America Healing

In March, I wrote about my experience at a retreat with fifteen practitioners and some program officers from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation where we shared personal stories of racial healing. Last month, the same group served as facilitators for the America Healing conference in Asheville, North Carolina, when the foundation convened 250 grantees, racial justice advocates, and leaders of national civil rights organizations.

We spent the first day in “racial equity healing dialogues.” For the most part, people in my sharing circle had spent years, sometimes decades, in the struggle for racial justice, yet for many it was a unique experience to be in a group where they could tell their stories. As one activist said, “For the first time I felt like I was not alone.”

One participant described a turning point in his life when someone had simply been willing to listen to his anger and pain and then had the humility to say, “I can have no idea what it was like for you.”

A senior African American, who grew up in the segregated south and went on to a distinguished corporate career, recalled hearing his father having to answer, “Yes, sir” to a 9 year-old white boy. “Healing is a journey that is not over. Even today most of us cannot live in America for a full day without something happening that reminds you of what color you are. How do you take hate and turn it into love, turn it into good?”

Other themes and questions surfaced: How to work with people who will not change? What to do with our frustrations? How to deal with multiple realities and identities in our increasingly multicultural national community? How to be part of the system and not be tainted by it? How to do the work and take care of ourselves at the same time?

The second day focused on hard realities of race and class in America today. Here is one stark fact: People who live in safe, typically white neighborhoods can expect to live up to 20 years longer than those in impoverished ones. 

Through panels and workshops we exchanged information on systems change, policy, community organization, and strategies for racial equity in education, health, and economic security. A powerful movement for racial healing may be gaining momentum. A new generation is embracing blended racial identities as seen in the extraordinary diversity of the conference attendees. But, paradoxically, many agree that the election of President Obama has actually made it harder to talk about race.

Speakers noted an insidious reframing of the racial issue in national politics, the media, and in some court decisions. In this “reactionary color blindness,” considering racial impact in order to avoid potential discrimination itself constitutes racial discrimination. In this Alice in Wonderland view of reality, to take race into account, even to avoid discrimination, is discrimination. Talking about race is racist.*

I was moved by the story of Mee Moua, a Hmong American who came as a refugee from Laos and was elected to the Minnesota Senate. She framed the immigration issue in the context of the larger story of all Americans and told how the Jewish community in her state, some of them holocaust survivors, had supported the rights of Latinos. She said, “We will not resolve the immigration issue until it is seen as more than a Hispanic/Latino issue. Those of us who could ‘pass’ must step up.”

Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy states: “Achieving racial equity will require changing hearts, minds and deeply held (often unconscious) beliefs that manifest in and through persistent residential segregation patterns and related disparities in access to opportunity.”

Perhaps the most interesting evidence of this change of heart came from Harvard professor Mark Warren, author of Fire in the Heart: How White Americans Embrace Racial Justice.  In interviews with white people who are making a difference in their communities, he discovered that what engaged them was not analysis or education. Nobody said, “I read about racism” or, “I took a course.” What got people moving was “direct witnessing experiences when they saw with their own eyes the hard realities of racism.” Motivation comes from a “profound moral and spiritual process” as they build “meaningful relationships with people of color and when their values and interests are directly addressed.”  

*A special issue of The American Prospect, April 2011, entitled Color Blinded contains important articles by Shirley Sherrod, Randall Kennedy, William Julius Wilson, Ian Haney-Lopez and others.