It's a matter of faith to some that civil rights leaders the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are in fact "race-hustlers" who have made their respective careers by causing trouble that didn't exist. I understand that.
And I'm not sure that's correct.
I say that not because I support or agree with them. But they do call attention to an issue that some would rather drive underground -- that of an underlying racism that still affects our nation.
However, they have never operated in the South, where racism was not only open but also decreed by law two generations ago. Jackson has long worked in Chicago; Sharpton, New York, so the kind of racism they would address wouldn't be obvious to many. Some years ago Jackson even traveled to Peoria, Ill. to try to defuse a situation where a race riot in a high school resulted in the African-American students receiving harsher discipline than the white students.
So how do we put them out of business? By doing the hard work of addressing issues of race. Because, whether we like it or not, there really is a divide that has to be crossed.
Now, that's harder than it sounds, because it may mean stepping out of an ideological comfort zone. Saying that poor African-Americans are lazy and prefer to collect welfare rather than work in fact displays a lack of understanding of that history. It would help to abandon the talking points and learning about what actually happens.
I often tell my white conservative friends that, even in these days of affirmative action, if they and I were up for the same job or promotion and everything else being equal, on a statistical level they would most likely get it. Racism? Not necessarily. But because they are white they would more likely know the people who make those decisions, and considering that 90 percent of job openings aren't even advertised, if you don't know someone on the inside you're at a disadvantage.
And that's why building intimate relationships across those lines is crucial -- but few people actually do it. It's especially a problem in evangelical churches, where it wasn't even addressed until the late-1980s with the Promise Keepers movement (and founder Bill McCartney even said that involvement dropped when he began to do so). That said, "my side" also needs to take some risks as well, not assuming that every person with a white skin is racist -- I grew up that way but repented in my teens. There will be misunderstandings, of course, but doing so will take good-faith efforts from everyone involved.
One of my favorite movies is "Cry Freedom," the true story of a white newspaper editor in South Africa who was challenged to learn the truth about a black activist he had savaged. Because the editor did and came to understand the context in which the activist operated, he eventually became an activist in his own right -- and suffered some of the same consequences in the process.
To wit, it's time for us to be willing to identify with the downtrodden. If enough people did so, Jesse and Al might have little or nothing to do.