By Mark R. Warren
We seem to be facing a new wave of racial animosity in our country right now, from the Florida preacher who threatened to burn a Koran unless the Manhattan Islamic center was moved, to Arizona’s new immigration law legalizing racial profiling; from Glenn Beck high-jacking Dr. King’s march anniversary on the Mall in DC with an overwhelmingly white Tea Party crowd, to the New York gubernatorial candidate who won the Republican nomination after sending monkey pictures and tribal dance emails mocking President Obama.
In the face of this divisiveness, we have an urgent need to better understand how to bring Americans together across racial and religious lines.
In times of economic insecurity, white Americans have often turned towards blaming racial and ethnic “others” for the cause of their problems. One important reason this happens is the segregation that still runs deep in American society. Indeed, white Americans are the most segregated racial group in the U.S., living, worshiping and going to school in predominantly white communities. Only 15 percent of whites report having even one close friend of color. If white people and their closest white family members and friends do not directly experience racism, how can they develop a deep appreciation of the experience of racism and come to care about it – rather than blame other races and ethnicities for America’s troubles?
I have been interviewing white Americans about how they became aware of racism and came to care enough about the issue to development a commitment to become activists for racial justice. They reported to me the profound impact that building relationships with people of color had on them. For example, juvenile justice advocate Mark Soler knew the statistics on the growing criminalization of black men. Indeed, in places like Baltimore, nearly half of all black men are in the custody of the criminal justice system in one way or another. However, it was when his African American colleagues told him their personal stories of harassment at the hands of the police that Soler began to grasp the reality of that experience in what he calls a more visceral way.
Relationships do more, however, than deepen understanding of racial experience. Through relationships white people can come to care about racism because it affects people they know personally and care about. Soler spent many hours driving to juvenile facilities with one African American colleague. His colleague shared stories not just about his own treatment at the hands of the police but also his personal anguish about how he should counsel his son about the police. The colleague’s fear for what could happen to his teenage son became palpable to Soler in a deeply personal way. Soler’s thirty year commitment comes from both his intellectual understanding of racism but also his visceral awareness and personal connection.
Clearly it’s not enough to just place people together. Indeed, Robert Putnam’s research on diversity and social capital shows that, absent meaningful relationships, racially and ethnically diverse communities are lower in social trust, for example. The activists I interviewed highlighted the importance of their experiences in multiracial organizations like schools and community organizing groups where they built meaningful and reciprocal relationships with people of color, where differences were openly and honestly discussed, and where people had a chance to find their commonalities in shared values for a more just and equitable society.
Perhaps the Tea Party demonstrators will not enthusiastically embrace these kinds of opportunities to work across racial lines. But the activists I interviewed, and many others, are building the local foundations for the emergence of a new racial justice movement. When people have a chance to work together, share stories and build meaningful relationships, they can come to understand each other better and develop the foundations for a truly multiracial democracy rooted in a caring, human community with equity and justice at its core. Years of patient local organizing created the foundations for the emergence of the national civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. I believe we have to pay careful attention to the work of activists who are building the foundations for just such a movement to re-emerge in our era.
Mark R. Warren is Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice.