Pick any issue that splits Americans down the middle and the four guests sipping coffee around our conference table would stampede to the left every time. This I could count on no matter what the morning’s planning agenda might hold. Liberal in conviction, activist in style, Christian in faith, friends, all of them. Compared to these folk, my normally centrist posture would seem ultra-right. We have tolerated – and, yes, respected – each other over many years of sometimes volatile, often tedious community meetings. There is something very reassuring about dealing with battle-seasoned urban veterans who still have enough idealism to keep them plodding forward with a modicum of integrity. They are gutsy, outspoken, opinionated, yet understand well the value of good-faith negotiation. The strategy meeting this morning was no different – lively debate about how to posture the neighborhood to get its share of city money, how to leverage better police response, how to lure new business development. Conditions in the community were still deplorable but the discussion was remarkably hopeful. Hard work and persistence was paying off in small but promising ways. Someone asked for an update on the liquor store conversion. This decaying building, once owned and operated by two Chinese brothers, supplied the alcoholics of the area with cheap booze at exorbitant prices as well as unauthorized campsites in the overgrown thickets out back where those too wasted to stumble home could sleep off a drink. The neighborhood was so pleased, our friends reported, that FCS had bought the place and was bringing legitimate, community-friendly businesses back. Our Family Store already had its grand opening and a new community center in the former theater space was soon to follow. A good grocery store was needed, the group emphasized.
Marvin, director of our small business corporation, announced the good news that he had identified a successful grocer who wanted to expand his business and was interested in coming to South Atlanta. Negotiations for half of the storefront space were in the final stages and within weeks we should have a new food market in the community. It was a Korean family with experience in running profitable groceries without selling alcohol and lotto tickets. I noticed that our guests were no longer smiling. Did Marvin say Korean?
The discussion turned immediately to bad experiences our friends – three of them African-American – had had with Asians. A deluge of indictments poured forth. These people are not friendly…you can’t understand them…they talk about us in a foreign language so you can’t tell what they are saying…they rip us off and take our money out of the community…they treat us like we’re all thieves. No more Asians in the neighborhood. Hadn’t it been hard enough getting rid of the Asian liquor store owners?
My jaw dropped open in disbelief. Were these my intelligent, educated liberal friends talking? Were these not the very ones who I had heard making fiery speeches condemning prejudice and racism in all its ugly forms? Were these not the spokespersons for improving race relations, the champions of racial reconciliation, the outspoken enemies of bigotry? I struggled for a moment to put myself in their place, imagining how it might feel to be exploited by shrewd foreigners who concealed their disdain behind disingenuous smiles. No use. Empathy was hard to summon in a room so full of blatant hypocrisy.
I caught myself feeling slightly smug. It felt almost pleasant for a change not being the one embarrassed by white privilege or apologetic for the racial insensitivities of my culture. For once, I was on the high road, on the liberal side of the table. And for a brief, savory moment I could taste the sweet toxin of accusing my accusers of the very things they had railed against in others. I bit hard on my tongue.
How powerful is the temptation to generalize, I thought to myself after the meeting broke up. Powerful enough to turn liberals into bigots. I know the struggle. I war with it every day. A ride from the airport with a rude Nigerian taxi driver can sour me against African immigrants. A disruptive security alert that turns a routine airport check-in into a two-hour line can make racial profiling of dark-eyed, middle-eastern-looking people an appealing alternative. Without intentional mental exertion to counteract this persistent tendency to generalize, every insult, every misunderstanding, every inconvenience, becomes an occasion for negative stereotyping. And the work seems to be no less demanding for the oppressed as for the oppressor.
I could understand why my African-American friends wanted an African-American grocer, not another strange-talking foreigner in their community. Circling the wagons to defend against hostiles – real or imagined – is as instinctual as squinting at the flash of a too-close lightning strike. Little unifies people more quickly than the appearance of an external threat. It is this natural response that causes us to seek security by separating ourselves into like-minded, like-educated, like-toned enclaves. It even tempts a people who once sacrificed their lives to put an end to segregation to desire to return to it.
Perhaps this is what Billy Graham was referring to when he declared that racial reconciliation was the great unfinished work of the church.