The Common Good
September-October 1996

Our Unresolved Dilemma

by Bill Bradley | September-October 1996

Church burnings and America's quest for racial healing.

In American political life, there is an issue about which we hear endless talk dealing with surfaces, and very little movement deep down in the body politic. Unless faced, it will prevent us from realizing our potential as a pluralistic democracy with a growing economy, and, instead, it will foster a poisonous resentment, even a hatred, that kills much of life's joy. The subject is race. Frequently, Americans have been unable to see deeper than skin color or eye shape to the heart and individuality of all our citizens. There were times when we allowed destructive impulses to triumph over our deeper awareness that we are all God's children. Occasionally, the violence of the few elicited the fears and seething anger of the many and prevented the possibility of racial harmony. It's an old story, and a sad one, too.

In 1963, four African-American girls in white dresses were talking prior to Sunday services in the ladies lounge of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Suddenly, the church was ripped apart by a bomb that killed the young girls instantly. There had been other bombings in Birmingham aimed at halting blacks' progress toward racial equality but they had not penetrated the national consciousness. After that Sunday's explosion, people of all races and all political persuasions throughout the country were sickened in spirit.

Coming 18 days after Martin Luther King Jr. had shared his dream for America from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the bombing was a stark reminder of how violently some Americans resisted racial healing. Yet the sense of multiracial outrage and solidarity that came out of this tragedy—combined with the seminal leadership of President Lyndon Johnson—led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to the hope that the search for racial equality could lead to the emergence of a spiritually transformed America.

IN THE SUMMER of 1964, I was a student intern in Washington. I remember being in the Senate chamber the night the Civil Rights bill passed, the one that desegregated restaurants, hotels, and other accommodations. I watched the vote and thought, "Something happened in the chamber tonight that makes America a better place." To be honest, that was the night that the idea of being a U.S. senator first occurred to me.

As I recently recalled that summer of 1964, I was reminded that slavery was our original sin. Race remains our unresolved dilemma, and today the bombers are back. From an urban church in Knoxville, Tennessee, to countless rural churches in South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina, and Alabama, the flames of arson and the hatreds of racism burn again.

On the narrow subject of burning churches, there has been rare bipartisan outrage. Conservative Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina said on the Senate floor, "If we in Congress cannot agree that church burning is a despicable crime, what can we agree on? It's not a matter of liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites; it is about justice, faith, right, wrong." He and Sen. Ted Kennedy introduced a bill to toughen the laws against church arson.

Well-meaning whites have also stepped forward to help rebuild churches. The National Council of Churches and the Anti-Defamation League have established national rebuilding funds. Habitat for Humanity is coordinating the labor of volunteers who want to rebuild. Teams of Mennonites and Quakers are rebuilding churches in Alabama. The conservative Christian Coalition pledged to raise $1 million to help rebuild and is also making money available for motion detectors, alarms, floodlights, and smoke detectors for rural churches that are most vulnerable to arson attacks. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has announced a campaign to provide financial and technical support to more than two dozen African-American churches hit by arson. Nations Bank posted a $500,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of people responsible for the attacks. The Southern Baptists pledged $300,000 to assist in the rebuilding effort. The Laborers' International Union of North America announced that it will rebuild Sweet Home Baptist Church in Baker, Louisiana.

But beyond deploring, rebuilding, toughening laws, and rewarding informants, what can you do? You can look deeper into the soul of America. You can be aware of the context in which these acts are taking place and ponder whether you see your own reflection in the pool of indifference that has surrounded racial healing for much of the last 15 years in America.

The Washington Post has said that the perpetrators are disproportionately young white males who—although some come from "the right side of the tracks"—are more often economically marginalized and poorly educated. These are the children of the economic transformation and the products of a television culture surfeited with instant gratification and quick-thrill violence. They are the sons of families who have forgotten the power of love.

For 20 years, wages have been stagnant for 70 percent of the workers in America. In 1973, production, non-supervisory wages were $315 per week; by 1994, they fell to $256, which confirms what most Americans know: They're working harder for less and living two paychecks away from falling out of the middle class. No matter how many jobs they work, they can never put away enough to guarantee their children a college education.

With less in wages, 40 percent of children now live in homes where both parents work. Add to that the 25 percent of kids who live with a single parent, and that means 65 percent of U.S. children live in homes where there are often resource and time deficits between parent and child.

Economic downsizing has caused hundreds of thousands to lose their jobs, no matter how hard they worked. The economic transformation made them redundant. The heavy footsteps of downsizing, relocation, part-time jobs, "temp" jobs, middle age without health care, and retirement without a pension may be near or still distant, but they are heard in every home. For the children of families that have lived through stagnant wages and downsizing, their future seems even more uncertain. A decade ago they were called latch-key kids, and now too many of them call themselves skinheads.

The idea that working hard can lead to a secure future, a chance to provide for a better life for their children, and an adequate retirement is slipping away. Add to this the need for a high quality education in order to get good jobs in the future, and the absence of parental savings to pay for that education, and for many millions of young people, the future seems bleak.

RACISM BREEDS AMONG the poorly educated and economically marginalized. They don't see the deeper forces at work in the economy. They don't sense the self-interest in greater tolerance, and many can't escape the prison of ingrained racial attitudes. Instead, they focus on a scapegoat—often someone who looks different from them—as the cause of their predicament. In a world where politics doesn't adequately address the economic realities, demagogues can rise to manipulate those fears for their own ends.

Take affirmative action. More white Americans lost their jobs in the 1982 recession because of national economic mismanagement than lost their jobs to all the court-ordered affirmative action since its inception. The young white who feels that every time he doesn't get a job it's been taken by a black simply doesn't know the numbers. The politicians or talk show hosts who perpetrate that overreaction are similar to the person who throws a match on a pile of oily rags.

Likewise, take poverty. There are 36 million people in poverty in America: 10 million are black; 26 million are white. But many young whites oppose government help for the poor because it means government help for blacks, not realizing that, given their education levels and job prospects, their opposition is often self-destructive.

In a world where people don't see the underlying forces, too many people take aim at blacks or immigrants as the cause of their economic distress. When people feel desperate they reach for the extremes, and violence can be an action of first resort.

Too often, white politicians have played the "race card" to get votes, but, to be honest, too often black politicians have played the "racist card" for the same reason. What has suffered is honest dialogue and common action. We need more candor and more voice from elected leaders who will challenge their constituents morally and their contributors financially. Without engagement you can't have candor, and without candor you can't have progress. Politicians have the obligation to play to our higher aspirations.

Talk show hosts also have some responsibility. While some can be divisive and maybe even racist, most are not. The paradox of free speech is that it can be the nutrient that allows the tree of democracy to grow strong, but if misused it can burn the roots and deform the tree in ways no one ever expected.

Civility is the key, and avoidance of the easy appeal to stereotypes should be what is strived for. The potential of confusion is too great for those with the microphones not to promote a deeper dialogue on race. It's asking a lot, but then so do the ideals of our founders.

AS A WAY OF thinking about our responsibilities to each other, imagine that you are the parent of a 9-year-old, and a church bombing has occurred in your church or in your town. What do you say?

If you are a black parent, a member of a burned church, what answer do you give your daughter when she asks, "Daddy, why did this happen?" What can you say to a daughter who has written her school paper on Colin Powell, taken pride in America having a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, grown up eating Jell-O because of Bill Cosby, and watched Michael Jordan become a worldwide marketing phenomenon? In a world where so much progress had been made, how could you explain the phenomenon of burning churches?

If you are a white parent, what do you say to your 9-year-old son? How do you explain the skinheads phenomenon, bold Ku Klux Klanners, or the new Nazi SS clubs in high schools? How can you explain why blacks and whites can't get along in life like they appear to get along on the Chicago Bulls? What do you say about the burnings?

I imagine the black parent saying something like this: There are some people who, because of the color of your skin, do not view you as an equal member of society. These people have a problem, and the problem is called racism. Racism is an evil and a sickness. You have the physical and intellectual capacities to achieve whatever you want to achieve.

The people who burned this church are afraid of you; they are afraid to learn about you and interact with you. You must not be afraid of them. You must pray for them and ask God to forgive them. You must use your talents to achieve greatness in life, and you must work in your lifetime to help bridge the racial divide.

And I imagine the white parent saying something like this: The burning of the African-American church near our town is a product of racism and hatred. Racism occurs when people of one race feel themselves to be superior to those of another race for no other reason than the color of their skin. This country has a sad history of it. African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, among others, have suffered because of it.

Racism is something that a person learns; it is not something that people are born with. Where racism exists, both black people and white people are harmed. Where it exists, white people cannot develop their full potential as individuals. To harbor racism in your heart is to deny yourself the experience of learning from someone a little different from you, and it makes you unable to share the joy of our common humanity.

I am going to volunteer to help rebuild the church that was burned, and I want you to come with me. I want you to work side by side with other blacks and whites who want to build a country that is compassionate and that treats all of its people with dignity and respect.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once said, "Many people want to change the world; only a few people want to change themselves," but with race you can't change the world unless you change yourself. That's as true for politicians as for talk show hosts. When enough Americans change themselves, we will have true racial healing. The result will be a spiritually transformed America.

BILL BRADLEY (D-NJ) is retiring at the end of this term after 18 years in the Senate. This article was adapted from a speech Sen. Bradley gave to the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts June 23, 1996, in Washington, D.C.

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