RECONCILIATION OR JUSTICE?
I would like to discuss several different words or phrases in this article. Obviously the two words in the title of this piece are good words, things we should be in favor of and want to see happen. One might often link these two words together and assume that if we have reconciliation, specifically here I am speaking of racial reconciliation, then that will satisfy the quest for justice. My answer to that would be that true reconciliation should and ought to lead to a pursuit of justice, but that the trappings (or even the feelings) of reconciliation don’t necessarily lead to justice.
Some people, and it might be correct to say “white people” seem to think that reconciliation is when they recognize their prejudice or bias, repent of it, and try to make peace with black people (or other minorities) they have excluded or feel alienated from. When those who were former strangers and even enemies make peace and come together and establish a relationship there are some strong feelings of love, forgiveness, and unity. Those are good, if not great, feelings. Reconciliation is a good thing, and should be pursued by those who have alienated others or been alienated by others. However, it doesn’t automatically result in a consequential removal of disparity.
That there is bias, and has been bias, there can be little doubt. Some may be in denial but it is hard to deny the racial and indeed racist history in our American heritage. That there is disparity across the statistical spectrum of racial demographics is a matter of fact. Despite the achievements of the black middle class, despite individual success stories, despite the reality of some wonderful black families and black entrepreneurs, black intellectuals, and black entertainers and athletes, nevertheless the statistical disparities in almost every area are dramatic and sometimes horrifying.
Single parent homes, failing schools, unemployment, renters not owners, low skilled and low income employment, inadequate intellectual formation for school, school suspension and expulsion, drop-out rates, graduation without literacy, juvenile detention, adult arrests, violent encounters with police officers, insufficient legal representation and plea bargaining, convictions, felony convictions and loss of voting rights, incarceration, length of sentencing, rates of violence, rates of STDs and HIV/AIDS, death by homicide, early death, early infant death, obesity and diabetes and other health issues, toxic proximity environmental health issues, failure to achieve loans for farmers and home owners, loans only given at higher rates; these are all categories in which there is statistical disparity.
Why do bad neighborhoods exist, why do bad schools exist, why is there no work and no men to do the work? Some still in their oblivious disconnect will make it simply a matter of personal initiative and responsibility; “He’s lazy and I’m not!” You will notice that some of the disparities above might be true even for middle class or wealthy African Americans. Test after test for hiring, purchasing homes, admission into schools, and treatment by government officials continuously reveal patterns of bias. Bias continues to create and reinforce disparity.
Does bias and disparity relieve anyone of personal responsibility? Of course not, and the glory for any individual who rises above the obstacles is what Americans love to hear and believe about themselves. Sometimes this is true, and often it is not. Do bias and disparity make it harder for people of color to achieve? Absolutely! Does it absolve the gang-bangers, dope pushers, and those who commit criminal acts even in the name of feeding their families? Again, of course not! Did bias and disparity help form the neighborhoods and communities where such things flourish? Again, absolutely!
Do bias and disparity help to crush hope? I ask ridiculous questions here. Will the end of bias in individuals help to end disparity? Ah, that is the question I am really trying to get at. Certainly if someone is racist and full of prejudice and they truly see it in themselves and repent of it, but then they begin to treat people fairly and give everyone the same opportunities they formerly denied to people of color, then justice begins to take shape; at least in their personal sphere.
However, the systemic and structural aspects of historical bias and disparity still need to be identified, dismantled, reformed, and sometimes whole new systems and structures need to be created. This is where justice is harder, more expensive, longer, and often more confusing. This is where issues become economic and thus political. It is often in the face of such barriers that some people deny the disparity, (which is to deny white privilege) avoid the guilt and shame of it, and disparage the discussion of such things. It is also where some of those who have suffered from the bias and the disparity don’t want to talk about it because they think it will just continue alienation.
Friendship is often the beginning of restoring things to justice. Two people walking down the street holding hands, with only one having something to eat, only one having clothes to wear, only one getting respect and greetings as he passes along, only one not attacked by criminals while the other continues to suffer seems to be a strange friendship. While we may never achieve full equality as human beings surely , if we are friends, we can eliminate some of the disparity. Surely if I have something good in my right hand I will share it with the one holding my left. Surely if the one I allow to hold my hand is attacked, his fight will become mine.