Rich Harwood on NPR's All Things Considered, Weekend Edition

Barbershop: Virginia Gov. Northam Plans His 'Racial Reconciliation Tour'

February 16, 2019

Heard on NPR’s All Things Considered.

NPR's Michel Martin asks what reconciliation looks like. Her guests: Rich Harwood of The Harwood Institute, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention and genealogist Sharon Leslie Morgan.



Now it's time to step into the Barbershop. That's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Today, we want to talk about a subject that's been percolating in the wake of the news that the Virginia governor and the attorney general were blackface at parties years ago. Another Virginia official was the editor of a yearbook with many such racist photos in it. Governor Ralph Northam has been pressed to resign, even by members of his own Democratic Party. But instead of doing that, the governor sees a teachable moment.

RALPH NORTHAM: This is really an opportunity, I believe, to make awareness of this issue, to really have a frank dialogue and discussion about race and equity in this country.

MARTIN: He was speaking to CBS News there. And one way he plans to do this is through a series of talks to engage the public on race, something of a reconciliation tour. Virginia Union University, an historically black institution in Richmond, will be his first stop. In a written statement, the university wrote, it is important to bring the community together to develop a plan to reach healing and reconciliation.

So that's what we wanted to talk about. What does reconciliation look like? How might it be achieved? And we've called on three people who have thought about this and who have worked on this. Rich Harwood is the president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. That's an organization that facilitates community discussions around difficult issues. He's with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome back.

RICH HARWOOD: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with Rich Harwood. You wrote a very interesting piece for your blog, in which you said that confronting racism and identity in this country will involve sorrow and that the conversation will not be polite. And so I wanted to ask you about that. Is this governor - is this tour, this series of discussions that the governor - that Governor Northam's talking about - is that a good first step?

HARWOOD: Well, I think he faces a fundamental choice. If this is about political survival for his governorship, no. If this is about him being an instrument of society, potentially. And I think what he needs to be prepared for is that this will not be a civil conversation. We can't ask people to engage in civility here because that just means lower your voice, don't be emotional. This is an incredibly emotional topic. People feel loss. They feel anger. They feel a sense of rage. This has been coming for generations. And I think he needs to be prepared for a very hard-nosed, tough emotional conversation that's coming his way.

MARTIN: Is that going to be fruitful?

HARWOOD: I think we can only engage in a fruitful conversation if we allow this kind of sorrow, this kind of emotion, this rage and anger to come forward. Otherwise, folks who have been discriminated against, who have dealt with inequities for their lives will say this is yet another effort in lip service from a white politician who's simply trying to survive, politically.

MARTIN: So, Rich, how do you get people to the table? I know that you've had some difficult community conversations in the past. I mean, for example, I know that you worked in helping the community figure out what to do about the site of the former Sandy Hook Elementary School. You were part of the facilitation process there. But those were people who were highly motivated to be part of the conversation, and one assumes that they at least approached it with some semblance of goodwill toward each other. I mean, what about when it isn't that, when - what about it when it's with what Pastor Moore said, that there are a lot of people who said, you know what? That was then. This is now. My family didn't own slaves. I have nothing to do with this.

HARWOOD: Yeah. I think - look, I think if we think that this conversation is going to ramp up really quickly and we want to scale it really fast, I think that's a mistake. I think a better strategy is slow and steady. And what we want to do initially is start to bring people together in small groups who are willing to come together and let that ripple out over time and build our capability to do this. Look at - the heart of this is going to be our civic confidence, our belief that we can do this together and do something productive. I think that's going to have to start small. It can start to build from there and ripple out. And we can begin to bring more and more people into the conversation over time. We can't start all at once. It's a big mistake. It won't work. And we're looking for trouble if we try to do that.

MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there for now. Let's get back together again when these talks proceed and just see how they're going. And that's - that has been Sharon Leslie Morgan, writer and genealogist. She's the co-author of "Gather At The Table: The Healing Journey Of A Daughter Of Slavery And A Son Of The Slave Trade." Rich Harwood is with us, president The Harwood Institute. And Russell Moore was with us, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I thank you all so much for starting our conversation about this.

HARWOOD: Thanks for having us.

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