In a Fast-Changing, Crisis-to-Crisis World, How Do We Combat Racism?

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Doomed Culture

The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

In a Facebook discussion about the recent violent tragedies from Baltimore to Dallas, the question was raised: What can we do to counter racism and change people’s hearts and minds?

That was not the exact phrasing. The woman who was searching for the answer is among a new class of so-called “Facebook activists,” who seem to think this can be accomplished by posting memes and discussing such things in safe little groups of people who basically already agree with one other.

Prompted by that discussion, I had a conversation about this over Sunday breakfast with a highly intelligent and tolerant friend, who was born and raised in the North and attended Harvard but who moved South many years ago, “To be a part of history,” he says when asked, back during the height of the civil rights struggle.

After thinking about it and discussing my recent column [Second Amendment Debate Takes On New Meaning When Gun Holder is Black], I was able to come up with a few scenarios that might be instructive. Only one of them involves Facebook, and does not involve memes or progressive Facebook groups or non-profit organizations.

For starters, everyone who grew up in a place and with a background where racism was the dominant frame, like I did in the 1950s and ‘60s in the suburbs of Birmingham, knows the path from darkness to enlightenment is a personal one. No one can do it for you.

As I point out in my recently published memoir, Jump On The Bus, my own path out of a land of hate involved education and experience. I sprouted in the suburbs reading the conservative Newhouse Birmingham News and voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, believing their editorials endorsing him.

But after moving to Tuscaloosa in 1981 and reading The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation and The National Review and many other publications and books at the University of Alabama, and working with African American reporters at The Crimson White campus newspaper, I learned to think for myself. Over time, I came to a different conclusion about life than many who grew up in the same place in similar circumstances.

That is one way out. One way forward. Education and experience. Being exposed to a more diverse population of people and ideas.

There are other ways. While it’s not really my thing, religion is one. I’m more of a science guy, so in 2011 when I found out an old church basketball coach, Mike Shaw, had been selected as head of the Alabama Baptist Convention, I decided to go see him and conduct a video interview.

At that time my thoughts were mainly focused on a book by Harvard biologist and Alabama native E.O. Wilson which he wrote to Southern Baptist preachers: The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. So the main story headline was this: Is A Great Compromise Between Science and Religion Possible?

During that conversation, Shaw admitted being a racist growing up among Southern Baptists in Birmingham during the era of race riots, fire hoses and police dogs, and even later during the fights over school integration.

“There was a lot of prejudice in Southern Baptist churches when I grew up,” he said. “I was a racist for many years. I didn’t realize it. I had to go to Promise Keepers to realize I was a racist, and I confessed and asked God to forgive me. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention repented of our racism back in the 1990s. Yeah, we admitted we were wrong.”

So a group like Promise Keepers can help. It obviously did for him and many others.

In another example, a few years back when I was covering a lot of labor news, I became friends with the leader of a union in Birmingham. When I first entered the union hall, I was sort of shocked to see a Confederate Battle Flag on display. I made a comment about it and it went into the closet, at least for awhile.

I found union members to be pretty racist and anti-immigrant, back during the days when Alabama Republicans were trying to run all Latinos out of the state. But for the leader, my friend, after many conversations about it, when I pointed out that Hispanics constituted 11 million votes for Democrats, he became a convert. He has since continued to work alongside minorities on political causes, while most of his brethren turned back and now support Donald Trump for president.

Now for the Facebook example.

I doubt the mass ability of any social networking program to accomplish what the online activists think it can. I’m not saying it can’t be useful. It can.

But in my experience, here is how.

I think there is one way to get to people. In the early days of Facebook, I had a friend I’ve known since early childhood who was posting off color racist jokes almost every day on Facebook after Barack Obama first started running for president.

He had a bunch of other friends, many of whom I knew and went to high school with, who laughed at his jokes, liked them, commented on them, shared them.

I was offended, so I said so. I got into it with them. I confronted them and made them face their racism and demonstrated that at least one person was willing to stand up against it. I doubt it changed anybody’s heart or mind right away. But over time, I could see a difference. The hatred at least dissipated and the jokes stopped.

In personal conversations on the phone, my friend came to respect Mr. Obama as “our president.” Not that he agreed with his policies. But at least he seemed to show a little respect.

So this is what I recommend. If you really want to combat racism, on Facebook, you have to be willing to get into the battle with your racist friends and family and fight it out. You will lose friends. You will make enemies. You will have to block people and they will block you.

If you can’t handle it alone, let me know. I will help. Share some of my stories with them. I am more than willing to take the heat. Blame it on me.

I think you will find other friends who will do the same and come to your aid.

It might take a very long time to change this world, but together we can do it. We have no choice.

© 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.