A Task That Remains: Racial Reconciliation

A Task That Remains: Racial Reconciliation

C. Eric Lincoln

“Civil rights” are the legal endowments that accrue to, or are vested in, the individual person as a recognized member of a designated human community. Such a community is committed by consensus to the rule of law, protecting its members from excesses against one another to the end that creative development of the individual and of the community alike is not held hostage to security and other visceral needs, and the competition for scarce values is regulated and humanized.

Civil rights presuppose “human rights,” of course. And human rights derive not from human investment, or human consensus, but from the fact of being human. They are intrinsic to human identity. They are inherent, and inalienable. Whether because “man” bears the image of God, or because homo sapiens is, at this writing, the superlative expression of an unfolding universe, human rights are an endowment of the species, and not of selected individuals.

It is critical at this point in our history that those distinctions be clearly understood. It was the protracted distortion and the abuse of human rights, and the willful obliviousness to the consequences of such behavior, which made the civil rights revolution of the ’50s and ’60s necessary at such a horrible cost to the Nation. Thinking man will not accept indefinitely conditions of existence that deny the intellectual and creative experiences by which human beings are defined. Sooner or later human self-awareness and the strain for human dignity reject the doubtful securities of accommodation to a plane that is less than human. Sooner or later the vision of freedom seeps through the harshest granite of repression and becomes the obsession that alone sustains survival. Such was the autobiography of the civil rights movement, a painful, heroic segment of American history we must not be called upon to repeat.

That movement is history, but the social traumas it sought to heal still linger. The old polarity between blacks and whites has now become multi-focal and cross-indexed. The many false starts toward the solution of this most persistent national dilemma have underestimated its virulence and its viciousness, and we have elected to cut-and-patch at the most obvious deterioration of the national commitment rather than invest in the true renovations dry rot demands. Moreover, we have deferred effective national attention to our racial discord, leaving it to bedevil some future generation while we buy time with public placebos and political rhetoric that do nothing to heal the place where it hurts. But the time we buy today will have to be paid for at premium prices tomorrow by the children we claim to love and protect by living on their credit and post-dating the bill.

It is getting late, and while we march at the head of the great nations of the world, toward the threshold of the 21st century, the cadence is offbeat and tentative, because our own house is in grave disorder. The quality of life in many of the countries we profess to lead is better than it is at home for many Americans of whatever race. There is no longer “a chicken in every pot,” but there are 16 locks on every door, and we are deathly afraid of one another. Soon there will be a prison on every other block–where the schoolhouse used to be. They will be run by a new class of private entrepreneurs created to service our ever-expanding system of human incarceration. Most of the schools they replace have already relocated to more enticing environments. Only those destined to become direct feeders for the voracious prison industry are left in place.

The world has changed more since World War II than it did in the preceding three centuries. We have changed with it, but our change has been more selective because we control more of the resources upon which change depends. Yet the quality of life for millions of Americans has not been improved–or it has deteriorated–and in consequence the index of social irritability is higher than ever before in our history. The new levels of anxiety and tension require a fresh approach for achieving the social change we must have to survive as a democratic society.

The ideal change, and the change most likely to endure, is reconciliation. It may also be the most painful, because reconciliation calls upon all parties to make real sacrifices rather than gestures of good will. Something has to give, and something has to be given by all parties, including some very cherished conventional notions about who is responsible, and for what. Effective racial reconciliation will require the sacrificial spirit of Abraham, the tenacity of Moses, the wisdom of Solomon, and the unshakable faith that being American is worth what it takes to save America.

The best strategy is to approach racism, not as a minority grievance, but as a national problem in which we are all implicated whether willfully, involuntarily, reluctantly, or by default. The issue was addressed as a minority grievance against America in the civil rights revolution of the ’50s and ’60s. That grievance grew out of an illegal national consensus to withhold arbitrarily from certain Americans a broad spectrum of civil rights and their endowments solely on the basis of race. The struggle in the streets backed by the struggle in the courts brought significant relief, but the national commitment languished long before it had accomplished its mandates, and reductionism now stalks the gains that were wrung from the talons of bigotry.

The grievance was addressed, but it was not resolved, and we must now identify, understand, and eliminate the vestiges of racial discrimination that remain. It is crucial to the national interest to do this because racial divisiveness wastes the human potential, endangers the public tranquility, compromises the national integrity, and burdens the economy of the Nation to the detriment of everyone.

We are no longer dealing with a factional grievance, but a national problem. A grievance presupposes an adversarial relationship. A problem recognizes the need for a solution that welcomes and requires a common commitment from all those affected by it, and all those who have a feeling for rectitude and reconciliation. Recrimination and vilification are not effective instruments of reconciliation, but there must be honesty in inquiry, candor in disclosure, integrity in reception, and resolute determination in attack, or we will fail again as we have so often failed before.

We cannot afford another aborted attempt to resolve the American dilemma. The social greening of America cannot be accomplished in a Nation divided by race. If we have such formidable problems being comfortable in sharing the national estate with the minority that labored to build it from the beginning, the prognosis for the public tranquility in a multicultural society is cautious, to say the least.

President Clinton has set the tone for honest inquiry by his appointment of the John Hope Franklin board. But the board can do no more than its mandate permits. The real work will have to be done by the people. It is we who will have to bite that bullet–all of us–if we want the bullet that is poisoning all of us to be removed.

Dr. C. Eric Lincoln is the William Rand Keenan, Jr. Professor of Religion and Culture (Emeritus) at Duke University. He is noted for his scholarly publications, and a novel and collected poems have also won acclaim. His latest book is “Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

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