conversationAs an African American woman who was raised in Richmond, Virginia, Sadie has endured a multitude of experiences of overt racism.  As a little girl she remembers crosses burning in the white community on the hill overlooking her black neighborhood of Fulton Bottom.  She remembers the roar of the cars that would start at the top of the hill revving their engines then as they flew, wheels screeching through her community, they tossed fire bombs out the windows. She remembers covering her ears but the screams still echo in her mind.

Sadie’s most vivid memory is of the destruction of the place she called home.  In the name of urban renewal, the city demolished her entire community.  The bulldozers came and rolled right over the house her mother had been so proud of.  It has been nearly 50 years but the wounds caused by this devastation of her community and the broken promises that followed are still fresh.

Sadie was one of the first African American’s to attend VCU in the mid-1970’s.  She was thankful for the opportunity but she felt invisible and simply tolerated. How can someone who had endured so much pain at the hands of whites sit in the circle with me and want to engage in honest conversations about race?   What can I say to someone who has every right to hate me and every other white person in our city?

A few months ago, Sadie gave me a book written by David Anderson and Brent Zuercher titled, “Letters Across the Divide: Two Friends Explore Racism, Friendship, and Faith.”  The book is a series of letters between a black man and a white man who agree to help one another learn how to have honest conversations across the racial divide.  I am blessed that my friend Sadie has invited me on a similar journey with her.  The copy of the book that Sadie gave me is hers, it contained her highlights and as I read it, I found myself highlighting the exact same segments of the book.  Below are excerpts from the book that both Sadie and I felt were important.

“Blacks are very, very angry at whites over past and present racial injustices.  Whites are angry at blacks because so much has been done to change the sins of the past yet blacks are still very, very angry.  Whites and blacks typically don’t live in the same neighborhood, go to the same churches, or go to the same schools.  Without the basic interactions in those areas, how can we value relationships with each other?  If a relationship has no value then who cares if there’s reconciliation or not, it’s not a priority.”

“When your whole thought process about African Americans has been structured around a negative stereotype, it’s not such a difficult step to condone, brush aside, or explain away racism.”

This book was written in 2001 in a time when racial tensions could be ignored.  We are living in a different season.  We are living in an era that will no longer allow us to ignore and dismiss the racial injustice.  I feel deeply that reconciliation must be a priority if we ever want to thrive as a nation. Anderson and Zuercher provide this description of racism:

“There are three kinds of racism: individual, institutional, and indirect racism.  Individual racism is a personal view one holds, affecting people on an individual level.  Institutional racism is a systemic and sociological condition that creates an environment whereby particular kinds of people are excluded from the positive norms of the institution.  Indirect racism could be individual, institutional, or the integration of both.  However, indirect racism is not a targeted form of racism.  It is better described as “neglecting” certain kinds of people from the positive norms of an institution or society as opposed to “creating” an environment of exclusion.”

Both Sadie and I have come to recognize that our mutual interest lies in understanding and working to dismantle institutional racism.  The facts supporting institutional racism simply cannot be ignored.  Racial Equity Institute defines racism this way.

“Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the major institutions of society.  Racism is a system.”

Anderson and Zuercher provide these insights into institutional racism.

“Just because the laws of an institution have changed, it doesn’t mean that the ways of the institution have changed. Without intentionality, inequity and/or imbalance will always exist.” In these once overtly racist systems, “Equality and equal opportunity are still elusive and hard to obtain for many minorities.  If you want a true comparison of equality versus inequality, you must compare yourself to a runner who started the race with the ball and chain on.  This is the disparity between blacks and whites. The black man is saying, “In order for me to succeed, I have to be twice as smart, twice as qualified, and twice as lucky to be competitive with the white man.””

“It is very difficult for the advantaged to see the advantages they receive.  As a white male, you are privileged whether you know it or not.  This doesn’t discount your hard work, but you have the home court advantage.  Blacks are not looking for simple equality per se.  Blacks are looking for justice, fairness, and the same access as whites.  Blacks are looking for a level playing field.”

So what is the next step for those who are willing to admit that racism is still deeply imbedded in our systems?  Anderson and Zuercher offer these suggestions for those seeking reconciliation:

“Reconciliation is the action of restoring friendship and harmony and the act of settling or resolving differences.  Until whites are ready to admit that racism still does exist, confess that fact, and repent – our culture will be unable to heal.  What is more necessary than anything else is heartfelt repentance that rings with true sincerity.  Anything less minimizes the pain that is felt.  Whites must speak up, speak out, and reach out.”

“The most effective way of dealing with the many facets of racial reconciliation is through individual relationships among members of different races.  Whether it is in a small group or a one-on-one between two people, some form of personal interaction is essential.  The journey is not a vicarious one but must be a personal experience. It is only within a friendship that individuals stand a chance of reconciling racial differences.”

As Sadie and I try to figure out how to foster conversations across the racial divide both on a personal level and in the corporate life of Embrace, we invite you to join us.  We meet on Thursday evenings at 7:00 at All Souls Presbyterian Church.  We don’t know where the journey will lead us and our little community but we are thankful for those who are on the journey with us.