Confronting Our Civic Stains

By Rich Harwood

Imagine this: Three 12 year-old black kids walk into an ice cream store in an all-white section of town, only to turn to their mentor and ask: “You sure it’s cool that we’re around all these white people?” These kids had never been to this part of town, and as the mentor explained to us in a recent interview, “They were so nervous when they got there.”

This story has remained etched in this mentor’s mind even though it happened some ten years ago. Of course it is. How could it not be? Just think about what those three kids, now 22 years old, probably remember—not only in their minds but the very feelings lodged in their bodies.

Since the time those three kids were in the ice cream store, the focus on the stains on our nation’s civic fabric has only increased. Discussions about racism seem only more intense, focused and urgent. Think: black face, confederate monuments, black folks dying or being abused at the hands of law enforcement officials.

A story about the stains on our nation’s civic fabric is long and painful. There is the original sin of slavery and how Native Americans were treated; and then there are more recent grievances that people hold, people who have felt left out and left behind in our nation.

I, for one, do no wish to recoil or step back from these stains. We must engage with them. We must discuss them. We must address them.

People often use the word “reconciliation” when talking about historical stains. But my fear is that we might think we’ve “reconciled” without necessarily dealing with the truth. And reconciliation without truth—without clear acknowledgement, understanding and embracing of the truth—is a false promise.

I have also heard people say that dealing with our stains, whether historical or more recent, would break apart the nation, divide us further, raise more prejudice. I say that they give us the opportunity to bind our wounds. We can become stronger, more real and more alive.

I believe America is a great nation. Of course, American ideals have never been fully achieved; ideals never are. But such ideals give us something to work toward and work on. If any nation can achieve greater inclusion, welcome more diversity, and achieve more equity, it is America. I say this, not because I have read such things in a book, or heard others give rousing speeches, but because our nation has found a way to continually re-calibrate, even correct, its course over our history. This gives me hope.

What also gives me hope are the people I meet in communities far and wide, each and every day, who are committed, especially in these hard times, to bring out the best in us, the best of us. It is time to summon more of us to step forward and re-commit ourselves to the common cause of achieving a more perfect union.

There is work to do. We can only do it together.