Editorial: New dialogue on the old problem of racism

Perhaps the whole matter of race is resurfacing with such a vengeance because we are into the fine print of the social revolution that took place during the civil rights era. That was an era of enormous effort resulting in groundbreaking federal legislation that changed America -- or sought to change America -- in fundamental ways.

Half a century ago, conditions existed that children today might find difficult or impossible to imagine. The laws enacted as the result of long struggle dealt with the grossest of violations -- segregated public spaces and accommodations, schools and universities; the overt symbols of a dominant culture that had enslaved, brutalized and demeaned others as subhuman because of skin color.

Are we facing these new spasms of violence because the old problem has taken new and subtler forms? Or are we being challenged at new levels as the culture delves into deeper explorations of racism? Maybe our collective role in racism is raising finer distinctions to the surface. Whatever the case, the sins of the fathers seem not to have been washed entirely away.

Amid the new questions and disputes and occasional violent upheavals, it is heartening to see examples of Catholic institutions helping to create the space for new nonviolent confrontations with the old problem.

What is becoming disturbingly clear today is that while law can change practice and provide a certain level of equity and recourse to justice, lasting change occurs in the heart and mind and has to be passed on to each new generation. We are discovering that reform from our culture's original sin entails a long-term struggle.

The recent convulsions on the presidential campaign trial -- videoed and looped endlessly on social media and 24/7 TV gab fests -- are raw displays of what lies quietly beneath the surface in less contentious times. The unmistakable progress we have made since the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s might have lulled us into a false sense of accomplishment.

As Traci Badalucco reports in our Colleges & Universities special section, a question as basic as "How do you define racism and who can be racist?" can set off a long debate among today's students.

"It's not like a topic on slavery, where everyone agrees it was bad," said one of the freshmen involved in the spontaneous debate that broke out in a classroom of Xavier University in Cincinnati. "This was a topic that was very controversial, so it forced us to look at the depths of racism in society."

It is reassuring that a debate on the matter could occur in a classroom and that Xavier is one among a number of Catholic colleges and universities that have taken serious efforts to highlight diversity training and discussions on campus.

The immediate results at Xavier provide even more reason for hope. Even though the two students did not agree, the discussion was enlightening, provocative and civil. "It made me feel proud to be at a school where that can happen," said another student, "and where two people from different cultures and different races can come together like that and have a heated discussion like that and be able to talk to each other after class."

Farther to the south, in Birmingham, Ala., the epicenter of last century's civil rights movement, Bishop Robert Baker was one of the organizers of a recent two-day conference, "Black and White in America: How Deep the Divide?", held at Samford University.

If the Black Lives Matter movement is today's civil rights crusade, its leaders have a nonviolent tradition and record of success to call upon for guidance. The community of Charleston, S.C., recently showed how violence need not be met by more violence, an example led by the congregation of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the wake of the June 2015 shooting of nine church members there.

Instead of reacting in anger to the horrible act of a hate-filled bigot, the church forgave, causing much of the rest of the country to make a deeper examination of the sin of racism in the culture. The city itself came together in prayer and love. At the moment, that's as countercultural as it gets. But it's also effective. No one else was killed or injured; no property was destroyed. The real strength in such a response is undeniable.

Civic and religious leaders in Birmingham came together because, according to the city's mayor, William Bell, "We've got to find ways to bring people together around a common cause, a positive common cause, and when you do that you break down those barriers of separation and you begin to see humanity within each other."

At a time when our political conversation has been coarsened by candidates who encourage violence, spout dangerous nativist threats and play to people's fears, it is reassuring to know that leaders forming young hearts and minds are providing an effective antidote.

Dialogue and the willingness to understand the other, to address our own fears and biases in ways that do not threaten or destroy, are among the most important of legacies handed on by the giants of the last century. They would certainly see the developments in Birmingham and on college campuses as worthy consequences of their struggle.

This story appeared in the Mar 25-Apr 7, 2016 print issue under the headline: New dialogue on the old problem of racism .

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