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 out 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.

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