©2002 Hannibal B. Johnson
The important and always-timely issues of race, racism, and reconciliation in America continue to challenge us as we approach the end of another year in this “new” millennium. The essential question seems clear: How do we elevate ourselves to the ideal of “one nation, under God, indivisible…” so eloquently described in our Pledge of Allegiance?
On June 13, 1997, President Clinton issued an Executive Order creating the President’s Initiative on Race and authorizing the creation of an Advisory Board to counsel him on how to build one America for the 21st Century. The Advisory Board spent some fifteen months seeking ways to build a more united America. Its members canvassed the country listening to Americans from all walks of life talk about how race and racism have impacted and influenced their lives.
The Advisory Board’s fall 1998 report to the President did not purport to be a definitive analysis of the state of race relations in America. Rather, it simply recounted the experiences and impressions gleaned from a months-long series of conversations with the American people and makes recommendations for positive action in the area of race.
Dr. John Hope Franklin, native Tulsan and Chairman of the Advisory Board commented on the group’s landmark work:
[The Advisory Board was] not prepared for the overwhelming support and interest we encountered at a time when, to most people, there was no crisis and, therefore, no reason to raise issues related to race. We were met at every event with thoughtful people who are greatly concerned that race still divides our country and who want to know how they can help move our Nation toward one America in the 21st century.
Our collective challenge is to determine how best to inspire and instruct these “thoughtful people”-indeed, all people-so as to transform our country into “one America.”
Recent polls indicate that both black and white Americans rank racism and prejudice among the central problems we need to address as a country. Changing demographics, of course, add complexity. Race and prejudice in America are no longer (if they ever were) simply bilateral (i.e., black/white) issues. Complicating matters further, our rich diversity includes other considerations as well: gender, disability, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, age, and the others.
While most people seem to acknowledge that race still matters, few feel confident of positive and proactive means to address its negative implications. What can those of us who are concerned and committed do? Simply stated, we can know, we can care, and we can act. We can know about race by learning our history. We can care about race by exposing ourselves to diverse people and perspectives, thereby enhancing our sense of compassion and empathy. We can act on race by finding mutually satisfying and beneficial ways to link ourselves to others who may be different.
To the extent that we focus our energies, target our efforts, and engage likeminded individuals, we can make a difference. By (i) communicating a sense of historical perspective; (ii) providing diversity education for our children; and (iii) finding the “common ground” we as Americans share, we enrich all of our lives.
Americans simply do not know enough about our own history, particularly the role of racial and ethnic minorities in shaping it. In Oklahoma, regrettably, this phenomenon rings particularly true. As its initial act of legislation, the Oklahoma Legislature ensconced in law “Jim Crow” segregation for African-Americans. That simple step affected race relations for decades to come.
As Tulsans, we are rightfully proud of the nationally-renowned entrepreneurial pioneers who built Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District. Conversely, we are saddened by the utter devastation of that community in the worst race riot in American history, the deadly and destructive Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. That event and its aftermath shaped the course of race relations even up until the present. Alarmingly, the Riot was until quite recently virtually a taboo topic. This decades-long conspiracy of silence compounded the initial tragedy by shrouding it in secrecy. To paraphrase Dr. Maya Angelou, our history cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, it need not be lived again.
Education in the area of diversity for all of our children, youth and young adults is critical. When we understand our differences and, more importantly, our similarities, we may then get to know one another across racial and other potential dividing lines. Change in racial relations comes incrementally, and then only through significant and meaningful personal relationships that cut across longstanding divides. Without doubt, diversity appreciation is both a moral imperative and an economic necessity. That said, one’s motivation for doing the right thing is secondary to doing the right thing itself.
“Common ground.” We often hear that phrase bandied about. Fundamental to individual and group development is the recognition that we are all human beings entitled to respect and dignity. If we take the time to reflect, we will find that, differences aside, we share basic goals and aspirations. We are better off to the extent that we can identify common goals, the achievement of which elevate individuals, groups, and society at large.
Moving beyond race ultimately involves treating others with respect, dignity, and fundamental fairness, having learned the lessons of history. It means appreciating the richness of our diversity by ferreting out injustice and celebrating differences. Most importantly, it means seeking our common ground built on a foundation of our shared humanity. We all have a role to play in moving ourselves closer to racial unity and to the “one nation, under God, indivisible” that we claim as our ideal.