In today’s super charged, divided political environment, we often demonize those who don’t agree with us. I recently read an article about Thurgood Marshall that forced me to rethink my inclination to occasionally do the same.
Marshall was a civil rights lawyer/icon who argued many of the cases that broke down America’s color line. He won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court and eventually became the first Black Supreme Court Justice. The article was written by Stephen L. Carter, who served as one of his law clerks and appeared in the NY Times Magazine on July 18, 2021. Carter marveled at how Marshall would often socialize with dyed-in-the-wool segregationists even mentioning that some were good people. These days, we all might ask, how in the world could he do and say that?
Here’s how Carter explained it:
“To the Judge, those who disagreed with him on the most important moral issue of the 20th century in America did not thereby lose their humanity. How is that possible? Because he was able to reach across that deep moral divide and find commonalities with those on the other side. Only rarely did he see his opponents as evil; most were simply misguided. People, he knew, can be complicated.” (P. 27)
Michael Dyson writes about the power of empathy and the importance of “walking a mile in the boots of blackness” in his work Tears We Cannot Stop. Here are, in part, the final two paragraphs of his book. “The siege of hate will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk -vulnerable despite our virtues. If enough of you, one by one, exercises your civic imagination, and puts yourself in the shoes of your black brothers and sisters, you might develop a democratic impatience for injustice, for the cruel disregard of black life, for the careless indifference to our plight.”
“Empathy can be cultivated. The practice of empathy means taking a moment to imagine how you might behave if you were in our positions. Do not tell us how we should act if we were you; imagine how you would act if you were us. Imagine living in a society where your white skin marks you for distrust, hate and fear. Imagine that for many moments. Only when you see black folk as we are, and imagine yourselves as we have to live our lives, only then will the suffering stop, the hurt cease, the pain go away.” P. 212
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist entered the Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina church during a Bible study. He promptly shot and killed nine church members, including the pastor Clementa Pickney. Roof was found guilty on all 33 counts lodged against him and sentenced to death. For several members of the church congregation, including some whose loved ones were murdered, his bond hearing was the first time any of them would come face to face with Roof. The judge presiding over the hearing invited them to make a statement. In one of the most powerful and profound displays of grace and forgiveness that has ever been performed, several members of congregation offered him forgiveness and mercy. The grace and empathy required to offer such forgiveness is simply mind boggling. Yet, despite another example of such unthinkable cruelty and pure evil, those simple, regular, everyday folks found room to forgive. It’s hard to imagine anything being more difficult. But somehow, some way, they found the strength, love and compassion to do so.
James Baldwin referenced the strength, resilience and grace needed by Black Americans in the face of systemic racism in his work The Fire Next Time. “It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy, as Negroes in this country have done so long. It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.” (Pgs 99 – 100)
I offer these passages simply as an important lesson learned from my mother and reinforced by others. Regardless of our backgrounds or opinions, it serves us well to recognize everyone’s humanity and, perhaps in doing so, we can find common ground regardless of political ideology. Or at a minimum, make an honest attempt.
It leads to another story that is instructive. Writing in the New York Times, Nickolas Kristoff tells the story of Darryl Davis, a Black musician who has a rather unusual calling. “He hangs out with Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis and chips away at their racism. He has evidence of great success: a collection of KKK robes given him by people whom he persuaded to abandon the Klan…There’s something to be said for the basic Davis inclination toward dialogue even with unreasonable antagonists. If we’re all stuck in the same boat, we should talk to each other. “
Kristoff continues, “At a time when America is so polarized and political space is so toxic, we, of course, have to stand up for what we think is right. But it may also help to sit down with those we believe are wrong. (Sunday Review, June 27, 2021 p. 7)
Speaking of talking to each other, it is fair to say that a lot of whites feel “under attack” when it comes to the discussion of racial justice. While that might be considered as our white fragility creeping to the surface, it is something that can feel real. Many white people are feeling cowed and intimidated into silence. As a result, we don’t feel that we can say, question or challenge anything at all relating to race and social justice.
But we shouldn’t let that paralyze us into complete silence. Retreating into silence when challenged is a product of our white fragility. We can, in fact, ask questions and even challenge certain assumptions, regardless of who expresses them. But here is the key. In doing so, we must be respectful, humble, empathetic and most important, open minded and willing to learn and as a result change our beliefs and behaviors. If we have questions or perhaps a different opinion on an issue, we shouldn’t feel that we cannot express our thoughts or impressions. Being able to ask questions and talk about points of contention in a civilized and respectful manner is critical in engaging in productive dialogue and ultimately, change. But it is only when that dialogue is approached with an open mind, a genuine willingness to learn and a profound sense of humility and respect that true understanding and progress can be achieved. So, yes, you can express your opinions, even when controversial provided you are open to the possibility that you may be challenged and corrected if they are misguided. And when they are misguided, you should recognize that, learn why they are misguided and change your perspective, opinions and behaviors accordingly. So much of the path to reconciliation depends on our ability to understand and empathize with POC and their everyday realities. Issues of race and social justice involve difficult discussions. But the more we can engage in those difficult discussions, the greater our capacity and ability to engage in additional difficult discussions. It’s like a muscle that can be built up with repeated use and exercise. The more we “train” and build up our empathy, grace and forgiveness “muscles”, the better we will become at understanding each other and reconciling our differences.
I’ll leave the final thought on this subject to Darryl Davis. “If I can sit down and talk to K.K.K. members and neo-Nazis and get them to give me their robes and hoods and swastika and all that crazy kind of stuff,” Davis said, “there’s no reason why somebody can’t sit down at a dinner table and talk to their family member.” (New York Times: June 27, 2021 Sunday Review p. 7.)