Black History Month

Healing the divide

February 01, 2005|By Taunya Lovell Banks

IN HIS INAUGURAL speech, President Bush urged us to "abandon all the habits of racism." Even if the president's words are nothing more than feel-good rhetoric, we need to take his words seriously.

Today is the beginning of Black History Month, when we celebrate the vibrant lives and achievements of African-Americans. February is also a time to talk about race relations in America. Perhaps the best way to seriously address the problem is to strive for meaningful racial reconciliation between white and black Americans.

While there has been much talk about black reparations as a means of healing the racial divide between these two groups, reparation discussions focus almost entirely on economic redress for African-Americans. There is little discussion of racial reconciliation as a component of reparations.

This country may not be capable of meaningful racial reconciliation. Yet the potential for racial reconciliation seems worth exploring, especially since traditionally reparations are political, not legal, remedies.

Thus reparation awards usually are cast in moral, not solely legal, terms. Unless designed to transform the attitudes and social structures of the country, reparations may be illusory, more damaging than healing.

Racial reconciliation involves bringing estranged parties together in harmony, with the reconciled parties moving forward based on a new covenant between societal members. Reconciliation is a long-term process and would not be complete until the social and material condition of African-Americans as a group is equal to that of whites and until there is a climate of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

Black and white Americans missed two obvious opportunities to reconcile: in the 1860s after the Civil War and in the late 1950s after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some steps were taken to promote a limited form of equal opportunity for African-Americans. But as then-President Lyndon B. Johnson told the graduating class at Howard University in 1965, merely eliminating legal race-based barriers is insufficient to "wipe away the scars of centuries" because equity should be more than a right or a theory. Meaningful equality must become a fact and a result.

The Jim Crow era in the United States has been compared to South Africa under apartheid. But the Brown decision merely signaled a beginning of an end to the legalized racial apartheid that followed black Americans' emancipation from slavery. When apartheid ended in South Africa, that country adopted a new covenant. Its Constitutional Court acknowledged that true racial and national reconciliation in South Africa could not occur until the country had as complete a picture as possible of what happened during the apartheid era.

Only by understanding the past can you create a climate essential for reconciliation and reconstruction of society. South Africans saw racial reconciliation as a way to heal wounds of the past and transform anger and grief into an understanding of government-sanctioned repression. Like South Africa, American society needs healing.

Unlike South Africa, the United States has never publicly vented the economic, social and psychological consequences of slavery and the legalized racial apartheid that followed emancipation. There has never been any formal attempt at reconciliation.

Racial reconciliation represents a framework for discussing black reparations in a way that both benefits all Americans and carries the potential for material change in race relations. Meaningful racial reconciliation will be difficult and probably take generations.

Although reconciliation does not necessarily imply forgiveness, it does require the establishment of a relationship of trust and respect for the rights and legitimacy of political opposition groups. There can be no trust relationship between blacks and whites without public dialogue. Any dialogue must include an accounting of America's unpleasant racial past.

The root of anti-black racism is deeply embedded in the American psyche. African-Americans, while pressing for meaningful reparations, must make better use of the unequal, but substantial, political and economic power that flows from their American citizenship. They can realize that power through helping other people in and outside the United States fight racism and discrimination.

While not necessarily a means of achieving economic parity, global anti-racist activism may liberate black Americans from the mental slavery of racial subordination. Late author James Baldwin wrote: "We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it."

Taunya Lovell Banks is the Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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