The breakthrough at the Paris climate talks gives hope. It shows that with sustained effort, good intent, gracious hosting and skillful facilitation, the most difficult and contentious challenges can be met. Commentators credit a change in geopolitics, a clearer perception of the threat posed by inaction, and the art of French diplomacy which ensured that every country, regardless of size or wealth, felt its voice would be heard. The presence of business leaders committed to addressing climate change was critical.
My mind turned homeward to the United States which appears more deeply polarized than at any time in recent decades. What can we learn from Paris?
However much one deplores the Trump phenomena, he is exploiting genuine anxiety and insecurity among many Americans. The hollowing out of the middle class, loss of solid blue collar jobs, crippling student loans, rapidly changing demographics, threat of terrorism, and 24-hour social media and cable news combine to feed a climate of fear. Death rates are rising among middle-aged white Americans, unlike every other age group, or every other racial and ethnic group. Conservatives feel their values are under assault from secularists. There is fury at the corrupt politics of Washington. Above all, many people feel that their voices are simply not being heard.
Underlying much of the fear and anger is the issue of race. In recent polls most Americans believe race relations are markedly worse than a decade ago and are getting worse. African Americans are no longer prepared to accept persistent bias and discrimination. Whites resist loss of control and are uncertain of their own place in a “browning” America. Yet race has scarcely rated a mention in presidential campaign debates.
The Republican establishment is terrified of a Trump (or Cruz) candidacy. But GOP leaders have helped to prepare fertile ground for extremist campaigns by playing on the deepest fears and worst instincts of Americans.
It began with the so-called “Southern strategy” employed by Republicans in the 1960s and early 70s, a naked appeal to white racial resentment. It continued with pandering to the Tea Party, questioning of Obama’s patriotism, demonizing of government, undermining of voting rights, lies about cross-border immigration, and now anti-Muslim rhetoric. All this has created a political climate where as one civil rights leader put it, everyone has been given tacit permission to unleash their anxieties on those they believe to be the “other.”
Twenty years ago Harlon Dalton* wrote, “…meaningful action at the societal level is virtually impossible. As a nation we lack a consensus concerning how to deal with the problems that bedevil us most. We seem unable to take sustained action in any direction for very long. And we don’t trust anyone enough to let them lead us. We are, in short, politically paralyzed. The reasons for this paralysis are several but chief among them is our failure to engage each other openly and honestly about race.”
As a nation we have never undertaken the task of examining our racial history honestly. Its legacy is seen in every aspect of our social structures and public policies. Most importantly, as Dr. Gail Christopher of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation points out, we have not overcome the “belief in a hierarchy of human value which became manifest as racism,” or the “consequences, implications and most importantly feelings, motivations and behaviors that have grown over time from adherence to this belief system.” As America becomes increasingly diverse – the workforce will be majority minority by 2030/31 – we must face this if we are to create a healthy society and if America is to play a constructive role in a world torn by ethnic and sectarian conflict.
On December 4, I joined leaders of civil rights organizations, advocacy groups and national institutions as well as some corporate representatives to explore the potential for a national truth, racial healing and transformation process. Dr. Christopher emphasized that the focus should not be on perpetrators or victims, but on “the power of belief that created both, the belief in a hierarchy of human value…
Ours is a shared history, a shared journey with a shared responsibility to shape a future America that has truly jettisoned this archaic concept along with biases both conscious and unconscious.”
A call to action came from 92-year-old William Winter, governor of Mississippi, a self-confessed former die-hard segregationist, who, in the words of Christopher, “
embodies the transformation of which we speak.”
Winter is known for his
strong support of public education and racial reconciliation. As governor he introduced the landmark Mississippi Education Reform Act which established the state’s first public kindergartens.
Vigorous as ever, Winter says, “I have a lot of friends who say, ‘Why not leave it [racial justice and reconciliation] alone? It will work out.’ The last years have shown that WE have got to work it out… in such a way that everyone feels they have a stake in the process….to level the playing field, to create a country of opportunity for everyone.”
This task requires determination and persistence. It will take courage to face honestly the truth about our history as well as our present. And it will only succeed if all Americans feel that their voices are heard and respected. Black, white, Hispanic, indigenous, Asian, liberal, conservative, grassroots, corporate, government, immigrant, people of all faiths and secularists: the best of everyone is needed.
If 195 nations can come to an agreement on climate change in Paris, could Americans of all backgrounds join together to finally overcome the scourge of our racial history?
*Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks & Whites (Harlon Dalton, Doubleday, 1995)