Positive Progress On Race Relations
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, July 16, 1997
Race relations was in the headlines this past week — not because of a riot or hate crime or something negative, but for mostly positive and constructive reasons. First, last Tuesday, a Gallup Poll showed that the views of both black and white Americans are converging in many positive ways (despite real divisions that persist in some areas), a “substantial improvement in black satisfaction with aspects of their personal life” and dramatic improvements in white attitudes toward blacks, especially among younger people.
Second, on Saturday, racial reconciliation was a core theme when Americans were treated with two distinctly different approaches on how to address both the problems and great potential of America’s diversity. One, in California, was led by President Clinton, who is mobilizing the power of the federal government to deal with what he calls “the many dilemmas of race and ethnicity” in America.
The president, who told CNN he was considering the idea of an official apology to black Americans for slavery, used the occasion of his commencement address at the University of California at San Diego to discuss America’s unfinished business in race relations, to announce a series of town meetings for a “conversation” about race, to repeat his support for the use of racial preferences in college admissions and government hiring, and to discuss a new government commission to study racial issues.
Most important, the president acknowledged that the goal of eliminating discrimination and prejudice is such that “money cannot buy this goal. Power cannot compel it. Technology cannot create it. This is something that can only come from the human spirit.” That’s a pretty good diagnosis, to my way of thinking.
The other event, ironically, was held in Washington, D.C. It was led by a Colorado-based grassroots group called Promise Keepers, which is already mobilizing the spirit of ordinary Americans and the power found in the fabric of the nation’s civic culture — its churches, neighborhoods and small discussion groups — to achieve what PK founder and leader Bill McCartney calls “racial reconciliation.” PK’s launching pad is not a study or a commission or a new law. Rather, PK is a rapidly growing fellowship, some might say a mass movement. It includes large rallies, like the nearly 50,000 black, white, Latino and Asian men, many with their sons, who devoted last Friday evening and Saturday to come to RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. It also includes small groups who meet throughout the year in churches and coffee shops to address and face up to their personal responsibilities as Christian men to their families and to their community — including the issue of racial reconciliation, a core item on the PK agenda.
I read the president’s speech, and I participated in the event in RFK stadium. My view: The president has the right diagnosis — you can’t do it with money and power. PK has the right prescription: You have to do it retail, one-on-one, person-by-person, home-by-home, community-by-community — just as the “Great Commandment” implores believers to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a view found in other religions as well. Racial reconciliation will not be made in Washington.
We have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. At one point, PK speaker Raleigh Washington, a black minister, asked whites who might be feeling complacent, “How many out there have used the ‘N’ word? How many remember ‘Enie, meanie, mighty mo, catch a……by the toe?'” There were groans, as too many remembered. But my 11-year old son said, “Dad, what’s wrong with ‘tiger’ (the word we use in the childhood rhyme)?”
That’s one measure of progress. Not the only one, but that’s why I’ll place my bets on people of faith, including PK-types, people who believe in something bigger than man and more powerful than government. That’s the only way we’ll make it.