Earlier this week I participated in a conversation on Reconciliation. A longtime African American resident of Richmond who lived through the era of desegregation was in my discussion group and asked some really great questions. “What do we mean by reconciliation? What is the goal and how do we know when we have reached it?” This gentleman spends a lot of time in impoverished African American communities who have been damaged by attempts to “reconcile” and he approached the subject with what appeared to me to be hostility toward the idea of reconciliation or what he perceived as reconciliation. Another member of the group helped me understand the anger I was sensing. He shared that he had interviewed educators with 30-40 years experience teaching in the black community and asked them “Did desegregation help or hurt black communities?” The overwhelming response was “It was harmful to the community.” Another participant in our group shared how as a little girl, the message she received was that she had to give up her community and her school in order to live in the “white man’s” world. For her the word “reconciliation” was synonymous with “loss and sacrifice.”
No one will deny that desegregation had a positive outcome for the individual African American citizen and was the right thing to do. I think what I was hearing from my African American friends was the “forced” bussing of black students out of their communities and into hostile environments was damaging both to those students but equally to those communities whose schools had helped foster a sense of community and connectedness. As I listened to the pain in my group members stories, I never really looked at the issue of desegregation from the perspective of the African American experience. How would I feel if my children were forced to leave a school they loved, where they felt safe, loaded onto busses and taken into a hostile world where they were spit upon and called names? What messages does this send to these communities who are basically told “you are not good enough.” The cost to those children who sacrificed their childhood in order to insure equal access to quality education is a price I don’t think most American’s appreciate.
Prior to this conversation, I think I would have answered question “What does racial reconciliation look like?” as “equal access to housing, employment, and education” and from my middle class vantage point, it would appear that we have arrived. However, I now see how short sided this answer would be. As I sat in my group pondering these questions, a passage out of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech popped into my mind “the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land”, living “on a lonely island of poverty amidst a vast ocean of material prosperity.” From the vantage point of the lonely islands of poverty in our city, there has been no reconciliation only loss and pain. Largely African American inner city schools are still not comparable to their suburban white counterparts. African American communities are still plagued by poverty, violence and unemployment. Millions of American’s are still prisoners in economic concentration camps with little hope of escape, shoved into the corners of American society, exiled from mainstream America in ghetto’s while the bulk of American society enjoys the rewards of their ancestors labor and an ocean of prosperity.
The question that came during our conversation was “Can there be true reconciliation without justice?” I think that is the real question. Can two parties be reconciled and overcome hostility and distrust toward one another if injustice persists? This is the question I am pondering today and I invite you to share your thoughts.
During our conversation, I felt that many of my new friend’s questions and his anger were directed toward me, one of only two whites in the group. At the conclusion of our conversation, my new friend made a point of coming up to me and giving me a hug. He said “Keep doing what you are doing. Keep asking the hard questions. What you are doing is important work.” I cannot tell you how meaningful that embrace and those words of encouragement were to me. Racial reconciliation is a hard topic. It would be far easier to pretend we have arrived than to admit that we have only begun to address the issue. This is a topic I spend a fair amount of time on in my book From the Sanctuary to the Streets and have blogged on in my post Racial Reconciliation in Richmond but still feel ill equipped to address. While we I did not solve all the problems of our city, I do feel like in some small way God reconciled me and my new friend. I think God allowed me to feel his pain and allowed him to see my heart and in the process the color of our skin became irrelevant as we were united in the spirit of reconciliation.