Picture this scenario: An armed 17 year-old black male follows a white man at night on the suspicion (based largely on his skin color) that he has criminal intent. A struggle ensues – the black man says he was attacked – and a shot is fired. The white man is killed. When the police arrive they question the black man, return his gun to him and do not press charges. Only after a public outcry does the case go to trial. The black man is acquitted.
The unlikelihood of this scenario went through my mind when I heard that George Zimmerman had been acquitted by a Florida jury of second degree murder in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin. (Zimmerman is a Latino of mixed racial heritage; Martin was African American.) The verdict will confirm the widely held belief that the life of a black person is worth less than that of people of other skin tones. The Stand Your Ground laws in effect in many US states reflect America’s obsession with violence, individualism, fierce protection of property rights, and – above all – fear of the non-white male. Legal scholars note that the Second Amendment was originally written to preserve states’ slave patrol militias, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote in ratifying the Constitution.
“Justice involves claiming a shared, mutual humanity,” writes john powell
from the Berkeley School of Law, in the opening sentence of his latest book, Racing to Justice: Transforming our Conception of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. powell’s statement could be read as a commentary on Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal, but it could well serve as a summary of a remarkable three-day international forum on Healing History
in Caux, Switzerland, which brought together an array of racial justice advocates, healing practitioners, scholars, faith leaders and government officials to address the pathology of racism through the lens of healing, equity, and community.
While the largest delegation was from the US, significant groups came from Africa and Europe as well as South Asia and Australia. As Rajmohan Gandhi remarked, “the fallacy of human hierarchy has wounded and humiliated millions…every part of the world has felt the whiplash of racism.” The conference combined arresting data with powerful personal stories. Participants not only discussed together but built relationships as they chopped vegetables, washed dishes or made beds. Caux is a living community.
As I flew back across the Atlantic I reflected on some of what we heard and learned.
- “We need to be in the business of changing our belief system…asserting our true humanity as equal human beings,“ said Gail Christopher of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Rajmohan Gandhi quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
- We learned that ending false hierarchies makes good business sense. “Experience shows that racism is bad economics,” said Tim Carrington, a journalist and development specialist who worked with the World Bank in Africa. “Race has led America to make non-rational economic decisions,” according to Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC. Noting that the US imprisons more of its citizens than any other county he said, “Emphasizing prevention makes more economic sense than emphasizing punishment.”
- We learned that the human brain processes 11 million bites of information every second but we are conscious of only 40 of these at best. “Only 2 percent of emotional cognition is available to us consciously. The process of ‘Othering’ occurs in our subconscious network,” says john powell.
- We learned that place matters. According to David Williams of the Harvard School of Public Health, a national study of the effects of segregation on young African American adults found that the elimination of residential segregation would erase Black-White differences in high school graduation rates, in unemployment rates, and in earnings. It would also reduce racial differences in single motherhood by two-thirds.
- We were urged to exert citizen power. Mee Moua, a former state senator from Minnesota whose family came from Laos as refugees, told us, “If you don’t make room for yourself on the table you will be on the menu…. We have to make ourselves relevant to those in power.” We need a “racial impact assessment on every piece of public policy before it becomes law.”
- Empathy drives public policy. Stories have the power to move people. How can a movement to uproot belief in racial hierarchy tell its stories in such a way that actually impacts structures? We were reminded of W.E. B Du Bois who wrote, “The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well-being of the race. There have… been few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”
john powell, who led a packed workshop in Caux on “unconscious bias,” concludes his introduction to Racing to Justice: “Can we stop focusing simply on transactional moves we see as winnable and start working for the transformation of the institutions that perpetuate suffering? Can we speak to people’s deepest needs – to feel a sense of connection, to feel love?”
In the final conference session, Scott Morris, the founder of the Church Health Center in Memphis, which serves some 60,000 uninsured people concluded, “The daily work of justice and mercy are the tools needed to create a city of good abode.” Committing ourselves to this task is the best response to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death.
Perhaps the days in Caux saw the start of a global conversation on racial healing and equity that reflects what Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, called “the twin strands of honesty and hope.”