Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Migration as a gift

Across the globe humanity is on the move on a vast scale, driven by war, terrorism and religious persecution as well as the desire for a better life. A UN report released this week puts the number of displaced people at 60 million. The total number of migrants reached 232 million in 2013. This number will surely escalate and most governments seem unwilling to come to terms with this reality.   

At the time of writing, more than 2500 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were adrift in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea without food or water. Hundreds, perhaps thousands have died – no one knows for certain. The Economist magazine says the “callous and haphazard response” by governments of Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar shames the whole region. 

Richer countries have not done much better. Australia has maintained a firm policy of refusing to accept boats in its waters. Its prime minister declines to deny that Australia has actually paid the smugglers to turn back. Refugees who are accepted are sent to an internment camp in Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile many European countries are resisting the need to accept more migrants. Up to 2000 may have died so far this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. Fifty thousand have landed in Italy. Last week 6000 people were rescued and there are a reported 500,000 waiting on the Libyan coast. An even larger human tragedy looms with four million Syrians crowded into refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

One thing is certain: people who are desperate will go to any lengths to attain safety, freedom and hope for the future.

The current global crisis provides a particularly poignant context in which to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns. Based on 1200 interviews conducted over 15 years, Wilkerson documents through detailed and often deeply moving personal narratives the epic story of America’s Great Migration when, in course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the cotton fields, rice plantations and tobacco farms of the South for the urban centers of New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Along with sharecroppers came skilled craftsmen, doctors, pastors, educators and musicians.

They were escaping a rigid and brutal race-based caste system where “their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow.”  Although formal slavery had ended, millions of black Americans were still in bondage as sharecroppers and could be exploited, imprisoned or beaten without recourse. In many cases they were running for their lives from a place where a careless look or word could mean death. Public lynching was common. Thousands would turn out to see victims hung, burned and tortured. Sometimes body parts were sold as souvenirs or even roasted and eaten. Small children sat on their fathers’ shoulders for a better view. These events often took place on a Sunday as a sort of grim religious ceremony with clergy encouraging the mobs.

The migrants “left as though they were fleeing some curse,” wrote the scholar Emett J. Scott. “They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket…” They would often leave under cover of night to avoid detection as southern plantation owners would use any means to prevent their departure and the loss of cheap labor.  

The Great Migration, which began during World War I with the demand for labor in northern factories and continued until the early 1970s, would become a turning point in history says Wilkerson. “It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.”

Arriving in cold northern cities, migrants were exploited by employers who found that they could pay them lower wages and by landlords who charged them higher rents than white tenants. They also encountered fierce resistance from migrants from Central and Eastern Europe who, ironically, were themselves escaping persecution from Stalin and Hitler and who resented what they saw as competition for jobs. The response to the new arrivals was white flight from neighborhoods and schools, bombings and burnings of homes, and riots in which the police often sided with the perpetrators. 

In August 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. came to march against housing segregation in a Chicago neighborhood of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans and Italians. A crowd of 4000 had gathered to curse him; many waved Confederate flags. King was struck on the head by a rock. Twelve hundred police could not prevent the chaos that followed. King was shaken. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South,” he said, “but I have never seen anything so hostile and hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

The major receiving cities of the Great Migration became the most racially segregated in the nation. The effects are still evident today.      

Despite daunting challenges, the courageous migrants and their descendants from the South transformed American culture and politics. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owen, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Sarena and Venus Williams, Condoleeza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Jimi Hendrix, Spike Lee and August Williams are just a few of the extraordinary Americans listed by Wilkerson whose parents or grandparents took part in the Great Migration. The three giants of jazz, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane were also children of migrants from the South. 

The first black mayors of all the major receiving cities of the North and West were participants or sons of southerners looking for freedom and greater opportunity. Detroit’s black population went from 1.4 percent to 44 percent within a few decades. Other cities experienced similar demographic changes. Wilkerson notes that Franklin Roosevelt might not have won a third term in the White House without the greatly increased black vote in Chicago. African Americans who had been denied the vote by Democrats in the South cast their vote for a Democratic president. 

Taking a broader perspective, Wilkerson remarks that as the Migration “forced the country as whole to face its centuries-old demons, it also helped inspire and pressure other racial regimes such as that of South Africa, and thus was a gift to other parts of the world.”

In the US today, while fears about immigration are exploited for political purposes, any rational analysis confirms the benefit. The influx of newcomers has resulted in a median age that is almost 10 years below that of some European countries. Italy is called a “dying country” by its health minister. The only factor keeping its population from actually falling is immigration. Germany’s population is shrinking so fast that it will be overtaken by Britain by 2040. The European Union calculates that by 2060 there will be just two workers for every person over 65, compared with four today.

The American experience should be an encouragement to Europe to welcome new arrivals – and hopefully to avoid some of the worst mistakes of the US. Migrants typically are determined, resourceful and hard working. They enrich, inspire and invigorate a nation. 

Yes, there will be disruption and everyone will need to get accustomed to change. Old concepts of citizenship may give way to new realities. Robert Winder writes in Bloody Foreigners, an excellent review of Britain’s historical attitude to immigrants, “All countries are having to grapple with tensions between their historical national self-imagery and the rich plurality of lifestyles they are obliged to accommodate.” 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A movement for healing and justice

Twenty years ago Richmond was a city “starkly divided along racial lines” and “congenitally resistant to change of any kind,” according to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who joined the city council in 1994. He went on to become mayor, lieutenant governor, and then governor. African Americans had won control of the city council in 1977, unsettling the white establishment, now faced with the new majority asserting its authority. Local media frequently highlighted acrimonious exchanges at council meetings.

Traditionally, the former capital of the Confederacy had maintained a polite silence about race relations. Indeed, fifty-one percent of those approached for a 1981 Richmond Times-Dispatch survey on the topic declined to participate.

Today Richmond is a far different place. As the city marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Emancipation, the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that “instead of fracturing along familiar fault lines of race and mistrust” the commemoration has built relationships among disparate groups. A “new focus on the nation’s defining conflict has brought out different perspectives on shared experiences and developed a language of respect that enlightens rather than antagonizes.”

Many of these new relationships are a result of actions by individuals of all backgrounds, and attest to a remarkably organic and sustained movement for honest conversation and change that started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and which transcends traditional boundaries of race, class and politics.

Examples of change and new relationships include the owner of the city’s leading cotillion (a dance and manners class for the children of the white elite) who overcame her fears to open her home to interracial groups; a black community organizer who reached out to a white city manager whom he had suspected of racism; an African American pastor who developed a dialogue with a leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; and a white banker who decided to take responsibility for challenging the norms of a racialized society. Numerous such individuals formed unlikely partnerships and a growing network.

In 1993 Richmond citizens gave impetus to the creation of a Slave Trail Walk to commemorate the approximately 300,000 women, men and children sold from downtown auction blocks to southern plantations in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the following years, thousands of people took part in public forums and small group dialogues. Led by Hope in the Cities, the Richmond-based national program of Initiatives of Change, these walks and dialogues enabled Richmonders of all backgrounds to collectively confront a painful past without fixating on guilt or blame. The dialogue model was picked up by other communities, with a group even coming from Northern Ireland to study the process. Hope in the Cities leaders were tapped to help design a dialogue guide for President Clinton’s initiative on race.

In 2007, under Governor Kaine’s leadership, Virginia became the first state to formally apologize for its support of slavery. Three reconciliation statues now link Richmond with Liverpool, UK,  (which issued an apology in 1999 for its leading role in the trans-Atlantic trade), and the Republic of Benin, where in that same year President Mathieu Kerekou apologized to the African diaspora for his ancestors’ prominent role in selling fellow Africans.

Richmond is home to the first museum in the nation to tell the story of the Civil War from Union, Confederate and African American perspectives. It was the vision of Alex Wise the great-great grandson of Henry Wise, the Virginia governor responsible for leading Virginia of the Union in 1860 and who subsequently became a Confederate general. Wise says that his vison was made possible by the network of trust developed through dialogue and relationship building.

Speaking at a recent public forum in Richmond, Edward Baptist, the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, said, I see in Richmond a city that is engaging with its history in a potentially transformative way.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a newspaper once known for its support of Massive Resistance but now a frequent facilitator of community meetings, ran editorials endorsing Baptist’s book and suggested that “An exchange regarding reparations ought to be opened as well.”

Crucially, Richmond is now able to link acknowledgment of history with an understanding of its continuing impact on today’s social and economic structures. Policies of segregation and red-lining continued well into the middle of the twentieth century. Richmond ranks ninth nationally in income inequality: its wealthiest neighborhoods lie within walking distance of some of the poorest census tracts. Public housing is concentrated within a few square miles. Schools are overwhelmingly populated by African American children from low-income families. Public transportation scarcely reaches the suburban counties where most new jobs are located.

The city has made national news through the mayors’ anti-poverty commission and the creation of an Office of Community Wealth Building.The fact that poverty is now rising faster in some of the increasingly diverse county suburbs than in the inner city should prompt cross-jurisdictional collaboration.

President Obama calls income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” As I noted in a recent commentary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, healing history also means healing wounded policies. This cannot be done on the cheap and it will not be comfortable. It will require political courage and selfless citizenship. This remains Richmond’s greatest challenge.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The complexity and ambiguity of history

History is complex and ambiguous. No one is more aware of this truth than John Franklin, a senior manager at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Franklin’s ancestors were taken to Oklahoma as slaves of Native Americans. In 1831, thousands of Cherokees, Muscogees, Seminoles, Chickasaws, and Choctaws were forcibly relocated from their homelands in southeastern United States, many dying on the infamous Trail of Tears. Some of them took enslaved African Americans with them.  

John’s father was the renowned historian John Hope Franklin whose grandfather was a former slave of African American and Indian ancestry who became a Chickasaw Freedman when emancipated after the American Civil War. 

Last month John Franklin was in Richmond as guest faculty for the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship operated by Hope in the Cities. He spoke to community leaders from Memphis, Dayton, Norfolk, Austin, Washington DC, as well as Richmond. 

When we think about slavery we tend to think about the institution in North America, said Franklin, but only about five percent of Africans who survived the horrors of the Middle Passage came to this country. In contrast, close to 8 million were transported to Brazil and other parts of South America and the Caribbean.

The trade went east from Africa as well as west. As Franklin noted, the Sultan of Zanzibar controlled the east African slave trade for 1000 years, trafficking human beings to Arabia, the Gulf, and Asia. There are more than one million black Iraqis and according to some researchers, over a million enslaved people were brought from the African interior to Libya and Egypt. 

Earlier in his life, Franklin, who speaks fluent French, spent several years in Senegal. “You are often perceived with multiple identities and you will have to deal with that. You can’t help what others project on you,” he says.  “When I came to Senegal they called me a white man. But they really got me when they called me a Yankee!”

Franklin believes it is important to know the history of others, not just our own. Because of his background, Franklin’s advice was sought in the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian. He also served on the Hispanic Heritage committee for the Smithsonian and learned about the vast diversity of the Latino experience across America. For the first hundred years of its existence the Smithsonian had never taken on itself to investigate the Latino experience. An external review produced a report entitled “Willful Neglect.” It found, for example, that only two of the 470 people featured in the “notable Americans” section of the National Portrait Gallery were Latino. Franklin was also elected chair of the Asian and Pacific American committee.

“When you enter a new arena you have to learn,” Franklin says. “Ask, what should I be reading? How can I expose myself to the diversity of the Asian and Latino experience? We have to broaden the circle and learn about areas beyond our own. Everyone needs the experience of working outside their comfort zone…You will make mistakes in interacting with other cultures. You can’t anticipate everything. You just have to apologize and learn from it.”

We live in a world that is experiencing one of the greatest human migrations in history. Anxieties and tensions arise as neighborhoods and cities experience change. Mohsin Hamid wrote in the New York Times Magazine on February 22, “We are drawn, despite ourselves to otherness. In the centuries of colonialism, northerners once spread to the global south. In the decades since colonialism, southerners have spread to the global north. And northerners are mixing, too, with other northerners who are strangers to them, southerners with southern strangers.  There is a planetwide, gyrating churn.”

Franklin will be taking part in an international conference in Richmond, VA in April under the theme Healing History: Memory, Legacy and Social Change. He is helping to animate a working group on “museums and public history sites for education and healing.” 

Becoming comfortable with history’s complexity can help us move beyond blame, recrimination and guilt. Learning to hear the different stories, however contradictory and painful can enable us to develop a new, shared narrative.
America with its extraordinarily diverse population and intertwined stories has a particular responsibility and opportunity to look at these stories with courageous honesty and humility as well as pride. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.  As a community leader from Chicago said, “None of us is responsible for the wounds of the past; but we are all responsible for the acts of repair.”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Separation as violence

One of the most memorable moments in the film Selma shows the civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) along with other peaceful demonstrators standing at the steps of the Selma courthouse demanding the right to vote. Sheriff Jim Clark pokes her with his nightstick at which point Cooper punches him. She is tackled and thrown to the ground and handcuffed. A widely used photograph of the time shows Clark straddling Cooper as two deputies help him hold her down.

I had the honor of first meeting Annie Lee Cooper in November 1998 when she was in her late eighties (she died in 2010 as the age of 100). She had traveled with a diverse team of community leaders from Selma to take part in a weekend training program with people from other US cities organized by Hope in the Cities in Richmond, VA. During subsequent visits to Selma in the following years I met her again and visited her home.

Leading the group that came to Richmond was Councilman Yusuf Abdus-Salaam. On August 20, 1965 a white special deputy turned his shotgun on his 17 year-old sister, Ruby Sales. A young white seminarian, Jonathan Daniels (a classmate of our former rector Bob Hetherington), stepped in front of her and took the full blast. He was later named a saint in the Episcopal Church.

Yusuf Abdus-Salaam and Annie Lee Cooper were among a number of black and white Selmians who launched honest conversations on race, reconciliation and responsibility. They often met in private homes which was highly unusual in Selma at that time. 

One member of the group was Bob Armstrong, an attorney and prominent member of the white community. He said, “I had never heard the concept of white privilege before I encountered Hope in the Cities. At one point I asked, ‘Why does it always have to be about race?’ An African American responded gently but firmly, 'Maybe you’re not being honest with yourself. Maybe it is often about race.'"

Armstrong said he never forgot that moment of truth. “It opened my eyes to my own arrogance.” As a county district court judge he helped to launch an initiative to offer counseling, training and job placement for young fathers – mostly African American – who passed through the child support court.

There is a remarkably contemporary feel to Ava DuVernay’s Selma. We see an emotional Dr. King speaking to his congregation after an unarmed young black man is gunned down by two police officers. “How many fingers were on that trigger?” he asks. “Every white preacher who stands silent. Every Negro who stands back.”

“How many fingers were on that trigger?” King’s question has stayed with me in the days after seeing the movie. We might ask the same question today.

There is no excuse for police brutality and there is an obvious need for new approaches to training. The injustice in our criminal justice system cries out for reform. But the responsibility for the shocking events in places such as Ferguson, Cleveland or New York cannot rest on law enforcement alone.

It occurs to me that every act of separation is fundamentally an act of violence. Our refusal to integrate or properly fund our schools; our resistance (at least in Richmond) to enable public transportation to reach from inner cities to jobs in the suburbs; our NIMBY reaction to affordable housing in our neighborhoods; our retreat to gated communities; and our votes for politicians who support discriminatory sentencing or cut support for vital community services all contribute to alienation, distrust, fear, and resentment and provide fertile ground for the seeds of actual physical violence to flourish.

Our police are often faced with impossible situations that are not of their making. Practically every police chief in the country has pleaded for sensible gun control. The relentless campaigns of the NRA have ensured that law enforcement is dealing with an ever more heavily armed population. Poverty, lack of opportunity, and inadequate schools are in large measure the result of choices we as Americans have made to live our lives in separation from other human beings based on differences of race, class, religion or politics.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., can we choose to break down the walls of separation and learn to walk with one another?  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Pursuing the world as it should be

President Obama thanked Pope Francis for his role in bringing the US and Cuba together. He said his "moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is."

A mark of moral leadership is holding up a vision and encouraging others to overcome their differences to embrace that vision. This kind of leadership is not content with analyzing problems but imagines solutions. It has the courage to take difficulties and turn them into assets. It moves beyond the accepted boundaries to engage the opposites and build unexpected alliances.

In all of our communities and countries there are challenges that seem insurmountable. And because we often lack the courage and imagination for radical action we settle for crisis management or remedial responses instead of addressing the roots of problems.   

But if the Berlin Wall can fall and if South Africa can move from apartheid to democracy, then we should take courage that what once seemed impossible is not beyond our reach.

In the US we can finally commit to integrate our schools and create quality education for every child; we can reform the prison industrial complex that is devastating generations of men of color; we can pay a living wage and lift millions out poverty; we can achieve sensible gun laws and end the mindless slaughter in our schools and communities; we can live well and still conserve the environment.
These things are possible. But it will take the kind of moral example that Obama highlighted, not just by a pope or by politicians but by leaders at all levels – and that includes each one of us taking responsibility right where we are. 

It will also take persistence. Social media has proved successful in sparking popular movements from Tahir Square to Occupy Wall Street, but it has not yet been able to sustain them. Change will take more than a click of a mouse or tap on an iPhone. We will need to find ways to use technology for genuinely honest dialogue, careful listening, coalition building and organizational training. 

Vision, courage, imagination and persistence: these are essential qualities for leadership. What better way to celebrate this season of new life than by each of us making a choice to no longer accept the unacceptable. Let's pursue a vision of a world as it should be.