This is very difficult for me to write about. It is now more than a week since the inauguration. I have waited to post this article in order to be certain I wanted to voice these concerns. On the day after the inauguration of Barack Obama, I was basking in the sense of hope and the realization of accomplishment that we have risen above the bigotry and racial separation that has long limited our full flowering as a people and as a nation. As I rode this wave of enthusiasm about the opportunities now open to us I was brought down to earth with a thud as I realized once again that not everyone feels the same as I do. For some this was still just another election. Still just politics. Still based in self-interest. I guess I am naïve after all. I guess it is too much to hope for that humanity could grasp the real potential for change that is before us. I realized that my path in life had perhaps prepared me to view life differently than many others.
Barack Obama stated in his address that 60 years ago his father would not have been served in a restaurant in the town where he, Barack, now stood taking the oath of office for President. I was so sad because I now realized and remembered what it was like those 60 years ago. I remember the hardship and deprivation and segregation. I did not experience it at that time. As a white person my whole culture and world offered a different set of opportunities and advantages that were taken for granted.
As a child growing up in Portland, Oregon I thought nothing about racial bigotry. I didn’t have any problems thinking about equality or non-equality. As far as I am aware my family exhibited none of the characteristics of racial bigotry. I was raised to respect the individual regardless of heritage or ethnicity. We had a black population and I had no problem with that. Today, I remember that one of the reasons I had no problem with segregation was because that black population was conveniently gathered in their own community. I did not see a black child in grade school. I did not see a black child in high school.
In the late 60s, as a faculty member at seminary, it became quite clear to me that two different worlds co-existed and not in harmony. The school had hired an imposing black man as an adjunct faculty member whose job it was to help bring awareness to our organization of ways we needed to face our white-based operations and open ourselves as Christians to the integration of ideas, cultures and persons within minority communities. It was a tense time of confrontation and it was not easy for many in the white community to understand what all the fuss was about. White people were guilty for the segregationist views that kept minorities in their place. White people often denied they had anything to do with such attitudes. They did not personally hold back minorities from progress.
This naiveté was brought clearly to my attention one day as I conversed with John, the black faculty member. I had asked why there was a general anger against all white people whether they were segregationist or people who never had any encounters with the black community. He said that because I was white I was guilty. It did no good to protest that I felt I had never acted in a way that harmed a black person. He made the point that as part of the white culture I was part of the limitation the black culture had to endure.
It is not my intention here to go into the subsequent details that helped me realize it is not enough to have not personally held segregationist ideas. One must begin a proactive intention to understand the issues and consciously change the cultural position in one’s thinking and acting. To the best of my ability I did that. Being able to attempt these changes among many other attitudinal changes I have made through the years brought me to a point where I tended more toward seeing the likenesses in others rather than the differences. I do not imply that I have perfected this process, but I do know that I have come a long way toward accepting others for who they are rather than requiring them to embody my expectations.
So, again, I have been given the opportunity to see that not everyone thinks as I do. Surprise, surprise! There is still work to do. No, not work to convince others to be what they are not. The work is to be clear about who I am and what I believe. As I make the effort to live what I believe and to share my thoughts and beliefs as clearly as I am able, perhaps others will find something that intrigues them to ask “Why does he believe that?” That, my friends, can be the beginning of openness to new possibilities.
I admit to times of deep discouragement and disappointment in my fellow human beings. That so many hang on to threads of thought that have never produced anything but disappointment is a mystery to me. My conclusion about that to this point is that we have given up our sense of personal responsibility for so long that now we believe it really is someone else’s job to take care of us. While we blame government and politicians for acting without regard for our well being, we at the same time tell them to stay out of our lives. A real community does not work that way. A live community, a successful community, calls on all members to participate in every way they are able. For that positive participation the community prospers and grows and all are served in harmony and satisfaction.
Something more is going on here than concerns about racism. There are major concerns about whether we can rise above politics as usual. It is time to ask ourselves in the context of personal responsibility and what we expect of each other and our government: “What do I believe and why do I believe it? Are my beliefs a positive contribution to my society?”