News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Sept. 11 & the debate over paths to racial reconciliation

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Ever see one of those chalk talks with the ultraviolet light? With the flip of a switch, a hidden image appears in the midst of the sketch. Sept. 11 has done a similar thing in America; it’s brought some things to light.

President Bush and Mayor Giuliani have seen their ratings soar. Flight 93’s Todd Beamer has introduced “Let’s roll” to the national vocabulary. Soldiers, policemen and firemen are enjoying new and deserved levels of esteem.

Others have not fared so well in the crisis, and I think the flaws are more endemic than episodic. Sept. 11 has brought to fresh light a chronic problem in a sector of black leadership.

How can a white speak to this? The same way a male can speak to abortion or a blue-collar worker can speak to executive salary scales. Outsiders can bring fresh, objective insight, and though they may be rebuked by the insiders, they get off easy compared to the insiders who hold an unpopular view. Peer pressure and group solidarity can be killers.

I speak as an American, and this is an American issue. I speak as a Christian who’s done work in ethics, and I think I see an issue that begs a word. I speak as one who loves blacks and is convinced that they’re being poorly served. I speak as a foe of racial discrimination.

Consider the performance of these three leaders, one each from government, the clergy and academia: Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney commiserated with Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, rebuffed for wrapping his $10 million gift in a lecture. Mayor Giuliani returned the money, to the cheers of most Americans, and McKinney reached for it, while bemoaning America’s treatment of blacks.

Of course, there is Louis Farrakhan with his “show me the proof,” because “they have lied before, and there’s no guarantee they are not lying now.” But the one who launched this column was Harvard African American studies professor Cornell West. He complained that Americans have been eager to give “reparations” to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while resisting the payment of reparations to the victims of “institutional forms of terrorism,” namely those who suffered from the effects of 19th-century slavery. Let me suggest that he owes blacks reparations for the harm such rhetoric does them in these days.

West and other black leaders are correct in bewailing the gagging evils of slavery. (I just came across Turner’s 1840 painting, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying; Typhoon Coming On. Take a look at it if you’re ever inclined to downplay the horrors.) They’re also correct in recalling that it took the widespread publication of grievances and the national orchestration of political coalitions to outlaw discrimination. But to suggest that a bright future for African Americans depends upon a continuing cycle of complaint and legislation is folly.

What if the Montgolfier brothers had argued in 1793 that a balloon was the way to reach the moon since it had taken mankind closer (3,000 feet) than anything else built to date? No, a lunar trip would take a different sort of technology and, besides, if you go too high in a balloon, it pops. The same goes for the cause of black prosperity and power. Cultivated alienation, victimese, votes and boycotts won’t break the pull of gravity.

What is this “technology” for racial advance? In a word, respect. Not forced and nervous civility under the club of sensitivity and language cops. Not the cheesy servility of jumpy corporations and university administrators. Not new government funding. But the deep down admiration and national thankfulness for a people wronged but resilient, accomplished, holy and collegial.

Affirmative action was a betrayal of the civil rights movement. For years, folks worked to end racial discrimination. Then they turned right around and supported it. Good cause. Wrong method. Temporary gains. Long-term loss of esteem and self-confidence. (And besides, they can do just fine without it.) And if Americans disrespect a law, it won’t endure. Consider the outbreak of classroom prayer on Sept. 11, the fate of Prohibition and, yes, the ongoing erosion of reverse discrimination.

It was one wonderful thing to break baseball’s racist barrier with a Jackie Robinson and then watch him reign as the first of countless black stars. It is quite another thing to demand that more black players be brought up from Triple A to the Yankees and Diamondbacks to balance the explosion of Hispanic players — “Too many men named Posada, Soriano, Martinez, Sojo, Velarde, Hernandez, Mendoza, Durazo, Bautista, Rivera, Gonzalez and Batista. Not enough named Jeter and Justice.”

Speaking of Posadas and Bautistas, Hispanics have just passed blacks as the most populous minority group in America. Many have come out of poverty, illiteracy and even persecution, not just in the 1800s but also in the 2000s and are doing admirably. They take their place alongside refugees of the killing fields in Cambodia, Taliban oppression in Afghanistan and genocidal sharia in Sudan. For a group seeking national ascendancy, one could scarcely think of a worse time to play the victim card in American politics, to show anything but respect our nation and its security.

Broadview Missionary Baptist Church is a pillar of the Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association. Pastor Clarence Hopson is one of my heroes. Over the decades, he never asked for special treatment to redress past abuse. He just followed God, focused on evangelism and discipleship, and built a great church with great people. Now there’s a black leader.

By the way, don’t you love the way that National Security Adviser Condelezza Rice is standing tall? And how about Michael Jordan, who at 38 was the high point man and only player to go the full 40 minutes in the Wizard’s win over the Hawks the other day? And aren’t you glad that Todd Beamer got GTE airphone supervisor Lisa Jefferson on the line? She was the one who prayed the Lord’s Prayer with him in his last moments. Thank you, Lord, for these and many other Americans with roots in Africa. We honor them, for they’ve shot the moon.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger