The Pacific University Center for Peace and Spirituality recently hosted "From Ferguson To Forest Grove: A Forum Exploring The Intersection of Racism and Law Enforcement." We were honored by the participation and attendance of students, faculty, staff, community members, law enforcement, and a panel of leaders committed to combating racism and building up the common good.
The events we have witnessed in Ferguson, Mo., have been heartbreaking. There is evidence -- evidence as yet untested in a court of law -- that another African-American has been killed by law enforcement in America. I say another because this occurs with uncommon frequency -- even in communities like Portland.
We have in this nation been reminded of the reality of racism again and again. Hurricane Katrina shocked the nation into acknowledging the link between race and poverty. The historic 2008 elections -- which saw the first African-American elected as President of the United States of America, perhaps the most visible symbol of racial progress -- were marred by voices that questioned Barack Obama's Americanism and faith.
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old young man armed with nothing but candy, rattled the nation once again. Each of these moments heard voices call out and demand a national conversation around race but as quickly as those calls came they faded. And that is a problem because racism is not just found in law enforcement but in every facet of American life -- even our academic institutions and our religious bodies.
Just last week Hillary Clinton told an audience: "Imagine what we would feel and what we would do, if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers, instead of the other way around. If white offenders received prison sentences ten percent longer than black offenders for the same crimes. If a third of all white men -- just look at this room and take one third -- went to prison during their lifetime. Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans and so many of the communities in which they live."
Racism has infected our national debate over immigration reform. Ronald Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush were all Republican leaders who understood that the greatness of America comes in part from the diversity that makes us whole.
President Reagan signed a bill providing amnesty for immigrants here illegally. George W. Bush teamed up with Ted Kennedy to promote comprehensive immigration reform -- essentially the same legislation President Obama is pushing now with no bipartisan support.
Times have changed. In 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended the humanity of people in America illegally. Last week he suggested without evidence that ISIS, the extremist group in Syria and Iraq, had infiltrated Latino immigrants. States have fought for the right to have police legally stop people simply for being Latino.
And voting rights are under attack across the nation.
Still, there is hope. I know it because I've lived it.
Just this April I returned to the White House. Waiting with me at the entrance was the Rev. Joseph Lowery. Rev. Lowery was a top associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. He took over the Southern Christian Leadership Council after Dr. King was assassinated. Rev. Lowery had been to the White House when President Lyndon Johnson worked with civil rights leaders to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Now he was returning to celebrate Easter with his friend, President Barack Obama, in a house built with slave labor. Change comes if hope endures.
William Sloane Coffin said this about hope:
"Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts."
I have hope that we can in a spirit of friendship and community lift up difficult issues and hear one another out. We do not have to agree with each other. But we should respect the experiences we have all lived.
I also have hope that the generation of students attending Pacific University today -- along with the students at Washington University in St. Louis today -- will carry forth the legacy of Joseph Lowery and others who have fought for civil rights during the sometimes difficult history of our nation. This cause is part of America's great unfinished business. We all have a moral obligation to carry on until the dream of equality is reached in full.
This op-ed was originally published on OregonLive.com and is republished with permission.