I think one of the most difficult realities of trying to bridge the inner city of Richmond with the surrounding counties revolves around issues of race. John Perkins in his book Beyond Charity states, “Because race is such a major player in our history, any attempts to solve the problems of our cities will mean, first, acknowledging the race problem instead of denying that it is a factor, and second, planning our strategies to anticipate the wild card of race. Otherwise race will continue to be an obstacle with enough emotional power to divide and conquer.” This is particularly true in Richmond Virginia – the capital of the confederacy.
As I began doing the interviews for my book From the Sanctuary to the Streets, I was surprised by how many times my homeless African American friends brought up race with many commenting on how they “used to hate white people.” The first time I heard this from someone whom I had grown very close to, I was surprised. However, the more I heard this same statement, the more I realized that racial tensions are still very strong, especially among those who are on the margins of society.
A dear friend of mine Dr. Dori Baker, just finished reading my book and of all the many themes woven through the book, it was the way my friends and I shared our stories on the matter of race, that she found most insightful. Below are a couple of excerpts from my book on the topic of race.
This first excerpt relates to a conversation with my children and a news reporter:
“I will never forget taking my daughters into the city after I began working in Highland Park. The number of abandoned buildings and people hanging out on street corners, and the graffiti and trash that littered the streets alarmed my then-six-, -eight-, and -ten-year-old daughters.
My middle daughter asked, “Why do all the black people live here?”
How do you explain generational poverty to an eight-year-old? I asked her, “How would they leave?”
She said, “In their car.” She was shocked when I informed her that most do not have cars. A city bus sped past, and she pointed and proudly announced, “They could ride the bus!” When I informed her that the bus does not go out into the county, with even more concern she asked, “Why not?”
All I could say was, “I wish I knew.”
My eight-year-old easily identified just one of the systems creating a barrier in our city: transportation. Add poor schools and lack of employment to the equation, and it becomes obvious that the advice of my middle-class father to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was not enough for many to break the cycle of poverty.
My daughter also recognized that this entire community was black. Race is like a giant elephant sitting in the corner of the room when a discussion of poverty in Richmond arises. A newspaper reporter who wanted to do a series of stories on homelessness in Richmond interviewed me and asked me to provide him with names of homeless individuals that he could interview, and asked that the list contain a good deal of diversity in terms of age, race, marital status, and gender. I listed all the participants in our program whose stories would shed light on the challenges facing the homeless population and was proud of myself for coming up with a list that included every possible segment of homelessness (domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, and formerly incarcerated individuals). I also provided him with a diversity of ages and gender and marital status. But my list was lacking in one area: racial diversity.
From the hundreds of households we had served, I could only name a handful of participants who were not African American. At that moment I realized that if I wanted to understand the true challenges in our city, I had to understand race and racism and how they contribute to poverty.”
Below is an excerpts from my interview with Mr. Tony Brickhouse who served alongside me at Embrace for almost four years:
“I am sixty-four years old, and I have seen a lot of changes in my life. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, and even ’80s, white people and black people were kept far apart in this city. Wendy and I never would have met back in those days. She never would have come into my neighborhood, and I knew better than to go into hers. If a white woman had come in my neighborhood back in that day, I would have stayed far from her. All she would have had to do is yell, “Rape!” and everyone in the vicinity would have been hauled off to jail.
People don’t believe it today, but back in the ’70s black men did not walk down the main streets of the city. We knew how far we could go. We knew not to go into Oregon Hill; that was where the rednecks lived—the ones flying the confederate flags. That was a dangerous place for us to go. We just stayed far away from there. Even today you have some of that ingrained racism in parts of this city. Everyone was fighting everyone back then, and I could tell what color you were simply by what neighborhood you came from.
Fear swept through this city, driven by propaganda that made every white woman fear the black man. That was the norm. There is still is so much fear of the other. I am telling you the truth. Thirty or forty years ago, Wendy would not have wanted to be in the same room with me. I was one mean dude. I scare myself just thinking about how mean I was. You did not have to do anything. If you just looked at me wrong or bumped me, I would go on the attack. I was an angry and frustrated young man.
Then I got into some trouble and had to go see this white lady who was with the American Civil Liberties Union. Back then, the ACLU helped people who could not afford attorneys. At the time the black/white thing was really crazy. This lady looked at me and said, “You are anti-white, anti-Christ, anti-Brickhouse, anti-everything.” I looked at her and I said “So what!” and she looked at me and said, “I have not done anything to you, why are you so angry with me?” Right then something clicked in my head. She said, “I am here to help you.” I realized that that lady was a nice lady. I realized I actually liked her. That encounter did something to me, and I started to see people, especially white people, differently.”
Next Monday night, I will be sharing at Machipongo on the topic of reconciliation. Machipongo is a non-profit dedicated to creating safe spaces for people from all parts of our city to dialog on important issues. I am in no way an expert on this topic. For many years, I did what most white middle class suburban people do; pretended there was no issue. However, in my role as bridge builder from the prosperous to the impoverished, there is no denying that one half our bridge is almost entirely white and the other half is almost entirely African American. Any attempt at building true authentic relationships between these worlds, requires sensitivity to both issues of class and race.
Ruby Payne’s work is among the best as it relates to helping individuals build bridges into the urban context. Our Embrace Richmond team has been working through a number of chapters out of her book Bridges out of Poverty. While I find the exercises that she provides great conversation starters, I think it is the conversations themselves that are the real key to understanding and without understanding there can be no reconciliation. My friend Howard Parrish, the co-founder of Machipongo, describes reconciliation as the ability “to overcome the distrust or hostility of another.”
One hard reality for me has been that some individuals simply do not want to be reconciled. That has been true on both sides of the conversation. I have had countless white individuals say to me “You can’t help “those” people” and countless African Americans’ who judged me as racist the first time they saw me. No matter what I say or do, the fact that I am white person in a leadership role makes me a racist in the eyes of some. While this is a very hard reality to accept, I have learned not to focus on changing the minds of these individuals, but instead to celebrate those relationships that have developed through our ministry. In my book, I have attempted to capture the stories of individuals who were open to being in relationships with strangers and the transformation that occurred in both parties.
I am very hopeful about racial reconciliation in our city. I think the greatest advances toward reconciliation are seen in the next generation. My children are growing up in schools that are far more racially diverse than the ones I experienced growing up. They have developed meaningful friendships with individuals of all races and honestly do not see race as an issue. Not because they are in denial like their forefathers, but because they have achieved true reconciliation through relationship.
Sadly there are still schools in our city where children are not given the opportunity to develop relationships with people of other races and I find this tragic. These children will enter the world at a disadvantage. Those growing up in all black inner city schools and those growing up in privileged all white schools are both being deprived of the opportunity to develop the skills needed to advance our society. I pray that God will find other ways to help these young people build authentic cross-cultural relationships.
This summer, our Embrace Richmond team, will be hard at work doing exactly that. We will be planning fun family outings every Thursday in an attempt to build relationships between our urban and suburban friends and we hope you all will join us.
So as I prepare for my Machipongo sharing opportunity, I would love to know what all of you think about this topic of racial reconciliation.