The first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, Sonny Perdue, has called three "family discussions" to address problems of racial reconciliation in the state. Having based his campaign for governor on a promise to give the white majority of Georgia a referendum on returning the Confederate emblem to its state flag, the governor now seeks to calm the racial passions he previously stoked. Like many Republican politicians, Perdue wants to have it both ways, using a tried-and-true Southern Strategy begun by Richard Nixon and perfected by the likes of Reagan, Jesse Helms, Bush I, Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, and our current president. The idea is to appeal to moderate Republicans and Independents by talking about a "big tent" party and putting the face of every black Republican in America on television, while using racial code words to solidify the right wing. It's been an almost unbeatable strategy for winning the South, but it is sadly impotent as a means of reconciling blacks and whites in America and the South.
Cynical reasons or not, it's always good for African Americans and whites to make an effort to talk candidly about race and reconciliation. Clearly three two-hour discussions will accomplish little, but talking is better than not talking. I attended the first of these forums in Atlanta last week, where Perdue and former President Jimmy Carter led conversation about Georgia's past. As a historian, I naturally applaud that strategy. Of course, not everyone agrees. Panting from "race fatigue" and urging African Americans to "get over it," many whites believe that talking about the past just stirs up old animosities. Better to forget all that and move on. To that I can only quote our neo-Confederate brothers and say, "Forget, Hell!"
Remembering the past is a non-negotiable part of effecting reconciliation. Marital reconciliations, for example, don't happen by simplistic forgiving and forgetting. They require both the offending and the offended parties to remember both the happy and unhappy elements in their relationship. Mostly, reconciliation demands that the offender acknowledge breaking the relationship and do something to repair the brokenness. Imagine Bill Clinton seeking reconciliation with his wife while still wearing a tie given to him by Ms. Lewinsky. No, he's got to get rid of his mistress, get rid of all signs of his infidelity, AND do something positive to make it up to Hillary.
The problem with most of us white southerners is that we want African Americans to forgive, forget, and move on without our acknowledging our past wrongs, ridding our state of all signs of those injustices (such as the Confederate flag), and making it up to those we have wronged. Instead, we exonerate ourselves by saying, "I didn't own any slaves. I didn't segregate anyone." Yes, but our foreparents benefited from the actions of those who did own slaves. Our great-grandparents voted for politicians who disfranchised black southerners and our grandparents supported those who vowed to defend segregation to the death. All of which made certain that black Georgians would be behind us in line. As a result, we whites continue to benefit from "white privilege" in ways we don't even recognize. All the while African Americans become increasingly convinced that whites will never "bear fruit worthy of repentance (Matt. 3:8)," regardless of how much we claim to believe in a "Judeo-Christian America."
Last week Governor Perdue spoke of walking the Christian walk as well as talking the talk. Both are necessary. Let words of repentance and words of forgiveness be uttered. But let the walking also begin. Because if someone could cast a spell over all Americans, white and black alike, and tomorrow we all magically woke up understanding and loving one another, black Americans would STILL lag behind whites in every measure of life chances. To be sure, African Americans must bear some responsibility for their own success and work to maximize those chances. But since we whites began the sordid history of racial discrimination in this country and since we retain most of its wealth and power, we whites bear a heavy responsibility of our own. Thus, until white Americans become as angry about these continuing inequities as we have been about things like dissing the Confederate flag, until whites support public and private programs to fix these broken areas, until we "bear fruit worthy of repentance" and walk that sort of walk--led by the political podium and the pulpit--the reconciliation the Republicans say they seek will be nothing but idle talk.
Here's to better listening, talking, and walking.