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. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

A moment of truth for conservatives

True conservatives should be at the forefront of demands for changes in law enforcement recruiting and training methods and in procedures by prosecutors in the wake of controversial police actions and decisions by grand juries.

Rand Paul is one of the few leading Republicans who are speaking out unequivocally against flagrant examples of abuse of government power. Instead, some Republicans have focused on condemning the violent protests or, as in the case of Matt Willis, the executive director of Missouri Republican Party, denouncing efforts to channel community anger into voter registration.  This is short-sighted. Conservatives should use this moment to affirm their core belief in individual liberty and equal protection under the constitution.     

I am reminded of an event at the National Press Club in 1996. Initiatives of Change/Hope in the Cities and several national other national organizations including the Faith & Politics Institute and Study Circles Resource Center (now Everyday Democracy) hosted a forum to encourage honest dialogue on race relations. Believing that all voices needed to be at the table, we assembled an unusual combination of national leaders from diverse political views to speak to the theme.

We took a calculated risk in inviting such polar opposites as Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Paul Weyrich, to take part in a panel discussion. No remarks had been vetted. As the founder of the Heritage Foundation, Free Congress Foundation and National Empowerment Television, Weyrich was known to provoke strong responses as one of the most influential figures in the conservative movement. As I describe in my book, Trustbuilding, when he rose to speak many in the audience held their breath.  

Surprisingly, Weyrich began with a personal confession that for a long time he had simply ignored protest in the black community about prejudice and racism, particularly among police. “My attitude was, ‘Well, this is just a bunch of criminals probably trying to evade their just dues.’ I simply didn’t hear those cries. But I must tell you that one of the most profound events in my political life was the revelation of the comments made by the detective Mark Fuhrman during O. J. Simpson’s trial. I was astounded and outraged... And so I began to look more closely, and I’ve taken a particular interest in Philadelphia where certain bad white cops have targeted a lot of innocent black people to advance themselves by enhancing their record of arrest.”

As Weyrich continued, there was complete silence in the room. “I now find that in many cases these cries have a great basis of legitimacy, and they are cries that the conservative community….needs to take seriously… And because of our own view on the subject of government power, and the need to keep government in check, we conservatives should have a natural sympathy for these cries and be able to start a dialogue…My own experience is that once you begin a dialogue and you earn the trust of people… although you may come into the conversation on a very narrow basis, you will end up expanding that conversation and will continue, hopefully, to build trust on both sides.”

The national crisis of trust in our core institutions exposed in recent weeks is a moment of opportunity. Conservatives should call on their own best traditions to stand alongside those who are experiencing bias and sometimes brutality by the very people who should be protecting them. And they should press for reform of grand jury procedures that are unfairly weighted in favor of the police even in the case of apparently unjustified killing of unarmed people. 

They could also support an increase in funding for community policing programs which has fallen significantly as the federal government focused more resources on fighting terrorism. From 2000 to 2007, the number of full-time community policing officers nationwide fell by more than half, to 47,000 from 103,000.

There are some positive models of police-community trustbuilding.  As city manager of Cincinnati, Valerie Lemmie (who now  serves on our Initiatives of Change board) was responsible for overseeing landmark agreements in 2002 with the Department of Justice and Community representatives regarding police-community relationships, and police policies, procedures and practices after the shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old black man by a white officer.

Such measures will not resolve the larger issues of poverty and segregation in our cities, but they will be an important first step.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Could Virginia help bridge the national divide?

In contact sports if you play scared you will get hurt. And in the mid-term elections the Democrats played scared. 

Yes, Republicans worked shamelessly to suppress the vote in Texas, North Carolina and other states. Yes, the Koch brothers and others flooded key campaigns with money. And yes, some irresponsible voices played on fears of the electorate with wild statements conflating threats of Ebola, terrorists crossing the border and executive over-reach in Washington.

But the Democrats have only themselves to blame for an inept campaign that completely failed to build on a solid record of accomplishment. How could they do so badly despite a healthy growth rate, unemployment under six percent (although this figure masks a much grimmer reality), consumer confidence at a seven-year high and low inflation?

Their worst mistake was failing to champion the landmark reform that has delivered health care to 10 million people. They embarrassed themselves by disowning their leader. Instead of highlighting success they let themselves believe the Republican narrative – which was adopted by a typically lazy media – of a "deeply unpopular president." It did them no good. Most candidates in tough fights who distanced themselves from the president lost.
It was no surprise that the base did not turn out. Why would African Americans be energized when candidates held the first black president at arm’s length? Why would Latinos turn out for the Democrats when the Obama administration decided to delay executive action on immigration until after the election in the hopes of protecting vulnerable candidates? In Texas, Republican Greg Abbot garnered 45 percent of the Latino vote in his successful gubernatorial campaign.

Democrats relied too heavily on single issues such as women’s reproductive rights. By appealing only to minorities, single women and millennials they may be able to win the White House but not the House or Senate. Republicans were more disciplined than in previous elections and managed to keep the lunatic fringe in check. And there is serious thinking going on among some leading conservatives on reforming the tax code to make it friendlier to work and to families and to close loopholes; others are looking at criminal justice reform. 

There is another factor that Democrats ignore at their peril. They must take seriously the need to reach white males, both middle class and blue collar workers, and address their anxieties. 

Vast numbers are still suffering as a result of the Great Recession. Between 2007 and 2009 the net worth of an average family fell by $50,000. Many of those who experienced unemployment for the first time in their lives – often for months or even years – now find themselves working two or more jobs at far lower wages just to put food on the table. In his book Losing Our Way: an intimate portrait of a troubled America, Bob Herbert describes through numerous personal interviews a sense that the country is falling apart. Failing infrastructure and a fraying social contract cause many to look at the future with pessimism. By 2009-2010 the number of Americans committing suicide was approaching forty thousand annually, more than the number being killed in motor vehicle accidents. The suicide rate among men in their fifties increased nearly 50 percent from 2000 to 2102.

There is enormous anger at political elites – Democrats just as much as Republicans – who are completely entwined with megacorporate interests and Wall Street. A sense of insecurity and of unprecedented abandonment among millions of ordinary Americans allows vested interests to exploit racial, ethnic or class divisions and as well as historical resentments.    

In a nation where political allegiance is increasingly defined by geography, Virginia stands as a key gateway state between North and South. This is important because our national political and cultural divide reflects in part the unhealed history of the Civil War and white Southerners reactions to President Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To avoid ongoing gridlock we need some political leaders who can work intelligently to overcome mindsets stemming from historical resentment, condescension and acceptance of the usual stereotypes.    

Although they are both Democrats, our Virginia senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine may be able to play a bridge-building role. Warner is respected for his business acumen and his bi-partisan approach to budget issues. Kaine takes his Catholic faith seriously and his father-in-law was a Republican governor who exemplified the best of the party’s tradition. Both are rooted in values important to a more conservative electorate. Could they help generate an honest dialogue and encourage the best contribution from their colleagues of both parties for the sake of the country?