As we relax in our beach chairs after a swim, members of an African American Pentecostal church conduct a baptism, wading into the warm waters, while high school seniors in bikinis stroll by. A few yards away, an older white man is fishing. A black army veteran with a yoga mat stops to say hi. It all seems far removed from the picture of a country seething with anger and fear conjured up by Donald Trump.
I have spent the past three decades engaged in efforts for racial healing and equity. I am acutely aware of the injustices that continue to deny too many people of color – as well as white folks – the opportunity to thrive, and I am angry that a society as wealthy as ours still allows so many hard working Americans to live in poverty. I have written extensively about these things. But this blog is about the hopeful side of this country, the America I know and love.
While deep divisions do exist, most of America is not about to erupt in riots. At our annual neighborhood National Night Out picnic, people of all races and ages mingle happily with officers from the city sheriff's office. In a contrast to images from Ferguson and Baltimore, the newspaper reports that in the days since the Dallas shootings community groups and individuals in predominantly minority communities have delivered pizza and cookies as well as thank-you cards to Richmond police. Richmond is not alone in this regard.
Despite the partisan gridlock in DC, surveys show that the vast majority of Americans actually agree on major issues such as the reality of climate change, the need to address inequality and to establish sensible gun controls, as well as to properly fund education. There is an overwhelming desire to limit the power of money and corporations in politics.
According to a 2013 poll, 87% of all Americans (including 84% of whites) now approve of interracial marriage. In 1958, when the question was asked only to whites, it was 4%. Many commentators have remarked on the diversity of America’s Olympians, particularly the black, white, Latina and Jewish female gymnastics team.
In another hopeful sign of growing awareness, in a polling analysis conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in conjunction with the Northeastern University School of Journalism, a majority of whites acknowledge that racism still exists, and that it creates bias in structures such as the criminal justice system. Also, in a poll last year, 53 percent of whites said more changes need to be made to give blacks equal rights with whites, up from just 39 percent a year earlier.
I think back to the early 80s soon after we arrived in Richmond. We were attending a city-sponsored July 4th concert in our park, accompanied by a young black friend in what was an almost entirely white audience. To our shock, the conductor returned after the interval decked out in a Confederate uniform and as the band stroke up “Dixie” the entire crowd leaped to its feet shouting and cheering hysterically. We remained seated; I could feel the fear in our friend. Such a scenario is unthinkable in Richmond today. A typical July 4th concert crowd is notable for its diversity.
Two final snapshots:
Susan and I are taking our usual early morning walk around the park. A vehicle carrying a young black couple pulls up alongside and the driver rolls down the window.
“Are you guys brother and sister?” he asks.
“No, actually we are married,” I replied.
“Looking good!” he smiles, and drives off.
The fact that a young black man – a complete stranger – feels comfortable to interact like this with a white couple is testament to a growing comfort and confidence across racial lines.
Returning to the US from an overseas trip, the officer greeting us at the immigration desk may be of any race, religion or ethnicity. He or she may have come to this country even more recently than I.
“Where have you been?” the officer inquires.
“Europe, attending a conference and also visiting family.”
“Family is good. Welcome home.”
We have a long way to go to make this country truly a home for all of its people. But I am with President Obama when he says, “I’ve also seen, more than anything, what is right with America.”