Opinion: Beginning an honest, tough conversation

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, ‘White Power!’ when nobody will shout, ‘Black Power!’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

— Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Where do we go from here” speech, Atlanta, August 1967

The words of Atlanta’s greatest son provide prophetic context for the ongoing quest to fully grasp the Declaration of Independence’s lofty assertion that all men are created equal.

We’ve come far, but despite what many may believe, we’re not there yet. Not when so many rifts stretch raggedly across metro Atlanta, and the rest of this great country. We all suffer as a result.

The discord is evident. Denials or silence won’t make it disappear — or lessen its intensity. Not when so many of all races or creeds – for different reasons — feel frustrated, aggrieved, angry, set upon, or under assault for their beliefs.

Americans have always disagreed, but we haven’t always been so vehemently disagreeable in doing so.

Our scuffling deepens the trenches of race, class, demographics and religion that serve as natural rallying corners into which we can withdraw to seek the comfort of those who look, think, or worship only as we do. In so doing, we snuff out potential that resides in all of us.

One path toward resolving such conflicts can be to first drag issues into the open. That can set a course toward gaining both a more-common understanding and a way of working through disagreements. Handled with fidelity, reconciliation and healing can result.

That’s been the goal of Truth Commissions established around the world. As used in South Africa, that process is credited with helping that nation move past a divisive legacy of apartheid. Lives of all colors were likely saved by this courageous effort.

If nothing else, talking earnestly to each other beats the stalemate of just shouting at each other. The latter course guarantees only the closing of ears on all sides.

We all need to listen more to each other, we believe. Thus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has launched “RE: Race”, a reporting project that will sight-in on the deep demographic changes that are remaking metro Atlanta. Race, creed and class are unavoidably present among the factors influencing our region’s evolution as people move around town, make way for newcomers and otherwise go about their daily lives.

We hope RE: Race will help foster difficult conversations.

Change is unsettling. Our common humanity can be easily overlooked, along with the awareness that we really do have more in common than not.

We do ourselves and this community great harm by being satisfied with a status quo of standing only with kindred spirits.

Metro Atlanta and its great leaders long ago showed us a better way in which to live our personal and communal lives. We should reacquaint ourselves with their old lessons.

Stimulating that process is our goal behind the RE: Race project.

Despite what some critics have already said about RE: Race, this newspaper has nothing to gain from casually, if not recklessly, stirring cauldrons of discontent that many like to think grew cold long ago.

The recent experiences of Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities have warned us all that those fires never fully subsided. They smoldered on, underneath ashes of wishful thinking and willful indifference.

Do we as a society blow on the embers — or begin to take positive, proactive steps to cool them?

Atlanta has taken a backseat to no place in the world in rowing toward a greater, collective good – especially when it comes to spanning jagged fault lines of race and other hotbeds of divisiveness.

At its core, we succeeded by diligently executing a simple concept. And that was summon the courage to sit down, look each other in the eye and begin talking. That only works with earnest, two-way conversations. Distracting emotions such as paternalism or desire for retribution should be locked outside the room.

That’s hard, risky work. Speaking out has a cost. The comments of a white man who wrote on our pages about riding MARTA with African-Americans have drawn national derision from some, thanks to the Internet. He updates his thoughts on this page today.

Criticizing is easy. The courageous work is engaging honestly in an era when condemnation or retribution takes only a few smartphone keystrokes.

Metro Atlanta, and society at large, need more people to speak up – and the rest of us to actively listen without instinctively hurling allegations of either “race-baiter” or “racist.” We have to get better at that.

The appealing, convenient path is to continue deceiving ourselves by wearing masks of normalcy. Things like asserting that we’re already in a “post-racial” society.

A race-neutral America would not have seen last year’s killings of police officers by black men whose hearts were filled with a hatred of the kind that likewise drove Dylann Roof to murderously open fire on an African-American church’s Bible study class.

Our eyes cannot remain shielded by comfortable blinders. This age is too perilous for that. Looking honestly at the divides remaining before us will require a painful level of honesty. There will be costly stumbles. Emotions will run ragged, and raw.

We hope that our work on RE: Race can stimulate the beginnings of more-productive communication. We have a lot more to gain than to lose, we believe. For this to work, we need to hear from you – and we need to hear from each other.

In doing so, we must resist the temptation to overlook that we’re all human. Our hopes, fears, dreams and travail are not constrained by skin color, nationality, lifestyle or religion.

Beginning to earnestly talk to one another – and not at each other – has potential to help us make the next step toward a society that ultimately does better by all of us.

A former slave recently mentioned by President Donald Trump understood this. In an 1883 speech, Frederick Douglass said: “The lesson of all the ages on this point is, that a wrong done to one man, is a wrong done to all men. It may not be felt at the moment, and the evil day may be long delayed, but so sure as there is a moral government of the universe, so sure will the harvest of evil come.”

It is time to plow under that bitter harvest, and begin planting new, hopeful seeds for a better future – one conversation at a time.

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