One of the central values of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and central topics of discussion at this year’s conference is racial reconciliation. On Thursday, I participated in an “action tank” whose task it was to make recommendations to the organization on how to make CCDA’s central value of reconciliation more of a reality. However, as we dialogued, I openly questioned whether racial reconciliation is really possible in the current economic and political context. Moreover, I felt there were a number of other steps that needed to be taken before we could realistically talk about authentic reconciliation.
It just so happened that at the same time we were meeting, U.S. Atty. General Eric Holder was a announcing his resignation. Of all the senior officials in Pres. Obama's administration, Holder has been the one most outspoken on the underlying causes of racial and economic inequity in the country. His recent statements in support of a lawsuit against the state of New York for not providing sufficient funds for poor folks’ legal defense, and his public outrage at law enforcement’s mishandling of the tension in Ferguson are only two most recent examples of his willingness to speak the truth as he saw it.
As a result Holder has been a controversial figure to many and that controversy is symptomatic of the unwillingness and inability of U.S. leaders and citizens alike to come to grips with the underlying causes of racial disparity that currently exist in our country. If we as citizens are ever to approach true racial reconciliation, there are several underlying concerns that must be acknowledged and addressed such as:
- the continual use of racial code words in political life,
- the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few,
- the unjust Supreme Court decisions giving corporations and wealthy PACs undue influence over political decisions,
- the unwillingness of state governments to provide the funds necessary for equitable public education,
- the amnesia Americans tend to have about the atrocities of our history in relation to indigenous people, African Americans, Mexican Americans and other peoples of color.
And the list goes on.
Individuals may develop meaningful cross-racial/ethnic relationships and this is significant. However, unless underlying systemic injustices are addressed, those relationships will have a limited effect. As Camryn Smith, a community organizer from Durham, NC put it this week: Racism in this country is not just about the fish getting along with each other, but also the fact that the lake we are swimming in is polluted.[my paraphrase]
So I began thinking of some pre-steps to reconciliation and I came up with a preliminary list; they all start with “R”. Before we talk about reconciliation it seems to me we need to address the following:
- A Recognition of the way in which power and resources in this nation are distributed along racial and class lines. When the struggles of Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics, gays, women and other historically marginalized groups are only incidentally noted in the U.S. history books, we have not come to grips with the reality that the "land of the free and the home of the brave" is also the land where there was much brutality and avarice in the pursuit of power and control of the land. Moreover, with that misdistribution of resources also came an equally skewed distribution of power.
- We need to talk about Reparations. Ta'Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic Monthly has recently revived the discussion about reparations for the black community, which is not just in terms of money, but also making efforts to address the inequities that have resulted because of the history of oppression we have failed to recognize and admit.
- We need get to work at Restructuring the guiding institutions of our society. Racism is not just an interpersonal issue but also a systemic and institutional issue, and concerted efforts need to be made to change laws, policies and practices that give advantage the wealthy and the white over against the poor and the persons of color. For example, when the criminal justice system has a plurality of people of color in prison, even though the crime rate is roughly equal between whites and people of color, the system needs to be change. Or, when poor school districts like School District of Philadelphia struggle financially while the wealthy suburbs just outside city lines have twice the amount of resources per student, the way education funding is done needs to be change. Without restructuring there will be no justice, and without justice there can be no reconciliation.
- Finally there needs to be Repentance, not in the Billy Graham "come to the front of the church" style, but in the original meaning of metanoia, the New Testament Greek word for repentance. Literally, metanoia means to turn around one's mind or perspective, or worldview. Perhaps the greatest perspective needs to be in seeing that all of us, regardless of our race or ethnicity, are in this struggle together. We need to move from seeing people of other racial/ethnic groups as the “other”, to seeing “them” as "us." As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us decades ago: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." Current political polarities and economic policies leave us to be a nation of "winners" and "losers", haves and have-nots, but the fact is in the long run if there only some winners, we all lose in the end. Disparity and injustice only lead to the frustration and desperation (what Cornel refers to as nihilism) we see these days on the streets of Ferguson, and many of our low income communities.
I doubt that in my lifetime I will see these barriers to reconciliation fully dismantled, but being here at CCDA has helped me become even more committed to addressing the inequities that exist through recognition, reparations, restructuring and repentance, in the hopes that future generations might actually approach the reality of "liberty and justice for ALL." Then perhaps we can talk about reconciliation.