I would have loved to see President Obama, the First Lady and their beautiful girls in Selma, Alabama linking arms with Rep. John Lewis and other brave civil rights pioneers who took that historic walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. The presence of our African-American first family marking the anniversary of this triumphant struggle was incredibly poignant and inspiring in itself. But for me, the most astounding part of the day was the president's powerfully inclusive, hopeful, and no-nonsense speech as he called for us to take more ground. He painted a clear, non apologetic but hopeful picture of America while speaking directly to the revisionists, the racism deniers and those in our country who seem bent on retrenchment:
That's what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don't pine for it. We don't fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.
All I could think of when I heard these words, was how our president's understanding of race in America has become more nuanced since his famous speeches at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and in Philadelphia in 2008. He did what he does better than any of our country's leaders -- reminded us of the strength and resilience of America's diverse peoples, while this time weaving in the deeper and confounding truths about our history of injustice toward each other.
"We're the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.
"We're the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers' rights.
"We're the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we're the Tuskegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied...
"We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge...
"We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway."
Despite all he has suffered while in office, including the outrageous racist behavior directed toward him by so many, he still deeply believes in our country's ideals and is firm in his belief that we are mistaken if we insist there has been no progress on racial issues. At the same time he made clear that the "more common mistake is to suggest...that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the 'race card' for their own purposes." He actually said, "race card!"
Last weekend, we saw a black president who has revised his understanding of just how strong the bigotry in this country is and how much more must be done for our country to reach its ideals and secure a better future. He called us to task, reprimanded us for not taking advantage of our right to vote after so many had sacrificed to secure it, and then encouraged us to seize the "new ground that is yet to be covered and the bridges to be crossed."
I have been thinking about what it takes to do just that -- to be a bridge builder in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King and those courageous Americans in Selma, to bridge the gap between our country's reality and ideals, and inspire the rest of us to live up to the promise. What is the bridge builder's response to Attorney General Holder's report on Ferguson, Missouri -- released the same week of this beautiful celebration of our country's civil rights' progress -- that documents the systemic discrimination and mistreatment of black people, brown people, and poor people? How do we build trust when people in power refer to the first family in derogatory, racist terms? Who stands in the gap now? I think our president thought he could be a bridge builder, coming from so many diverse identities and experiences but the current political climate has made that all but impossible.
As someone like the president, a person from a working class background who benefitted greatly from the sacrifices made by Americans during the civil rights movement, I've been reflecting on what I have learned working to foster more inclusive and respectful companies, organizations and communities. I don't believe that either physical violence hateful speech, or shame and blame will work. The shooting of police will never lead to trust. When I see people square off on television news programs, I don't see us making progress in mutual understanding, only staking out positions while we refuse to look for common ground.
Bridge builders are those who seek first to understand rather than to be understood. They go beyond their cultures and world views to understand the world view of others. In instances where they disagree with the beliefs and behaviors of others, they don't demonize them and distance themselves from them. They move toward the "other" seeing the individual and his or her culture as valid, as worthy of respect; the other is still human. They look not only at what seems to be wrong, but at the joys, the strengths, the value, the history, the resilience and the power in each community and culture.
Bridge builders are humble enough to know they don't know everything. That their experience while valid, nevertheless means they are at the same time unaware of the experiences and lives of others, especially those who have encountered rougher waters in our society. They are curious about what they don't know. They are willing to make the emotional investment of listening deeply to the pain and anger that comes from the communities of people on the other side of the gap. They are people who bring a spirit of collaboration rather than control.
Rather than seek it, bridge builders bring empathy and compassion. Is it our American "bootstrap" mentality that makes it so hard for us to show empathy to others who are different from us? Is it our fearing of returning to poverty or our "let's keep moving forward" attitude? If we hope to build connections across difference, we have to find ways to walk in another person's shoes. There is a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that I keep on a card on the wall by my desk because it helps remind me of the power of empathy, "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's (or woman's) life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."
Being a bridge builder is not easy. And being self-aware, active, respectful, humble, and empathic are qualities that don't get a lot of play on the front page. But the secret that bridge builders know is that their endeavors are not solely about doing something for others -- they secure safe haven for each of us. Bridge builders are not altruistic, do-gooders. They are deeply connected to the truth that we are all one, all connected within these United States and across our world. That what was happening in Selma, or is taking place in Ferguson or in Syria, New York or Nigeria is happening to all of us. As Dr. King, one of the most remarkable bridge builders of our time remarked, "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states... injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be."
And what we ought to be, as the president reminded, us last week is, "We the people"- a nation of people who want justice not just for our group, or own city or neighborhood - "but for all."
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