The Common Good
November-December 1995

A New Conversation on Race

by Jim Wallis | November-December 1995

O.J.Simpson and Louis Farrakhan are as contradictory figures as two people could be.

O.J.Simpson and Louis Farrakhan are as contradictory figures as two people could be. The ex-football running back who vaulted airport furniture as a rent-a-car pitchman had become perhaps the pre-eminent symbol of smiling

black assimilation into white society, while the Nation of Islam's charismatic preacher is the black community's most notorious symbol of racial divisiveness, mixing his gospel of black dignity and self-determination with a continuous chorus of vitriolic epithets directed at whites, Jews, Catholics, women, homosexuals, and even Christianity.

It is a revealing irony that both have become the lightning rods for again exposing America's dramatic racial divisions. The reaction to the O.J. verdict demonstrated how deeply most whites and blacks still completely misunderstand each other-and how little whites really know or believe about black people's experience in America.

It's understandable, in light of black experience with America's criminal justice system, that a majority black jury would come to reasonable doubt about the evidence in the case-just as it's understandable that the majority of whites trusted the police and prosecutor's case enough to find O.J. guilty.

In Stalin's Russia, it was said that no family was untouched by the terror of the communist dictator's regime. In 47 years as a white American, the majority lived in the black community, I have never met a black American whose family has been untouched by racially motivated abuse at the hands of the police and judicial system. The same week the Simpson verdict was announced, a new study found that fully one-third of all young black men are now in jail, on probation, on parole, or somehow involved with the criminal justice system.

For most whites, such a situation is so completely beyond their experience that they find it almost impossible to comprehend. When I was a child, my mother always told us to look for a policeman if we ever got lost. I had a black friend whose mother warned her children to hide from the Detroit police if they couldn't find their way home. Even growing up in the same city, our worlds were completely different.

Regardless of the jury's verdict, O.J. is a wife-beater, a batterer. And two people were murdered. If O.J. did it, he will not avoid the judgment of God, no matter how many lawyers he can pay. The anguished faces of many women across the country upon hearing the verdict reflected the pain of the four million women who are abused every year by the men in their lives.

Black jubilation over the acquittal was, for most, not a celebration of O.J. Simpson, or a ringing proclamation of his innocence, or a lack of sympathy for the victims' families. Rather, it reflected a belief that this case hadn't been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that it had been tainted by police sloppiness and racial corruption, and that a black man finally had the resources to beat the system, as whites have done for years.

As a black pastor said to me, "Most people I talk to believe that O.J. was guilty-and
that he was framed." White critics bring further insult when they suggest that black jurors were not honest or smart enough to find O.J. guilty-and they neglect the fact that the whole jury, including two whites and one Latino, unanimously agreed that the prosecution failed to prove its case.

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Simpson verdict, hundreds of thousands of black men came to Washington, D.C., in an awesome demonstration of commitment to take responsibility for rebuilding the families and fabric of the African-American community. It was, indeed, a spiritual day-of brotherhood, peace, and a determination to reverse and heal the violence, disintegration, and despair that have become the grim reaper in black communities across the land.

What whites must understand is that the legions of black fathers, sons, and brothers came for the message, not the messenger. Farrakhan's call for the Million Man March filled a vacuum, enabling a massive response to the deepest internal moral crisis that black America has faced since slavery.

Somebody had to call for that response, and Farrakhan should be given credit for doing so. Indeed, Rep. Donald Payne, leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, honestly admitted on the day of the march that all elected black officials together couldn't have brought out so many people. If truth be told, black church leaders would have to admit the same thing.

But Louis Farrakhan does not, of course, have the moral caliber or credibility of a Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. And few black leaders will attach their wagons to his, as Ben Chavis has done. The success of the march indicates the readiness of millions of black Americans to hear the call to personal rededication, political self-determination, economic reconstruction, and spiritual renewal. Leadership must now rise up from many quarters in the black community to show the way.

Indeed, it is especially time for a renewal of leadership in the black church, which is far better situated to mobilize the black community and turn this nation in a new direction than is the sectarian Nation of Islam.

The day after the march, bipartisan congressional leadership called upon President Clinton to establish a national commission on race relations. That might be a good first step, but we've had commissions before and their recommendations have usually been ignored. What's needed now is a new public conversation on race that must take place in every local community across America.

The civil rights era is over, and now a new understanding between the races must be diligently sought. Our experience of America is vastly different. We must now come to respect and understand that difference by listening to each other's experience, believing each other's experience, and finding new ways of working and living together that affirm our racial diversity rather than trying to homogenize it.

Old solutions must be questioned and new answers found that are aimed at dramatically improving the quality of life for marginalized communities. It doesn't help to repeat the slogans of "the melting pot," which only cover over our social failures.

The religious community can help lead the way in that new conversation. Overcoming racism is a theological and spiritual imperative. Racial justice and reconciliation must not be forsaken, as the nation sometimes seems ready to do. They are required of us by a God who loves "all the little children," and a Christ who gave his life that we might find "the beloved community" together.

To find a new sense of community is now America's most important political task. It will not be easy, but the only thing more risky is to move into America's pluralistic racial future without genuine understanding of one another.

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