Inscription on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
Our nation is lining up on either side of a fault line that threatens to shake the foundations of our nation. I can’t help fearing that the Big One is coming—the racial earthquake that could destroy us. I’m frightened for our future. I’m frightened for our children. But I also have hope.
Comedian Chris Rock makes me laugh and brings me some comfort when he aptly observes that white Americans are a lot less racist than they used to be. He says, “The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”
He’s right. Many of our nation’s children and young adults have healthier attitudes about race than we Boomers, who fought so hard for equality but who have somehow managed to hang on to the vestiges of race that threaten us.
As with most of the issues that plague us, conservatives and liberals—and their preferred media outlets—continue to take up their favorite spots on either side of the fault line. Conservatives defend law enforcement, no matter how brutal their actions, and liberals defend the accused, no matter how strong the evidence that the police may have been justified in their use of force. It’s hard to fight the media who fuel our fears only when conflict sells and then who drop the story when it ceases to be sensational.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t abolish racial fissures with the signing of a pen on legislation. We have to find ways to heal wounds and bridge divides when the cameras are gone. And we do. We quietly go about our daily lives, in which many of us live in harmony with people of other races, finding joy and strength in each other.
We need the press to keep us informed of the facts when white policemen kill unarmed black men. I’m not as certain that we need the endless opinions of pundits who defend both sides and create outrage that lasts only as long as the latest news cycle. In fact, I think they do harm to our ability to have a productive national conversation about race.
But I have hope. Nearly two years after his death, I mourn the loss of my closest black friend mostly because he was my friend, my brother. We appreciated many meals at each other’s tables, but he could also be honest enough to say, “I ain’t eatin’ that shit,” when my white chicken chili didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. I had to laugh and agree as my husband joked about the color of the chili.
My friend and I could also be honest in far weightier discussions—why it was important to teach black writers in an overwhelmingly white school, how he felt about having to teach his son how to talk to a police officer who stopped him for speeding in the shadow of our nation’s capital. In addition to missing his friendship, I miss him for his perspective on race, so different from my own.
Once, when a black teacher wrote a pass for a black student to miss my A.P. Literature class because she hadn’t done her homework, I vented to my friend about how often the teacher protected minority students and undermined teachers who tried to hold them accountable. It wasn’t the first time the teacher had done such a thing. My friend conceded that the teacher had let his empathy for a minority student overwhelm his good sense, but then my friend encouraged me to go talk to the teacher. When I did, the teacher and I had an honest conversation about why he had written the pass and why I felt he was doing harm to a student who showed great promise. I walked away understanding how his heart got in the way of his head. He apologized and promised to reinforce with the student the importance of having high expectations for herself. And he did.
That’s a small thing, and it didn’t change the world. But perhaps lots of small things in our own spheres of influence can heal wounds and move us forward.
I have hope, too, because of the teenagers I know. In the classroom I’ve found that even those who have been taught the prejudices of their parents are willing to read literature from perspectives distinctively different from their own and, often, to readjust their own perspectives in light of what they’ve read.
These young people exhibit the very same qualities that we Boomers had during the battle for civil rights and the war in Vietnam. We, too, were certain then that we could change the world.
We cheered Dr. King as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize when he said:
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
From Bill Clinton on, our presidents have talked about the need for a “national conversation about race.” President Obama’s 2008 campaign speech in Philadelphia helped catapult him into the White House, and he actually predicted this current state of affairs in that all-but-forgotten “A More Perfect Union” speech:
We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle…We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction, and then another one, and then another one. And nothing will change.
So how do we ensure that 50 years from now, our young people are not mired, still, in the racial conflicts that plague us and keep us from addressing the issues that are common to us all?
As President Obama said during his campaign and as many of us have said over and over again, “…we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’”
What would it take for us to do that? Our leaders from both sides of the aisle have failed because we, the people, have failed. We can’t just keep blaming politicians. We must accept that we, too, bear responsibility.
President Obama spoke truth when he said in that speech, “The press has scoured every single exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.”
Perhaps, for every story of polarization, we need a story of hope. These stories aren’t sensational, and they probably won’t sell newspapers or create as many hits on a web site. But we have to lay down our weapons and face each other with “unarmed truth and unconditional love.” Our children’s future depends on it.
So let us begin. Tell me a story.