Richard Barbieri, the general editor of ACResolutions, the quarterly magazine of the Association for Conflict Resolution, was struck by my series of posts after the November election about building common ground between “bubbles” in our society. He asked me to combine them into a single article for publication in the next issue of the magazine, which will focus on public discourse. Here is my article. Check out the whole issue if you are interested in this subject.
My series of posts began by noting competing claims that virtually all of us, whether we live on the coasts or in the middle of the country, live in bubbles, unaware of (or indifferent of or hostile to) the perspectives of people outside our bubbles.
I suggested that it would help to start by using a mediator’s approach in trying to understand people with conflicting views. So I summarized the competing perspectives and suggested that many people on “both” sides felt real pain and deserved empathy. One need not believe that there is equal merit on both sides, which personally I don’t believe. The posts cited examples of constructive approaches from speeches by Barack Obama as well as a well-publicized incident in which a white man called Heather McGhee, an African American woman, on a C-Span program. The caller said that he recognized that he was prejudiced and asked what he could do to change.
Events surrounding the recent Charlottesville riot occurred after I wrote the original posts and reinforced my earlier observation that empathy and understanding would not be a sufficient strategy for dealing with our divisions. People like neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, who believe that certain races and religions should be oppressed, deserve harsh judgment. Strategies other than developing empathy and understanding are needed to counteract schemes purposely propagating deception and hatred. Even so, I think that promoting constructive dialogue with people who are not committed to hateful ideologies could help increase understanding across lines of mistrust and disrespect and heal some painful wounds.
Another, more hopeful, development also occurred after my posts. Garry, the guy who called Heather McGhee, called back on C-Span to say that his prejudices had changed because of his conversations with people of other races and his study of black history. His efforts to deal with his prejudices helped him let go of his stereotypes and empathize with others’ struggles, including those of both blacks and whites.
Truth and Reconciliation in the US?
There has been a movement to remove monuments to the Confederacy – as well as resistance to that effort. I haven’t carefully considered the issue, but my First Amendment orientation would be to retain the monuments and use them to teach about the history of slavery and the Civil War. A fundamental First Amendment principle is that it is generally better to combat offensive speech with enlightened speech rather than suppression of speech. This approach would supplement the Confederate monuments with ones that explicitly focus on the heinous domestic terrorism of the Jim Crow era, when many of the Confederate monuments were erected.
This came to mind because of a recent visit to my university by Bryan Johnston, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI’s Community Remembrance Project is part of its “campaign to recognize the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers, and creating a memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice.”
The EJI website states: “Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today. Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West in the first half of the 20th century. Lynching created a fearful environment in which racial subordination and segregation were maintained with limited resistance for decades. Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America.
“Public acknowledgment of mass violence is essential not only for victims and survivors, but also for perpetrators and bystanders who suffer from trauma and damage related to their participation in systematic violence and dehumanization. Many of the communities where lynchings took place have gone to great lengths to erect markers and monuments that memorialize the Civil War, the Confederacy, and historical events during which local power was violently reclaimed by white Southerners. But there are very few monuments or memorials that address the history and legacy of lynching in particular or the struggle for racial equality more generally, and most of the victims of lynching have never been publicly acknowledged.”
This may be a particularly good time for communities to candidly study their histories, the stated rationale of supporters of the Confederate monuments. Although some people are committed to white supremacist beliefs, others – like Garry, the C-Span caller described above – may be open to a sensitive examination of the issues from multiple perspectives.
“EJI believes that ‘truth and reconciliation’ is sequential, and that we must address oppressive histories by helping communities to honestly and soberly recognize the pain of the past. As more communities join in this effort to concretize the experience of racial terror through discourse, memorials, markers, and other acts of truth-telling, more are overcoming the shadows cast by these grievous events.”
Obviously, such initiatives would not be complete solutions, but they might help. It would be important to acknowledge that all whites were not equally culpable. Indeed, some poor whites were conscripted into the Confederate Army and, during the Jim Crow era, some whites were sympathetic to blacks but also were terrorized, afraid of what would happen to them if they supported blacks.
I think that truth and reconciliation efforts would need to use great care. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan recently wrote an article, What if Steve Bannon Is Right?, referring to the former White House strategist’s statement, “The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” he said of Democrats. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Egan noted that “[w]hen you say Black Lives Matter, these white voters [who voted both for Obama and Trump] hear Kill a Cop. When you say diversity in the workplace, they hear special privileges for minorities at the expense of whites.”
Egan continued, “It’s too easy to write all these people off as racists, for that’s exactly what Bannon is counting on. Yes, there’s a genuine hate-cohort in the Republican Party — neo-Nazis, or ‘clowns and losers,’ in Bannon’s terms — of about 10 percent, which is horrifyingly high. But there are many more voters in Trump’s camp who still consider themselves Democrats. Some live in the much-discussed zone of despair, places where opportunities for people without a college degree are few, and the opioid epidemic rages.”
I am not sure whether truth and reconciliation efforts would make a substantial difference in moving our society forward – and how they would need to be designed to be effective. They certainly wouldn’t directly combat the scourge of white supremacists. I discuss this challenge in the important conversation between Bernie Mayer and Gail Bingham on ADRHub, which Noam pointed out.