Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers Americans time to reflect and measure our progress toward building a civil society. An honest examination of history makes it clear that the law has not been able to cleanse our nation of racism.
The 15th Amendment has been
in place for more than a century. The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act has been on
the books for over a half century.
Yet just this month, the
U.S. House of Representatives felt compelled to pass a formal resolution that
“once again rejects White nationalism and White supremacy as hateful
expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the
people of the United States.”
While our founding document
states that all men are created equal, clearly not all Americans have bought
into that article of faith.
There is a limit to what
laws can accomplish. While they instruct as to what we can and cannot do, laws
are incapable of guiding our hearts to love our neighbor and our minds to
process thoughtful and appropriate communication with our fellow man.
December 1964, in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
called the Civil Rights Act the beginning of “a second emancipation.”
Forty-five years on, there’s still much emancipating to be done.
that period, conservative leaders have echoed Dr. King’s call to end racial
insanity and the silent hate that continues to divides us. In response to
incidents of bigotry and violence, President Ronald Reagan delivered a stern
message to “those individuals who persist in such hateful behavior. “You are
the ones who are out of step with our society,” he said. “You are the ones who
willfully violate the meaning of the dream that is America. And this country,
because of what it stands for, will not stand for your conduct.”
accepting the presidential nomination at the 1996 Republican National Convention
Bob Dole said, “If there is anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves
to our party in the belief that we’re not open to citizens of every race and
religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the party of
Lincoln and the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of as
I stand this ground without compromise.”
years later, George W. Bush said, “For our nation, there is no denying the
truth that slavery is a blight on our history, and that racism, despite all the
progress, still exists today.” He could, and doubtless would, say the same
Speaking against racism is
important, but policies that actually improve the quality of life for
marginalized communities can make a tremendous difference, too.
typically aim to “lift all boats,” but they have proved remarkably effective in
helping the disadvantaged. The 1996 welfare reforms, for example, helped
millions escape the dependency trap and pull themselves out of poverty.
Similarly, 2017’s pro-growth
tax reforms, coupled with sensible deregulation, have helped drive unemployment
among African-Americans and Latinos to all-time lows, while pushing wages
higher—especially among low-income families.
Some have argued that the
right to a decent education is the most pressing civil rights issue of the day.
Here, again, the conservative-led school choice movement is making a dramatic
improvement in the lives—and the futures—of families who have been marginalized
for far too long.
At the end of the day, however,
laws and policies can’t cleanse America of racism because they can’t change hearts. What can? One possible answer:
more basic human interaction between people of different races.
I so welcome initiatives like “Solution Sundays,” a program launched by Sens. James Lankford, R- Okla., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., in the aftermath of the violent protests that wracked East St. Louis, Baltimore, and other cities in 2015. At the time, activists and pundits seemed to be trying to force the nation to choose sides: either pro-police/anti-protester or pro-protester/anti-police.
Lankford and Scott felt
there was a better way—to find common ground.
They discovered very few
people they talked to had ever had someone of another race over for dinner. It
was then, Scott told CNN, that he realized a huge part of the problem was the
“personal disconnect” between races. “It’s hard to hate what you know,”
challenged fellow lawmakers—and their constituents—to “set aside lunch or dinner and just invite a
family over of another race, and just sit down and have a meal together.”
senators report that this simple initiative has been tremendously successful in
not just bringing together people of different races, but bringing them to a
much greater understanding of each other. Scott even speaks of hearts being
the effort to know those different from us is key to removing barriers between
people. But talking about racism is not easy.
a topic fraught with emotion, and those emotions inevitably color the words we
use, how we interpret them, and how we react to them. It’s tricky, because
individuals interpret words according to their personal experiences and
heritage. Often, this leaves people of different races “talking past each
other”—or, worse, unintentionally “triggering” others—making little progress
toward mutual understanding.
communication becomes especially difficult when politics enter the picture and
“scoring points” becomes more important than finding common ground and mutual
understanding. It’s then that the discussion can harden, growing increasingly
abrasive and divisive.
Thankfully, most Americans—on both the left and the right—dearly want to end the ugly racism that still divides our country. The vote on that House resolution condemning white supremacy was 424-1. But laws and resolutions can’t change hearts. Changing hearts requires a personal commitment. In addition, we must be intentional about wanting to strengthen our relationships across racial lines.
It must start with us. And we must start now.
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