I was at a conference in Jamaica on April 29 twenty-five years ago when news of the Los Angeles uprising broke. With an American colleague I watched TV images of burning cars and looting after a majority white jury acquitted police officers who were caught on video beating Rodney King, a black motorist.
Twenty-four years earlier, the Kerner Commission Report, published in the aftermath of the 1960s riots, had warned that America was moving towards two societies, “one black, the other white – separate and unequal.”
A summary glance at today’s headlines, cable news and social media might give the impression that little has changed. Police shootings of black men occur with depressing frequency. The median wealth of white households is at least 13 times greater than black households. Residential segregation by income has increased in 27 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. The virulent opposition to the first African American occupant of the White house demonstrated the depth of racial healing that is still needed.
That said, there is undoubtedly a far greater awareness of race as a fundamental fault line in American society and creative approaches to addressing it are emerging in many sectors. It would be a mistake to discount them.
A month before the April 1992 events in Los Angeles, Hope in the Cities convened a twelve-member working group from Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Washington, DC, and the Twin Cities. The group agreed to hold a conference in Richmond the following year. According to one of the organizers, Rev Ben Campbell, America was in an advanced stage of disintegration caused by a materialistic binge and “divisive urban feudalism.” He also believed that diverse, but tightly integrated groups tackling specific local issues, while maintaining an international vision, could have a significant impact.
In June 1993, representatives from 50 cities and 25 countries came to Richmond, Virginia, for a conference with the theme, “Healing the Heart of America: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility.”
Hope in the Cities and its allies envisioned it as a “catalyst for action.” A sustained effort over the ensuing decades has validated Campbell’s vision of the power of diverse teams working with faith, courage and persistence to radically change the racial tone and tenor of the community. A film of Richmond’s first public walk through its racial history stimulated widespread dialogues and forums, encouraged a new approach to news coverage by the local media, and paved the way for museums, libraries and universities to tell the city’s story in a more honest and complete way. Diverse teams of committed and persistent citizens helped catalyze Richmond’s initiative to confront the legacy of segregation and other racist policies with a broad-based multi-sector initiative that aims to reduce the poverty level by 40 percent by 2030.
Other communities across the country – some of them inspired by Richmond’s example – are coming together to uncover their history and create new shared narratives. Documentation and evaluation of a wide range of interracial dialogue models have added significantly to our common field of knowledge.
Universities that owe their initial funding to profits from slavery are taking steps to rename buildings and in some cases, such as Georgetown, are offering reparations to descendants of those who were bought and sold. New Orleans and Charlottesville are removing Confederate statues. Brain science is helping us to appreciate the impact of unconscious or implicit bias on our daily responses and choices, as well as on policies and procedures. Racial discrimination and inequity and the consequent stress is becoming recognized as a determining factor in overall health outcomes. While police-community relations remain fraught in many places, cell phone and body cameras ensure that abuses are much more likely to be brought to public attention. The incarceration rate of minorities remains unacceptably high, but by 2014 the imprisonment rate of male African American had dropped to its lowest level since 1993 and the reduction among black women is even greater.
We are also coming to appreciate that slavery was a southern institution but a national sin. As author Edward Baptist and others have documented, American capitalism was literally built on its produce and profits.The North industrialized with cotton picked by enslaved labor. Northern banks provided the finance. With much of its land given over to cotton, the southern states depended on the mid-west for wheat and corn.
Katrina Browne’s film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North tells the story of her ancestors’ role as America’s largest slave traders, operating out of Rhode Island. They transported more than 10,000 Africans to their sugar plantation in Cuba. Browne’s film contributed to the passage of slavery atonement resolutions at the Episcopal Church General Convention in 2006, and it has been used extensively in Episcopal churches, dioceses, and schools throughout the US. Browne’s work is important because when southerners hear white northerners acknowledge the north’s complicity in the economy of slavery they are much more likely to be open to conversations on how to atone for the centuries of harm.
Last month Katrina was in Richmond to speak at St Paul’s Episcopal Church which my wife and I have attended since we came to Richmond. Known in earlier decades as the Cathedral of the Confederacy, the congregation has launched a five-year “History and Reconciliation Initiative” to “trace and acknowledge the racial history of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in order to repair, restore and seek reconciliation with God, each other and the broader community.”
The Christian church in particular has much to atone for. When Christopher Newport and John Smith and a small group of English settlers arrived at the falls of the James where Richmond now stands in 1609, they planted a cross, but in reality they were claiming territory for the Crown. The ensuing genocide of native Americans and the institution of slavery were condoned and in many cases supported by the church. Colonization and domination was justified by the Christian Doctrine of Discovery promoted by Papal Bulls in the 15th century and was affirmed unanimously by the Supreme Court in 1823 when Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that Christian Europeans had assumed “ultimate dominion” of the Americas and that upon “discovery” the Indians had lost their right to complete sovereignty.
In many parts of the country the church supported segregation during Jim Crow – a century of American apartheid. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, Christian academies sprang up to shield white children from attending schools with black students. White churches abandoned the inner cities for the suburbs. In the recent presidential election, the overwhelming support by white evangelicals for what was widely perceived as a white nationalist platform has gravely undermined the credibility of the church at a time when its leadership is most needed.
But liberals also need to search their own blind spots. Katrina Browne provoked nervous laughter when she challenged St Paul’s, which now has an activist and increasingly liberal congregation, to consider reaching out to more conservative white churches. She cited liberal arrogance as a stumbling block to dialogue and noted that while it is important to engage with black churches, the real work needs to be done within the white community.
Imagine the profound changes that would occur in every American city if faith communities, both conservative and liberal, were to step up and speak out unitedly for racial healing and equity rooted in spiritual transformation. We need a call to a new direction, not just an add-on to personal spirituality but a wholehearted commitment to overcoming the belief in a human hierarchy based on race.