He looked intimidating, like he could punch his fist through a brick wall without straining himself. Tall, beefy, bald; he spoke forcefully and directly, just like the ex-Marine he was. And this white former military man was passionate about his calling: racial reconciliation and atonement.
I was talking to him at some conference in Chicago in the early 1990s. For all the appearance that he should be a close-minded bigot, he was in fact earnest about healing racial wounds — so much so, he dedicated his life to it because it was part of Jesus’s commandment to love one another.
My conversation with that man is one of many memories that keep coming back to me as I take in the national upheaval over racial justice in 2020. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a plague of so-called Karens, protests, violence, racial taunting, and racist incitement by foreign actors.
It’s a lot to process, and it has led more than a few people in the public eye to issue hysterical claims about a new civil war, or warning of existential dangers to suburban white moms or the imminence of race riots. Those claims fuel more acrimony and more anxiety across the political spectrum. Worst of all, they obscure the best of all news: The racists have lost.
If you have spent too much time absorbing extremist tweets and Facebook posts of despair, you might have missed it: Something good is happening. The racists have lost the argument.
When Mitt Romney joins a group of evangelicals marching in the streets for George Floyd and tweets a “Black Lives Matter” message; when Condoleezza Rice prescribes widespread change to address racial injustice; when George W. Bush calls for an end to systemic racism; when the Southern Baptist Convention in Mississippi said that state had a “moral obligation” to remove the Confederate battle emblem from its flag; when hundreds of thousands — millions? — of people march in overwhelmingly peaceful protests; when the president unleashes a militarized law-and-order campaign that utterly fails to turn around his poor polling; when millions of people have stopped and actually read or listened to the stories of injustice and violence and discrimination endured by their Black friends, coworkers, neighbors and fellow citizens — when all of that and more is going on, we are at a time much different from countless other national scandals and outrages.
This doesn’t mean racism is eliminated or that we should stop talking and listening and doing things to make our country fairer. It just means that if you are looking for a general consensus that this system is not fair to some of our fellow citizens, look no further. You’ve seen it on the streets, in the public statements of individuals, in the donations of wealthy individuals and businesses and foundations to address racial inequities. So let’s pocket the win and do something with it.
Twenty years ago, I interviewed a media executive about television. We spent a fair amount of time talking about the groundbreaking shows of the 1970s that tackled tough and controversial issues — M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, Roots, and Battle of the Network Stars. (O.K., not the last one, but we can still have senses of humor.) When I asked him why we don’t still see that kind of commitment to exploring issues on TV, he said the 1970s were a specific time in history when the country had to reckon with a lot of things it couldn’t put off any longer — war, economic dislocation, women’s rights, the rise of the evangelicals, abortion, and more. That kind of self-examination just isn’t a permanent condition.
The year 2020 feels like we’ve crammed in a few decades worth of problems that we finally have to reckon with. Economic unfairness, an expensive but broken health care system, an uninformed and lazy electorate, racial injustice and violence, creeping authoritarianism, a housing crisis, and more.
There will be different ideas and approaches to addressing these problems. But if we recognize that a commitment to racial equality — and to doing something about it — is shared by the strong majority of Americans, we can help to reestablish that lost feeling in this country that we can fix our problems, that there is still a moral core to our nation, we can make major strides toward living up to America’s promise.
“We’ve been in moments like this before, and we swung and missed. We had a moment in 1955 when people saw the lynching of Emmett Till. We had a moment on the Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Alabama], when for the first time . . . news was showing images where people were getting beaten and bludgeoned. We had an opportunity after the president of the United States sang ‘Amazing Grace’ at the funeral for Clementa Pinckney.
“And we missed all of these moments. Let’s make this moment true.”