How can Initiatives of Change best contribute to healing the wounds of America’s history of racism? This legacy affects each one of us; it corrodes every aspect of our national life. The election season has revealed the depth of healing that is needed. According to a recent CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 49% of Americans believe that racism is “a big problem.”
I’ve just returned from Chicago where I spent two days with 30 racial healing practitioners convened by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. All of them lead organizations that do courageous healing and equity work in their cities across the country. This extraordinary group – African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American and European American – has come together periodically for six or seven years to facilitate healing sessions at the foundation’s annual America Healing conferences. It is a deeply moving and inspiring experience to be part of this team. We have become quite a close-knit family, with an unusual level of trust, honesty and vulnerability.
Over the past six months I have collaborated with Mike Wenger to collect highlights of the work of these practitioners as well as lessons from truth and reconciliation efforts in several US communities and in Australia and Canada. I first met Mike when he was deputy director of President Clinton’s One America initiative on race. Our survey and the Chicago meeting are part of the preparation for the launch of a national Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) process.
TRHT differs from many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) in several ways. The emphasis is not on identifying victims and assigning blame. The goal is to understand and to overcome the false notion of a human hierarchy based on race. Its visionary leader, Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for TRHT and a senior advisor at the Kellogg Foundation, says, “A lot of people want to focus on the consequences of racism but we want to go to the belief system. We want to keep focused on the desired outcome: the equal value of every human being.” There are so many experiences of oppression, but this is not the “oppression Olympics.” We must go beyond merely focusing on our own group.
The TRHT vision is huge (as Bernie Sanders might say). It will be a multi-year effort that must include every sector. Already, more than 100 organizations and thought leaders have signed on. Vital for its success, it seems to me, will be the full engagement of those whose views have been shaped by very different life experiences. For example, it must welcome the contribution of more socially conservative Americans as well as business leaders.
In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof cautions against “liberal arrogance – the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion.” As a self-confessed liberal he writes, “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”
A more conservative columnist, Ross Douthat wrote of the current political scene: “On the one hand there are liberals determined to regard Trumpism as almost exclusively motivated by racial and cultural resentments, with few legitimate economic grievances complicating the morality play. From this perspective, the fact that Trump’s G.O.P. has finally consolidated, say, a once-Democratic area like Appalachia is almost a welcome relief: At last all the white racists are safely in the other party, and we don’t have to cater to them anymore.
“On the other hand, there are left-wingers who regard Trump’s support among erstwhile Democrats as a sign that liberalism has badly failed some of its natural constituents, and who fear that a Democratic coalition that easily crushes Trump without much white working-class support will simply write off their struggles as no more than the backward and bigoted deserve.”
However misguided or alarming its expression, the rise of populism in the US and in Europe reveals deep frustration and pain that political establishments have failed to address. As Douthat writes, liberals across the world see “a widening gulf between their increasingly cosmopolitan parties and an increasingly right-leaning native working class.”
The Trump phenomenon, while deplorable, highlights this reality. An effective TRHT process must speak a language that connects with groups who feel their voices are not being heard.
IofC is a partner in the TRHT process which will roll out publicly in 2017. Our pioneering work of honest conversation and racial healing in Richmond can be an important resource. Of particular interest is our track record of enabling communities to walk together through their shared history and to connect with unlikely allies across political, religious, class and racial divides.
The group in Chicago recognized that the American story is complex and defies easy stereotyping. There are evils that must be confronted and acknowledged. But we should be cautious about seeking any one "truth." Truth does not belong exclusively to any one political or cultural viewpoint. We are all on a journey of discovery. In the words of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”
In this era of rapid demographic, cultural and economic change, anxiety is natural. And while much of this change is inevitable and may ultimately be positive, no change feels good to those who fear that they will be left behind. A TRHT process must show how the belief in human hierarchy hurts all Americans how all Americans will benefit from overcoming it.
Above all, as Gail Christopher reminds us, “We must lead with love."