Jan/Feb 2005 - Fellowship of Reconciliation (US)

Finding the Other America

By Anne Braden

If we are serious about the challenge of the unfinished business of racism, we must start by realizing that this is not a task we must complete. It is one we must begin.

It is the basic contradiction in our entire history as a nation. The first European settlers who landed on these shores saw themselves as creating a great new experiment in democratic government. Yet they were enslaving a whole population of human beings, Africans, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America.

As a nation, we have never really dealt with this contradiction. We've only picked around the edges of it. So our first step is to turn ourselves inside out and our institutions upside down.

I grew up seven decades ago in a society (Alabama) that was totally racially segregated. In my young adulthood I was fortunate enough to have to face the painful fact that this society that had nurtured me and been good to me was just plain wrong. And I was able to change sides in the racial divide.

I was just one of many people of my generation and those that followed who went through this experience. I think what we went through at that time is, in microcosm, what this whole country must go through. I can testify that although this is a very painful experience it is not destructive, because once we have done it we are free. We are not really free of the racism within us because we will always see the world through white eyes, but we are free to struggle consciously against it, so it no longer shapes our lives without our even knowing it.

In recent years, across the country, there has been a wave of initiatives to look back at history, especially in the South -­ efforts to bring to justice criminals from the past. The crimes include the brutal lynching of Emmett Till in 1955; the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi; the terrible bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, later the same year, which killed four young girls; the slaying of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964; and tragedies in many other communities. It is a good thing that this is happening. An individual, a community, and a nation must face past evil to move on to a better future.

In 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina, five anti-racist labor organizers were murdered by avowed Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the wake of this tragedy, the Greensboro Justice Fund was set up by widows of the victims and survivors to support ongoing movements against racism. It is a remarkable example of people transforming personal heartbreak into a creative movement. We have just celebrated the Fund's 25th anniversary.

People in Greensboro have now set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission modeled on the one in South Africa. The purpose is to bring together those who have been on opposite sides of the issue that divided the city 25 years ago.

It is surely a worthy objective. But there is also a danger. We can all become quite self-righteous in assuring ourselves that we would not have done what those people did. And maybe we would not have pulled the trigger or set the bombs. But would we have spoken out? There were huge pressures not to do so.

People establishing structures to examine a community's past want to establish communication across the racial divide. In Louisville, Kentucky, where I have lived and worked for 60 years, well-intentioned white people intermittently have set up meetings between representatives of the black and white communities. It never works. Why? The median income of black families in our community is less than 50% that of whites. How can you have communication when that kind of gap exists? Instead, people who want a change in relationships must work for living wage legislation, more low-income housing, and health insurance for everyone.

In 1964, I interviewed Bob Moses, organizer of the voting-rights drive that ultimately changed Mississippi and the nation. He said, "The job of white people is not to prepare the Negro [the terminology at that time] for entrance into the larger society, but to prepare society for the changes that must be made to include room for Negroes."

That is what this society has never done -- before, then, or since. We have not made "room" for African Americans. Thus today, if there do not seem to be enough jobs or housing or health care for everyone, blacks can do without.

The problem is that the assumption that the good things of life are for whites first was built into our institutions from the beginning so firmly that we accept it as part of the scenery. Given this framework, whites must make a very conscious decision and take concerted action to "change sides" on the issue of race.

But once we make that decision, we can feel overwhelmed. This problem is so massive, what can we possibly do to change it? The Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, with which I work in Louisville, has an approach to this problem. We say we have to grab hold of something specific, some specific manifestation of racism in our local institutions ­ for example the police force, the court system, our educational institutions, or job discrimination. Joint struggles around these specific issues actually do bring people together. (We also link local issues to global ones, pointing out that this same issue of racism has shaped our foreign policy and consigned huge populations -- as in Iraq -- to a subhuman status. And then it becomes all right to drop bombs on them.)

The first task of whites in these struggles is to be vocal and visible. Often those of us who think we have seen the light on race tend to sit and examine our own souls. That may be a good thing for us to do and it may make us feel better, but it is not going to bring one iota of change in the conditions under which most people of color live or do anything to bring people together across the divide. We must speak out and act publicly and thereby break through what seems to be a solid wall of white resistance.

Today there is an added challenge. Many white people have the illusion that race is not a problem anymore. They say we can now move on to "other" issues. I call these people the colorblind crowd.

It is certainly true that our society faces many life-and-death issues. But we can't deal effectively with any of these problems until we mount an aggressive offense against racism. This is not only morally right; it's a practical matter. As long as our society can dump its problems on people of color it will not seek or find real solutions.

Once we realize that, we must act publicly; we must reach out to people we don't know. We have a tendency to spend all our time with people who agree with us. But our challenge is to go to people who don't agree with us. We must knock on their doors -- or call them on the phone -- because they won't come to us, and they won't respond to e-mail or snail mail. They must hear a human voice, and, if possible, see us.

And when we reach them, our approach should not be to make them feel guilty. Guilt is not a productive emotion; rather, it can be paralyzing. We should see ourselves as offering them a great opportunity, the possibility of finding a whole "other world" or other community to live in.

I call what I joined "the other America." This other America has always existed, even before the slave ships arrived. African Americans have always fought against their oppression, and many died rather than endure slavery. And at least some whites have joined these struggles -- in the early resistance to slavery, the Abolitionist movement, the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, the upsurges of people's movements in the 1930s, the civil rights activities of the 1950s and '60s, and beyond to today in the 21st century.

And this resistance actually has roots that stretch back to the beginning of the human race. In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed. Perhaps no one living today will see a major change. But it will come. And living in that world that is working to make it happen lets us know that our lives are worthwhile.

Meantime, there are things we can do right now to reform our domestic situation and ­ critically important ­ to change our foreign policy. Our nation and the planet are teetering on the brink of destruction. Some people think there is nothing that can be done because those who want to turn time backward are so firmly in control of the government.

But we must stop acting as if history started two years ago. Things have not always been as they are now. In the South, for instance, our greatest change happened when we lived under a literal police state. And it does not take a mass movement to begin. Every mass movement has started because a few people came together and began to talk to others.

Today there are huge new possibilities of real communication because Hurricane Katrina opened the eyes of masses of people to the reality of racism and poverty in this country. Our job is to talk with them. And we must do it NOW.

Anne Braden worked with the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression and the Southern Organizing Committee. Her 1958 book, The Wall Between, was recently reissued with a 40-page epilogue by the University of Tennessee. Braden joined FOR in 1961. Ms. Braden passed away in 2006.