actions of one person.”

“It’s easy to say somebody’s racist when you don’t know them at all,” Fowler said. “But come up here and engage with the community, and you’ll get a different impression.”

James Lynch, who helped Yarl after he was shot, said he hadn’t thought deeply about racism in Nashua before the incident. He, too, acknowledged that his Nashua neighborhood isn’t very diverse, but it’s a “nice place to live.” 

“Everyone is welcome here. Nobody has said you can’t live up here. It’s a safe place to live typically,” Lynch said. “I think what happened in this quiet neighborhood was shocking to everybody. This is a stain on an otherwise pretty nice place to be, which sucks.”

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

“It’s my strong belief that in the Northland we just don’t talk about the big issues that might leave a bad taste in people’s mouths,” she said. “There’s no racism in the Northland. There’s no addiction in the Northland. As a community, I think we minimize that.”

Protests erupted in Kansas City over the weekend. Demonstrators who marched toward the shooter’s home reported drivers speeding past them and yelling, “Trump 2024!” said Ryan Sorrell of The Kansas City Defender, a Black-centered, nonprofit news organization. He said protesters reported being taunted by locals as they marched in the Northland. 

For Abarca, he said he almost didn’t participate in the protest Sunday for fear of being harmed in the area, but he went anyway. He said it ended up being the right call, and what he encountered was a symbol that, perhaps, the culture was changing.  

“I fully expected to join Black and brown leaders only, and there would be about 20 or 30 of us,” he said. “What I saw was a diverse crowd of Northland folks, of southland folks, a united city that had gathered to protest this action and calling for justice to be had.”