Just Relations: A starter kit for thinking and talking about race

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In the summer of 2009, President Barack Obama sat with Sgt. James Crowley, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Vice President Joe Biden on the South Lawn at the White House for the so-called “Beer Summit” after Crowley arrested Gates for breaking and entering — at his own home — touching off a furor. | AFP/Getty Images

When are we going to finally have a serious, gritty, no-holds-barred discussion on race relations?

We’ve definitely started the conversation. But then the talks often taper off, spiraling either into a divisiveness that pushes us further apart or a false hope that we have risen above our ugly past.

Given that February is Black History Month, it’s a good time to hit the reset button, to start thinking about how we can do better to discuss and improve race relations.

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Just a decade ago, with the election of Barack Obama, many cynics and pundits prematurely declared we were living in a “post-racial” society.

It was suggested that African Americans sit down and shut up now that our country had elected an African-American president. And some of us did feel that maybe — just maybe — the days of overt racism were behind us.

But what was overlooked was the tsunami of hatred and meanness brewing, bubbling and boiling beneath the social and political veneer of a harmonious America.

Theresa Dear. | Provided photo

Theresa Dear. | Provided photo

There were signs, indications and patterns that emerged subtly and, soon after, made a rude awakening on video cameras.

Remember right after Obama was first elected, when the renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for breaking and entering his own home in Massachusetts? Remember the scathing criticism and backlash when Obama commented on the unfortunate incident?

Afterward, Obama, Gates, Vice President Joe Biden and the arresting officer, Sgt. James  Crowley, sat down on the White House lawn to discuss the matter over drinks in what is now known as the “beer summit.”

Sadly, Gates’ arrest was a blip on the radar — a forgivable anomaly that paled compared to the death of Trayvon Martin and the hundreds of instances of police brutality against African Americans captured on video. The aggression, viciousness and inhumanity we witnessed — including the death of Laquan McDonald here in Chicago — shocked and awakened the consciousness of people of every race.

Many whites who are appalled, embarrassed and have sympathy for the plight of African Americans have worked with with African Americans and others to demand police reform and accountability.

But as they work on these issues, they realized there is a deeper problem regarding the motivation behind these despicable acts.

Now might be the time for the United Nations to name a diversity and inclusion chairperson because, given the partisanship of politicians, the likelihood of that happening in America is minimal to nil.

Until that day comes, here is my proposed starter kit to address race relations:

• Set aside a day or two to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It is almost impossible to exit the museums unchanged in your perspective, conversation and treatment of others.

• If traveling to D.C. is too expensive, visit Chicago’s DuSable Museum and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

• Read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “And The Band Played On,” which is on the AIDS epidemic, and “Africana: Civil Rights: An A-Z Reference of the Movement That Changed America.”

• Invite an experienced speaker and facilitator to your school, church/synagogue/temple/mosque, town hall or workplace to host candid conversations on race.

• Invest in urban, inner-city and rural schools and communities to enable them to broaden their cultural experiences.

• Exercise self-governance. Hold yourself accountable for your behavior. With each conversation and encounter, you can challenge stereotypes, reinforce or obliterate them.

• Eliminate all words and tones that offend or denigrate others.

• Acquire or strengthen conflict resolution skills. Know when to be silent and walk away.

• Engage in conversations and relationships with people who have different cultural or religious views from your own.

• Know your own history to appreciate how your ancestors contributed to America. Discover the perseverance, sacrifice and resiliency of our collective journey.

The Bible says, “My people perish for a lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). So, instead of a conversation based on scars, political propaganda and fear, let’s start the conversation centered on knowledge and a desire to see goodness in our neighbor. The sooner we do, the sooner we can reconcile and heal.

Theresa Dear is an ordained elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and pastoral support minister at the DuPage AME Church in Lisle.


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