Crossing the Racial Divide

After the 1992 riots following the first Rodney King verdict, I joined a delegation of international church leaders to Los Angeles. We were there to conduct hearings and listen to community groups around the city. Some of us met with Crips and Bloods in Watts who had just made their first truce. It's a remarkable

story that I've told many times before, and it helped lead to the national Gang Peace Summit in Kansas City the following year.

But a story I've never written about occurred two nights later in a very different kind of community. Simi Valley had been the site of the Rodney King trial, the place where an all-white jury had acquitted the police officers seen brutally beating King on the infamous video. Overnight, this sleepy, affluent suburb became famous as a bastion of upper-middle-class white racism. It was a notoriety not welcomed by the citizens of Simi Valley.

Several of our delegation traveled to the embattled suburb one night to participate in a dialogue that had been set up between a black church and a white church in Simi Valley. Yes, despite the public perception, there are black people in Simi Valley, mostly middle-class professionals like most of their neighbors. These two churches, while inhabiting the same community, had never before met or spoken together. The atmosphere was tense, perhaps made more so by the presence of outside "church leaders." Nonetheless a substantial and fascinating conversation followed.

The pivotal moment in the discussion came when a black mother spoke. "My son is a member of the Los Angeles Police Department," she said, "and I become deeply concerned for his safety when he goes undercover." Across the room, a white woman responded with great sympathy. "I am a mother too, and I know how you must feel. If my son were a police officer and worked undercover, I'd be frightened to death if he had to work with those gangs."

"No, you don't understand," replied the first woman. "When my son takes off that police uniform, he looks like any other young black man in Los Angeles. I'm not afraid of the gangs, I'm afraid of what white Los Angeles police officers might do to my son." You could see the stunned look on the face of the white mother. It was an absolute shock to her to think that this mother would fear her son's fellow police officers more than gang members. Nothing in her experience prepared her to hear something like that.

ALL EYES IN THE ROOM were on the two women. To her great credit, the white woman believed the testimony of the black woman. She was clearly amazed at the story, but she was convinced the black mother was telling the truth.

It was the turning point in the conversation. More stories followed. Other black mothers expressed their fears about the safety of their children, especially their sons. African-American businesspeople told stories of being dragged out of their expensive cars, accused of being drug dealers, and spread-eagled across their hoods by white police officers. And then white suburbanites shared their fears about driving through black neighborhoods, of being terrified by the riots, and of feeling defensive when the media portrayed Simi Valley as a racist enclave.

Real conversation took place that night. People listened to each other and took their neighbors seriously. Even without great class differences in Simi Valley, the utterly different life experiences across the racial divide were evident to everyone in the room. Many expressed regret that such conversations hadn't occurred before, and were especially embarrassed because they were all Christians. Both sides stated how much they valued this opportunity, and people from each church were appointed to set up more meetings.

It is precisely that kind of conversation that now needs to happen in local communities across the nation. White and black reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March have graphically shown how little we really do understand each other. The growing presence of Latinos and Asian Americans adds new dimensions and other experiences to the needed conversation on race as this country moves into an inescapably multicultural future.

We need more than cultural exchanges between different racial communities. We require very focused conversations on race between white people and people of color. It is critical to understand how racism has impoverished us all if we hope to dismantle the racial structures and attitudes that still shape American life and block our greatest potential as a nation.

Rather than appointing a new national commission on race as the president promised this fall, the president and Congress should call for a new national conversation on race. And rather than waiting for the politicians to act, the religious community should begin to convene those conversations ourselves.

Together, we must get to the place where our racial and cultural diversity is understood not as America's biggest problem but our greatest gift. If we can do that, it will also be our best contribution to a world threatened as much by ethnic conflict as by economic confrontation and environmental catastrophe.

The consequences of not talking now are too great to risk, while the rewards and potential of racial justice and reconciliation are too important to miss.

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