Sometimes when I think of where America stands as it relates to race relations, I’m reminded of a marriage in crisis. The root of the problem is this: One spouse is committed to making the marriage work, while the other is resistant to, or non-committal about the eventual outcome. Unless there is mediation or divine intervention the marriage is on a collision course.
In race relations in our nation, the two major groups in question don’t really have the option of walking away from each other. Moreover, I choose not to be a co-partner in our self-destruction. African Americans and Whites have to find a way to make this marriage work.
We need to run away from empty gestures and bankrupt proposals that lead us nowhere. We have to be audacious and unafraid and be willing to jump out the box and into the spaces and faces of people we need to get to know. We need to entertain new and different ideas. We need to improve what is good and change what is not.
To be clear: America is neither a post-racial paradise nor a tribal wasteland. But for much of the sojourn of Africans in America, neither the United States nor most of its citizens have quite figured how to reconcile slavery or the place formerly enslaved Africans, free Blacks and people of color have among the ranks of those called citizen.
And, like warring spouses, Blacks and Whites have lived in an uneasy peace. From time-to-time, an incident or series of circumstances has lanced the boil and acrimony and hostility have bubbled up. Yes, there is anger and frustration on both sides. A White middle class has been battered by a changing job market, stagnant wages, and jobs that have gone overseas. This is compounded with African Americans animated by a rash of police-involved killings of primarily unarmed Black men and women, blatant discrimination and racial animus they face because of the color of their skin.
But it is clear that the paroxysms of racial anger and unrest boiling up in our communities have put race relations squarely on the nation’s front burner. These actions and reactions, push and pull, clashes and war of words remind us that this wound has not and will not heal, just won’t go away.
Every time something racial kicks off, we hear about the need for a “national conversation” which lasts for a moment and fades away until the next incident. It may sound like hyperbole but the issue of race is an existential threat to not just African Americans but also to their White brothers and sisters. Race is such a polarizing issue and has implications of such a serious nature that we need to completely rethink how we deal with race, racial inequality and the web of issues that encompass them.
Motivational speaker and author William Arthur Ward reminds us that it is wise to direct our anger towards problems, not people, and to focus our energies on answers, not excuses. For a country that prides itself on rugged independence, novel ideas and innovation, Americans appear to be woefully lacking in producing the kinds of ideas, proposals and programs that do little more than nibble around the edges of a malignancy eating away at America’s soul.
We live in an America riven by fear and racial resentment. Our middle class is fighting for vanishing jobs, losing ground as more in the middle class slip into poverty and battling concerns that “others” like immigrants are taking resources struggling Whites believe is due to them.
When it comes to talking honestly about race relations, folks get nervous about saying the wrong thing, others are on edge waiting to be insulted, and all the while we talk past and around each other on an issue that requires brutal honest and a tough skin.
Blacks and Whites can’t agree on the fact that since its inception, America created and has nurtured a system that thrives on inequality, racial and gender bias and a long list of inequities that disproportionately affect minorities. This is not about assigning blame, it is acknowledging that the first step to real change and the first movement towards healing will only begin with honesty. Race relations involves a good sight more than just getting along. It also must encompass a conscious desire and intentionality to level the playing field socially, politically and economically and open up substantial employment and money-making opportunities for all people of color at all income levels and to both genders.
But too many of us are afraid of failure, apprehensive about making mistakes, running around protecting our delicate sensibilities. The racial challenges we face requires courage and the strength not to lean on the familiar.
The Greater Washington Urban League has always believed that a quality education, economic empowerment, building strong communities and sustainable businesses are some of key pillars that negate the vagaries of structural and institutional racism. We do not pretend that we have all the answers, which is why we work willingly and closely with partners of all races, creeds and ethnicities. We know that there are people looking at race relations through a different prism, devising workable solutions, gaining consensus and implementing them. We welcome all ideas and anyone willing to help slay this dragon.
America’s grand experiment is a work in progress. We still have a long way to go to remove the blemishes and stains of racism. Let us not make fear and anxiety prevent us from erasing America’s “Original Sin” and making our country over into a truly post-racial society: one marked by a just and equitable criminal justice system; where people aren’t marginalized by their color, zip code or sexual orientation; with adequate housing and shelter for those in need; a living wage; equal pay; significant investments in underserved communities; and the protection of the rights of all those in marginalized communities.
Yep, the headwinds are strong but this is a marathon and not a sprint. Count me in as a responsible partner for making this marriage work. We are in this together.
George H. Lambert Jr. is the president & CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.