Back to the Future on Race Relations

Recently, I went on television to discuss immigration.  After advocating application of American ideals and humanitarian action as a must for effective immigration policy, I concluded by emphasizing the ongoing desperate need for secure borders, and that those who enter our country illegally have broken our laws, and for national stability and respect for the rule of law, such infractions had to suffer some form of legal redress.  The guest on the program taking the opposing view opined that my citing the rule of law and legal violations was “vile” and “inflammatory.”  In his defense, he backtracked when I calmly stated that citing the laws of our country was an objective, unemotional statement of fact, and neither “vile” nor “inflammatory”.

The exchange elicited a reflection on the state of public debate in the American republic – it is frequently uncivil, emotional, illogical, angry, hateful, and the realm of ad hominem attacks, typically elicited when the name calling, bombastic speaker is losing an argument and has no legitimate avenue for further discourse.  One arena subject to the most demagoguery name calling and emotional anger surrounds our national temper tantrum on race.  This is a national tragedy and must be reversed.

The words “racist”, “bigot”, “deplorable”, among many, are spewed out at the slightest provocation or modicum of disagreement; all at a time when we have twice elected our first African American President, when African American and Hispanic unemployment are both at historic lows, and when there has never been greater opportunity for minority families, women, and other historically disadvantaged or discriminated against Americans. 

There is so much to celebrate in race relations and where America is today economically, socially, and morally.  We’ve advanced light years forward from the Civil War, Ku Klux Klan, segregation, and many Americans foreclosed from their inalienable voting rights.  So how do we mitigate or even eliminate the animus, discord, and lack of unity among the American people on the subject of race?  Well, it remains a long road, to be sure, but the bright light of hope for the future is found in the past.

When I was in business school, I took a course in great leadership.  We were given selected readings from the speeches and writings of great men and women to review and debate. One of the readings was Martin Luther King’s Letter from The Birmingham Jail.  What an eye opener. It was quite possibly the most inspired letter I had ever read.  The letter is full of gentle persuasion, Biblical principles rooted in Dr. King’s Christian faith, and profound humility and patience at the inept and half-hearted support Dr. King had received up to that time from white, moderate Christian clergy in the South.

Today, especially with recent FBI files released, the emphasis on Dr. King’s life has partially shifted from the decades long civil rights narrative to the claims and accusations that Dr. King engaged in recurring immoral, antisocial behavior worthy of censure, amid calls for a reexamination of his life and its meaning.

Nonsense.  Dr. King was, is, and will continue to be the quintessentially great African American leader.  Too often our modern day obsession with trivia and gossip blind us to impactful substance and meaning.  And society’s judgment is too often black and white, and void of nuance and complexity.  We are all saints and we are all sinners, both.  No one is 100% either.  There is good in every person, and evil in every person.  Whatever Dr. King’s faults were, they are overwhelmed by his soaring rhetoric, inspired leadership, and the sea change he brought to race relations in our country over fifty years ago.

To heal and unify our country on the topic of race, we must hearken back to his words and example.  In his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial, he spoke of the dream that his “four little children [would] one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  I make a determined effort every day to follow his example – to be color blind (and gender blind) and judge those I interact with by their character, purpose, and aptitude, in that order.  I try to see that my six children and everyone else I can influence do the same.

Perhaps transforming from a race-obsessed society to one color blind, encouraged by all the progress in race relations in recent decades, and hopeful for more progress prospectively is too much to ask for.  I think not.  Aspiring personally to a color blind society may be a small step, but if we all take it together it will be as large as Neil Armstrong’s.  To leap forward into a better American future for race relations, we must first go back to Dr. King, and his inspiring words and example, and reject the politics of hate, division, and ill will we are suffering under today.  E Pluribus Unum.  And justice for all.  I, too, have a dream.

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