Black history month opportunities

Posted: Feb 24, 2005 12:00 AM

OK, black and white folks, Black History Month is nearly over. Have you talked with anyone this month about past and present racial issues?
It's common for white conservatives to say that discrimination against minorities is a thing of the past, something to note this month or during Hispanic Heritage Month (in the fall) -- or not to note at all. After all, the African-American and Hispanic middle class has expanded enormously, we've had two black secretaries of state in a row, and minorities receive preferential treatment in many governmental programs.

 That's not the way it looks from the other side, though. Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land mentioned to me earlier this month that most whites don't understand the daily exposure to racism, sometimes overt, usually subtle, that many African-Americans endure. Speaking specifically about evangelicals, he also spoke of the vast reservoir of goodwill toward blacks that exists among most.

 He's right on both counts, and that means our goal should be to increase understanding so that the vast reservoir of goodwill is not a vast reservoir of cluelessness. We should all start by asking and listening. We should ask about the comfort levels folks feel with members of different races: When there's discomfort, business deals are less likely. We should ask about the connections people use in gaining jobs or other opportunities.

 I've been listening recently to my youngest son, age 14, who is black. My wife and I adopted him when he was three weeks old. We're living this year in an apartment complex in New Jersey where most of the kids his age are African-American, and they play a lot of basketball and sometimes walk together on streets. My son, who was not particularly race-conscious before, has good reason to believe that the local police treat him differently than they do white kids.

 That experience has helped me to think about things I, as a white person, take for granted. I can go around in old clothes without having people attribute my lack of sartorial elegance to my race. I can arrive late somewhere without people believing that I'm lazy or have bad morals because of my race.

 I still favor alternatives to governmental race-based preferences. For example, why not give all high-school students in the top 5 percent of their class (or, with SATs, in the top 5 percent of all test-takers) vouchers equivalent to state university tuition? The vouchers, usable at any public, private or religious college, would help poor blacks and Hispanics without redlining poor whites, and would also encourage educational diversity.

 Since governmental quotas expand bureaucratic power, provoke a backlash and are unfair to individuals, we need to find a better way to increase minority opportunities. The best way will be for all of us, whatever our skin color, not to claim colorblindness, but to admit our lack of it and strive to compensate. When exploring cross-race business and hiring opportunities, for example, we should ask ourselves not, "Do I feel comfortable with this person?" but, "Why don't I feel comfortable with this person?"

 One way to increase comfort levels is just to spend time with each other, as soldiers and athletes have learned. Some churches lead the way now by having multi-racial and multi-ethnic congregations, but others can partner with churches across town and build relationships through shared meals, choir performances and other activities.

 As we work together, we can listen, as well. On sensitive issues, talk isn't cheap -- it takes real courage to pry open topics nailed shut. In doing so, both sides can learn a lot from Voice of Calvary founder John Perkins and others who teach about the need to avoid both racism and bitterness about racism. There's plenty of sin to go around but, providentially, plenty of grace, as well.