For the third time this year racial equality and civil rights have re-emerged as a conversation of national interest. Last year we watched the drama unfold of three white athletes at Duke University accused falsely of raping a black stripper. Two weeks ago, the tables turned. Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Jena, La. to dispute a court’s actions against six young, black men charged with beating a white classmate.
Some elements of the media began to stir the pot. With dubious intentions, Media Matters and its followers worked overtime to turn Bill O’Reilly’s constructive radio conversation about the state of racial prejudice in America into a subconscious revelation of his own bigotry against blacks.
Many of us have looked on with surprise at the three events. For most members of the under-40 generation, it is first-time contact with some of the ugliest pages of American history.
I can’t say race issues are all-together new to me; I once was a 1 percent minority. At 15, my parents plucked me out of private education and plopped me into a 99 percent black public high school. “It’ll be good for you,” my Dad promised. And in hindsight, it was.
In 1988 I was one of about 30 white kids at Buchtel High School in Akron, Ohio. But most of my white schoolmates were phantasms to the rest of the school. They kept to themselves. They signed up for “shop” class where they fixed up their own cars for free and “horticulture” class where they learned how to grow plants and weed (note the singular). Between classes they could be seen in the smoking pit in the far corner of the parking lot. I never knew any of their names.
It took about 30 seconds on campus for me to realize I had much more in common with the black students in my college prep classes than with those who, on the outside (mohawks, tattoos, and combat boots aside), looked more like me. It was my first lesson in race. By no merit of my own, color had become a non-issue. I didn’t have black friends; I had friends that were black. I learned to judge people as people.
The Duke case exemplified the exact opposite. Civil rights activists descended upon Durham with their minds made up and their media scripts in hand. Ironically, the search for racial equality was replaced by the defense of color and class. Movement leaders labeled the accuser a “victim,” led rallies against Duke University Administration, rallied public opinion against the accused students, influenced public officials and demanded swift judgment. They got it, but they got it wrong.
The knee-jerk, color-based approach of these civil rights activists sent America a message: we are blind defendants of one race and one social class. It was a step in the wrong direction.
The Jena 6 rally in central Louisiana tells a happier story. Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton still had prominent roles, but this time they played by the book of justice. They worked through lawyers, involved local and state politicians, based criticism of the courts on fact, and for the most part avoided incendiary remarks that could divide the racially-mixed community. In other words, they defended people, not color.
And as it turns out, that’s what the people of Jena want. A local resident put it like this:
"You have good people here and bad people here, on both sides. This thing has been blown out of proportion. What we ought to do is sit down and talk this thing out, 'cause once all is said and done and you media folks leave, we're the ones who're going to have to live here."
Almost 50 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched for civil rights, there are still deep racial divides in America. But the solution, I would suggest, is not a Marxist style clash between blacks and whites, rich and poor, as we saw in Durham. Dr. King wanted nothing more than a country which saw only God’s children.
In his famous letter from a Birmingham Jail, King seems to be giving advice to us today, and specifically to civil rights activists; be brave, but don’t be silly. The creation of tension against an unjust status quo must always be aimed at truth and justice for all.
But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
Dr. King was very clear: the only thing that will conquer prejudice and racism is truth. And the truth is we don't need civil rights leaders to defend color, but rather to defend people of color because they are people.
Only the universal recognition of our common humanity — and the rights and obligations which flow from it — will make possible the “majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."
This is serious stuff, and some parts of the media should check their dubious motives. If they do, I think they will stop stirring the pot.
God bless, Father Jonathan
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