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.

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