Friday, June 24, 2011

America Healing

In March, I wrote about my experience at a retreat with fifteen practitioners and some program officers from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation where we shared personal stories of racial healing. Last month, the same group served as facilitators for the America Healing conference in Asheville, North Carolina, when the foundation convened 250 grantees, racial justice advocates, and leaders of national civil rights organizations.

We spent the first day in “racial equity healing dialogues.” For the most part, people in my sharing circle had spent years, sometimes decades, in the struggle for racial justice, yet for many it was a unique experience to be in a group where they could tell their stories. As one activist said, “For the first time I felt like I was not alone.”

One participant described a turning point in his life when someone had simply been willing to listen to his anger and pain and then had the humility to say, “I can have no idea what it was like for you.”

A senior African American, who grew up in the segregated south and went on to a distinguished corporate career, recalled hearing his father having to answer, “Yes, sir” to a 9 year-old white boy. “Healing is a journey that is not over. Even today most of us cannot live in America for a full day without something happening that reminds you of what color you are. How do you take hate and turn it into love, turn it into good?”

Other themes and questions surfaced: How to work with people who will not change? What to do with our frustrations? How to deal with multiple realities and identities in our increasingly multicultural national community? How to be part of the system and not be tainted by it? How to do the work and take care of ourselves at the same time?

The second day focused on hard realities of race and class in America today. Here is one stark fact: People who live in safe, typically white neighborhoods can expect to live up to 20 years longer than those in impoverished ones. 

Through panels and workshops we exchanged information on systems change, policy, community organization, and strategies for racial equity in education, health, and economic security. A powerful movement for racial healing may be gaining momentum. A new generation is embracing blended racial identities as seen in the extraordinary diversity of the conference attendees. But, paradoxically, many agree that the election of President Obama has actually made it harder to talk about race.

Speakers noted an insidious reframing of the racial issue in national politics, the media, and in some court decisions. In this “reactionary color blindness,” considering racial impact in order to avoid potential discrimination itself constitutes racial discrimination. In this Alice in Wonderland view of reality, to take race into account, even to avoid discrimination, is discrimination. Talking about race is racist.*

I was moved by the story of Mee Moua, a Hmong American who came as a refugee from Laos and was elected to the Minnesota Senate. She framed the immigration issue in the context of the larger story of all Americans and told how the Jewish community in her state, some of them holocaust survivors, had supported the rights of Latinos. She said, “We will not resolve the immigration issue until it is seen as more than a Hispanic/Latino issue. Those of us who could ‘pass’ must step up.”

Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy states: “Achieving racial equity will require changing hearts, minds and deeply held (often unconscious) beliefs that manifest in and through persistent residential segregation patterns and related disparities in access to opportunity.”

Perhaps the most interesting evidence of this change of heart came from Harvard professor Mark Warren, author of Fire in the Heart: How White Americans Embrace Racial Justice.  In interviews with white people who are making a difference in their communities, he discovered that what engaged them was not analysis or education. Nobody said, “I read about racism” or, “I took a course.” What got people moving was “direct witnessing experiences when they saw with their own eyes the hard realities of racism.” Motivation comes from a “profound moral and spiritual process” as they build “meaningful relationships with people of color and when their values and interests are directly addressed.”  

*A special issue of The American Prospect, April 2011, entitled Color Blinded contains important articles by Shirley Sherrod, Randall Kennedy, William Julius Wilson, Ian Haney-Lopez and others.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What Happened to True Friendship?

In January, 1998, I was in Washington working with a team recruited by the White House to design a dialogue guide for the President’s One America initiative on race when the media erupted over Bill Clinton’s alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky. There was gloom in the room and groans of, “There goes all our work down the tubes.” No question, the initiative as a whole – along with much of the Administration’s work – suffered hugely from this distraction. It cost the country dearly.

I thought of this again in the wake of Dominique Strauss-Khan’s arrest on charges of attempted rape of a New York hotel housekeeper and the admission by Arnold Schwarzenegger that he had fathered a child with a member of the family’s household staff. Both men, like Clinton, were known as womanizers. Schwarzenegger was described in some reports as a serial groper and Strauss-Khan had a notorious reputation as a seducer. 

My question is this: Why did no-one hold these men accountable? Why did those around them enable these destructive patterns of behavior to continue? In the aftermath of every scandal, psychologists and behavioral experts fill the airwaves. But where was the friend who might have said: "You need to stop this.”? Or, “This is a really bad idea.”? I often reflect on this when public figures – whether a Tiger Woods or a John Edwards – are embroiled in situations where personal lifestyles have fatally damaged brilliant careers and caused untold pain to families.

Because of the pressures they live under and the intoxication of power and popularity, public figures in particular need friends who are not afraid to confront them with uncomfortable facts. But all of us in ordinary life need people around us who will hold us accountable. Yet in many situations where a dose of common sense might have saved a marriage or prevented a dishonest and ultimately disastrous financial transaction, we have delegated moral authority to professionals. It used to be that friends would offer simple home truths. Now we defer to counselors, therapists, or life coaches. 

Of course, there are many times when professional help is essential. But have we become too hesitant to challenge one another? Is our desire to be liked stronger than our care for those whose approval we crave? Perhaps, most importantly, do we fear being seen as judgmental in a culture where relative morality is the accepted norm? 

Paradoxically, in recent decades, as Rushworth Kidder writes, “as moral relativism grew in strength, so too did a countervailing social consciousness,” a desire for universal values: for human rights, for rights of women, and codes to stop corruption. Relativism is therefore in conflict with widely acknowledged social values of respect, quality, and honesty.*

Tolerance has become a preeminent value of our age; and thankfully we are moving beyond many prejudices of the past. But a true friend is also a truth teller. Cicero wrote that a friend must have “the courage to give advice with candor,” and the relationship demands “frankness without which friendship is an empty name.” 

A true friend calls it like it is.  As a song goes, “He looks right through you and he loves you just the same.” Do we need more honest conversations on friendship and accountability? I look forward to comments from readers. 

*Rushworth Kidder, “Rape, Relativism, and Respect: Duke University’s Dilemma.” Ethics Newsline, newsletter for Institute for Global Ethics, 10 April 2006.