Thursday, August 20, 2015

No retirement from commitment

Virginia and Virginia (Ginny) are both in their nineties. They live in the same retirement community in Richmond, VA. Both of them have been part of the work to build trust across divides for more than 50 years.

When my wife and I visited them for lunch this week they brought the latest copy of our newsletter with sections marked and questions for clarification: “Tell us about the social determinants of health.” “Explain about African American school students experiencing harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated.” They also wanted to know whether we had read a recent newspaper article (relevant points highlighted) about our junior senator. And “What are we going to do about ISIS?”

In the late 70s these two veterans were part of the Initiatives of Change team that welcomed members of the first black majority on Richmond’s city council and worked to build bridges across the racial divides. Community meetings and pot-luck dinners took place in their homes where diverse groups would strategize about how to bring a spirit of unity to the city.

Ginny had been head of the Richmond PTA in the 1970s during the stormy days of integration. “People I had known for thirty years at our church would step out of the way if they saw me coming because they had just put their child into private school,” she told me years later. She recalled speaking at a regional PTA meeting where she said, “If we had open housing, we would not have had busing.” There were boos and hisses from the audience, but as she left the hall, her vice president, who was black, put an arm around her and said, “Now I know you are not the fake I suspected you were.”

After the events of 9/11 Virginia and her husband joined the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond. “Neither my husband nor I knew any Muslims in Richmond personally,” said Virginia. But she met the wife of the president of the Islamic center, and the two couples became friends, opening the way to a dialogue between Muslims and evangelical Christians.*

Although not wealthy, both Ginny and Virginia have been regular and generous contributors to IofC. Daily quiet times, when they seek for God’s direction for their lives and how to care for people around them, have long been part of their routine.  

Ginny, who is confined to a wheel chair, told us that she “would like very much to visit Richmond’s historic slave trail.” Virginia said she was going to do crossword puzzles to keep her mind engaged. I remarked that her mind already seemed pretty engaged!

We agreed that we should meet more often, although they seem to keep so busy that it’s hard to find time on their calendar!  If you want to be inspired by examples of long-term commitment, you should meet these two valiant ladies.

*See passage from Trustbuilding

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Polls don’t tell the whole story on race relations

Recent polls indicate that white and black Americans believe race relations are bad and nearly half think they are getting worse. In a New York Times/CBS poll just over 60 percent of whites and 68 percent of blacks take this view – a dramatic increase from surveys conducted just after Obama’s first election victory.

Interestingly, while only 37 percent believe race relations are “generally good” nationally, 77 percent say they are good in their own communities. The actual day-to-day experience of many people seems to be different from their perception of national trends.

So what is going on?  No doubt the nation-wide focus on police shootings of unarmed black men and the frequent failure to prosecute those responsible has greatly increased public consciousness of bias within the police and the criminal justice system. But killing of black men is not a new phenomenon. The presence of cell phone cameras and police videos has simply made it more visible. Many police forces are now taking seriously the need for new approaches to training their officers.  

The Charleston massacre by a young man who claimed he wanted to start a race war and the controversy over the Confederate flag riveted the country. But the overwhelming response of people of all races was one of compassion and unity, not division.

Social media has enabled a new generation to communicate and share information in ways never possible before. This generation has no time for intolerance of any kind. Many are increasingly questioning the whole notion of race as it has been invented and imposed by earlier generations and are seeking new ways of expressing their identity. Born long after the days of Jim Crow and the civil rights battles of the 60s, they are appalled at the inequity that still exists and are unafraid to give voice to their anger and frustration.

This anger is informed by the growing body of research now easily accessible on issues ranging from bias in hiring to inequality in education and mass incarceration. And the shameless attempts to restrict access to voting in several states are seen as a direct attack on minority rights.

It is obvious to African Americans that Obama has been treated with a disrespect not experienced by previous presidents. The questioning about his birth certificate as well as his Christian faith were given equal time by the media as actual issues to be debated rather dismissed as partisan posturing and blatant lies.

The media’s obsession with sensational news has also played a role in shaping perceptions. In the 24-hour coverage of events in Ferguson and Baltimore, TV cameras sometimes seemed to outnumber the violent protesters.

If my community is any measure, there is no discernible deterioration in relations between racial and ethnic groups at the local level. In fact, in Richmond and in many other US communities people are coming together in dialogues, both formal and informal, in town halls and in living rooms, and they are building bridges of trust across the divides of the past. 

As I write in Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation and Responsibility, in hundreds of local efforts across America ordinary people are coming together to do extraordinary things. Diverse groups are engaged in acts of reconciliation and collaborative problem solving. These hope-giving initiatives appear quietly like green shoots in a parched landscape. Through careful, sustained work, a process emerges. Tools are tried and tested.

Typical is a group called Chattanooga Connected which was recently featured in a CBS story. Its theme is “Honest Conversations Build Lasting Friendships.” Two couples began by inviting people they knew—black and white—for dessert and conversation at one of their homes. Over two years and nine conversations, more than 300 people participated. Others began to host dessert conversations across town and in other cities.

Calls for profound rethinking are coming from the most unlikely quarters. Just this week a remarkable editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted with approval a New York Times article by Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. She wrote: “The day after the flag went down in South Carolina, an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch made the stunning declaration that it was finally time for a truth and reconciliation commission and that Virginia should take the lead. ‘Accounting has not occurred,’ the paper wrote, ‘the half remains untold.’ This is precisely what history demands and what this moment requires. Perhaps a new reconstruction could truly take hold and inspire the rest of the country if it sprang from the region that resisted it in the first place.” 

Yes, we have a long way to go to overcome racism, heal the wounds of history and address the structural inequities that persist. But an important movement for change has been growing over the years. We may be surprised by what emerges.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

God works in mysterious ways

Early on April 3, 1865 shortly before Union troops entered Richmond, Richard Gill Forrester, 17-year-old free African American, ran to the Virginia State Capitol and raised the US (Union) flag. Four years earlier, when Virginia seceded from the Union, Forrester, who worked as a page at the Capitol, rescued the flag and hid it safely in his home after he saw it lowered and discarded by Confederates.  

One hundred and fifty years later, a Confederate flag was lowered from its pole at the South Carolina State Capitol. A black state trooper carefully carried the folded flag and handed it over to be stored with other Confederate relics. 

It was Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, who preserved the Union and whose vision and leadership defeated the proponents of slavery. It was Governor Nikki Haley, also a Republican, and the daughter of Indian immigrants, who had the courage to call for the removal of a rebel flag that was raised again just fifty years ago as a symbol of defiant resistance to civil rights and integration.

Could the dramatic events of recent days be the start of a new chapter for the Republican Party in the South? Could the extraordinary response to the massacre at Emanuel AME Church and the furor surrounding the flag turn out to be a liberating moment for a party that solidified its southern power by playing on racial fears and resentments but is now caught in a trap of its own making? Will Governor Haley recognize that the removal of the flag, while symbolically powerful, is just the first step? Will those leaders who grieved for their colleague and had the guts to do the right thing regardless of political consequences now affirm that healing and reconciliation is not possible without equity in our social and economic structures? Could the party of Lincoln return to the best of its historical values?

Those who take political risks need support. Democrats should avoid self-righteousness. They have their own shameful history. It was southern Democrats who enforced Jim Crow legislation for 100 years and fiercely resisted the civil rights movement. George Wallace was a Democrat, not a Republican. Nor should the North feel superior in matters of racial justice. The ten most segregated cities include New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit and Boston.

One foundation that South Carolina and other southern states may build on is a shared sense of spirituality among whites and blacks. This was evident in the public statements following the Charleston shooting. The community refused to be divided. There was an awakening among Christians to the fact that the moral teachings of their faith demanded action to remove the offending symbol. The South African experience may prove instructive. For decades the Dutch Reform Church, as the “official church” of South Africa, justified apartheid, giving a theological cover to the white power structure. In 1986, however, the church formally denounced its attempts at biblical justification of apartheid, and in 1989 it condemned apartheid as a sin. This action played some role in helping to move the country toward a peaceful transition to democracy.    

Will the response to the Charleston shootings and the renouncing of the Confederate flag open up a constructive dialogue about how to build a more just and inclusive society for all Americans? As President Obama said in his extraordinary eulogy for the slain Senator Pinckney, “God works in mysterious ways.”

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.