Ken Connor

Can America have a rational discussion about race?

That remains to be seen and a lot has to do with who is doing the talking.

In the case of Jeremiah Wright, the answer is emphatically no. Wright served as pastor at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ for decades and has been Barack Obama's pastor for 20 years. His rhetoric on race reveals him to be a race baiting, America hating demagogue who used his pulpit to fan the flames of racial hatred rather than use the Gospel as a balm for racial healing. His imprecations to God to damn America, his condemnation of "rich white people", and his placement of the blame on America for the terrorist acts of September 11 represent anything but an attempt to bridge the racial divide that has long existed in America.

And because racism is contagious, many Americans have come to fear it may have infected Sen. Obama, a protégé of Rev. Wright. Recognizing the political liability of guilt by association, Sen. Obama delivered a poignant address on race in America aimed at defusing the crisis created by the Reverend's hateful rhetoric. Sen. Obama spoke in measured tones about the need for real dialogue between all Americans about past racial injustices and the potential for future reconciliation.

All Americans should welcome the opportunity to have a thoughtful and sensitive dialogue about race in America. While our country has made great strides in leveling the playing field between blacks and whites, the inescapable fact is that the after effects of slavery and racial discrimination persist in our society today. While we can't change our history, we can shape our future and the best way to do so is by candidly acknowledging where things stand in the present.

Although great progress has been made in ending racial discrimination in this country, many African-Americans are presently impacted in negative ways by our past history of discrimination. For them, the past truly is prologue. Today, many blacks begin life in America at a lower rung on the socio-economic ladder than whites because of the injustices suffered by their forebears. As a result of our country's history of slavery and racial discrimination, their ancestors did not have the same educational and economic opportunities as their white counterparts. Consequently, they did not have equivalent opportunities to accumulate financial or educational capital to pass on to succeeding generations. The result is that many blacks do not begin life at the same point on the starting line as whites. This reality, which is beyond the control of the present generation of African-Americans, is often a source of frustration and resentment for members of the black community. White people would do well to acknowledge these realities and look for constructive ways to ensure that blacks are afforded opportunities to offset this disadvantage.

Many of the remedies, however, proposed by the black community and aimed at overcoming America's history of racial discrimination are viewed by whites as punitive to a generation that did not commit the wrongdoing. Affirmative action and payment of reparations are but two examples of proposed remedies that many whites feel would punish the current generation for the sins of their fathers. These are people who reason, "I have not engaged in the discrimination complained of. Therefore, I should not have to pay the price of someone else's misdeeds." It offends their sense of justice that the innocent should be punished for the sins of the guilty. Many blacks feel, on the other hand, "You are the beneficiaries of prior wrong doing. You enjoy an advantaged position over me because of the disadvantage your forefathers created for my forebears; therefore, you should be required to disgorge some of your ill gotten gains so that I can be placed in a better position."

And on and on the arguments go. They are arguments that generate intense passion and strong emotions. And, they can quickly degenerate into personal attacks on people who have committed no offense. Demagogues like Reverend Wright use them as bludgeons to drive the races apart rather than as tools to lead people to common ground.

Is the current inequality between blacks and whites the fault of the current generation of white Americans? Generally, it is not, but that does not change the reality that generations of black Americans have often been born into social, educational, and economic circumstances that are worse than those of whites. One simply cannot ignore that past racial injustices have a trickle-down effect that impacts the present.

Senator Obama correctly pointed out that there is anger on all sides of the racial divide. Blacks are often upset that they are born into less-privileged circumstances than many whites because of previous injustices, while many whites are angered by affirmative action standards which sometimes prevent them from obtaining jobs or getting into college because of their race. These concerns are both valid, but we must not allow the invective they can produce to foster injustice and hatred.

The only way to resolve this divide is through open and frank discussion. Only by recognizing these differences and injustices can Americans take steps to understand each other's problems and move forward towards reconciliation.

This reconciliation is particularly important among believers in Christ. The Apostle Paul speaks to the unity of mankind regardless of race: "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28-29 NIV)

Similarly, the Founders recognized that a civic brotherhood based on equality is both a moral good and necessary for a strong community. They proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Americans must never forget these truths. We ignore them at our peril. These issues are far greater than any partisan divide, for they cut to the core of what it means to be human. In pursuit of equal human dignity regardless of race, every man, woman and child should engage in an open and honest discussion about the mistakes of previous generations and demonstrate a willingness to move forward to close the gap represented by the racial divide. Only in this pursuit can anger and discrimination give way to love and justice.


Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.