Foreign Exchange

As I write this, the governor of Virginia has declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville, Virginia, just an hour and 15 minutes up the road from Lynchburg, because of clashes between thousands of white nationalists, assembling to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and groups opposed to their presence and message. Not long after the governor's declaration, a car plowed into a crowd of peaceful protestors, and thus far one person is dead and several injured. The driver was chased down and arrested, but there is no other information on his motives or affiliation at this time.

Prior to this horrific act of cowardice, there were other outbreaks of violence, lawsuits and court injunctions and an eerie nighttime torchlight rally last night reminiscent of some of the darkest times in our world's history. It is episodes like this one that spur me on to the task God has placed on my heart, and while words are my only weapon, I pray that the Lord can take my offering and use it in a supernatural way to advance love and justice and repel evil.

Not long ago, I shared on Facebook my trepidation over two proposed media series which offered alternative outcomes to the most fractious time in America's history to date, the Civil War. This genre of entertainment, loosely described as "alternative history", a subset of the dystopian dramas that seem to be popular these days, has as its most obvious example The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation by technology giant Amazon.com of a 1962 Philip K. Dick novel in which the Axis powers from World War II - Germany, Italy and Japan - won the war and now divide up the United States between them. It has won numerous awards and critical acclaim, and some have declared it socially relevant in a time of increased racial tension. 

On the heels of this success, the producers of HBO's Game of Thrones recently announced they were developing a series called Confederate based on the premise that the South succeeded in separating from the United States and establishing a new nation in which chattel slavery continues as a modern institution. The public reaction to this news was swift and critical, and HBO pleaded with the critics to reserve judgment until they actually saw the series. 

In response to this news, a former producer of several black-themed films, to include Straight Outta Compton, and the creator of the Boondocks animated series announced they had been working on an alternative history series called Black America, and their post-Civil War vision has former American slaves awarded the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as reparations for slavery following Reconstruction, and establishing the nation of New Colonia. The series addresses the ongoing cooperation and conflict between New Colonia and the remaining United States of America. The creators of the series were not aware of the proposed HBO series as they were working on their project and largely chose to refrain from commenting on it, except to question the notion that chattel slavery could be a topic with entertainment value:

...[T]he fact that there is the contemplation of contemporary slavery makes it something that I would not be a part of producing nor consuming...Slavery is far too real and far too painful, and we still see the manifestations of it today as a country for me to ever view that as a form of entertainment.

As someone who sits on the consuming end of these "entertainment" options, my initial response was one of apprehension. Can a nation as fractured as we are at present handle one racially provocative series, much less two, without incident? When I shared the information about these two proposed series on Facebook, I expressed my belief that we are not mature enough as a people to deal with the controversy and questions they would raise. The responses to my Facebook post seemed to validate that belief, and it would appear that the events in Charlottesville provide something of an answer to the question of what kind of responses these fictional alternative histories could generate.

Many of the responses to my inquiry were excoriations of Hollywood for using their artistic platform to stir up dissent, and some attributed it to their political leanings, but one thread in particular disturbed me. I am paraphrasing a long and drawn out exchange here, but a black friend essentially said that, in his opinion, white people would be the only ones to react to these programs because his observation is that whites tend to be more easily provoked by race-based commentary than blacks.

This resulted in a lengthy thread of points and counterpoints and accusations of stereotyping, repudiation of another's experiences, and racism, and the conversation devolved from there. I had called for civility in advance of soliciting comments on my post, but it was clear that this exchange had crossed that border into open conflict. It grieved me because everyone engaged in this conflict were my friends and I think well of all of them. Why could they not have a civil conversation about race? Is race the third rail of public discourse, off limits to any and all attempts to address it?

A few days later, I was having lunch with a friend and local pastor who described how he arrived at college with a very limited perspective on race because of his upbringing in Mississippi. His contact with black people was largely limited to a housekeeper that worked for his family, and so he was admittedly ignorant about the experiences of black people in America. It took the friendship of a black athlete and fellow Christian to expand his horizons and change his life.

Today, this friend and pastor, Brett Eubank of Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian Church here in Lynchburg, leads his church's community outreach efforts and heads the board of the No Walls Ministry which I also serve as a board member and director of education. The ministry is dedicated to bring churches together across cultures and denominations to serve the needy and break down racial barriers.

As Brett shared his story, I was reminded of something I used to see when we lived overseas. Many Americans, myself among them, are monolingual, and the one language they speak is English. When encountering someone in another country who doesn't speak English, they soldier on and speak English to them anyway. When the individual indicates by gestures or their native tongue that they don't understand, what does the monolingual American typically do? THEY SPEAK MORE LOUDLY.

An example in reverse from my time overseas was an incident in the elevator of the Eifel Tower in Paris. The elevator attendant instructed the crowd of tourists in French to move to the rear of the elevator so he could close the doors and operate the equipment. Many of the tourists didn't speak French -- fortunately, I was with my wife and I followed her lead -- and they stood there befuddled. What did the exasperated elevator attendant do? HE SPOKE MORE LOUDLY.

Of course, this tactic does nothing to facilitate communication but the higher volume leads to frustration on the part of both parties and they fail to understand one another. This reminded me of the kind of communication I see all the time when the topic of race comes up. People express their views on the subject at hand, others respond, understanding doesn't happen, and so they repeat their response but at a higher volume. Frustration rises and communication, if ever there was any, breaks down.

That's when I had my epiphany and I shared it with Brett; we aren't communicating because we're speaking totally different languages, rhetorically speaking. Of course, we're speaking English but the filters that exist between what we hear and what we understand, some of them of our own making and others a byproduct of our experiences, cause us to perceive what was said in a way the speaker never intended. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Most conservatives believe in a limited federal government and that the best solutions to problems are devised at the lowest level of governance, starting with the family and going up from there. As I once wrote, "The organizational level closest to the person or issue in question has a better understanding of all the factors involved, is more directly invested in a resolution, and can deliver a tailored solution more quickly than an entity that is distant from the problem." The closer proximity to state and local government also gives the citizen more direct access to their representatives and, ostensibly, more influence on their decisions.

Some of us call this "federalism", and others call it "states' rights." To a true conservative, "states' rights" means "political powers reserved for the state governments rather than the federal government", a principle which is codified in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

The phrase "states' rights" means something entirely different to most black Americans, however. It recalls the cry of southern states to secede from the Union, the imposition of Jim Crow laws, the domestic terror of the post-Reconstruction era, and the battle for civil rights. The formal name of the 1948 breakaway political party known as the Dixiecrats was the States' Rights Democratic Party, and their political platform stated:

We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race; the constitutional right to choose one's associates; to accept private employment without governmental interference, and to earn one's living in any lawful way. We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. We favor home-rule, local self-government and a minimum interference with individual rights.

So when a person utters the words "states' rights", the understanding of what that means will be different depending on who utters it and who hears it.

Another good example of how we perceive things is based on how we were socialized in our respective cultures. African cultures were largely collective in nature with strong family, village and tribal ties. The slaves brought to America were ripped from their tribes, villages and families, but after slavery ended, they moved heaven and earth to find family members from whom they'd been separated. Racism, institutionalized discrimination and threats to their safety forced black people to band together and depend on one another, and collectivism took on a positive and negative connotation for them. On the one hand, they were stronger together than apart; on the other hand, they were judged and often condemned as a group. That is why, even today, the bad behavior of one black man is, in the minds of many, indicative of the race as a whole. We are used to being held collectively responsible for the sins of our own, and even I cringe when I watch the local news and the crime report shows a black face in the lineup because I know the narrative.

Outside of identity due to ethnic pride, however, most white Americans were raised in a culture that praised the individual and promoted individual responsibility and accountability. Community life once dominated the early American landscape, mainly due to virtues derived from religion and the necessity of cooperation in a strange new world. "Rugged individualism", the frontier spirit and American concepts of individual rights and liberties gradually subsumed the sense of shared responsibility for one another. Most white Americans feel no real sense of group identity and largely view the world as what you make of it on your own. That is why concepts of individual merit and mastering one's own destiny resonate with most white Americans.

Because of the different ways in which blacks and whites in America were socialized, it makes it harder to communicate issues of collective or individual responsibility depending on which side you're on. Black Americans find it natural to see the world through a collective lens, while white Americans struggle with the idea. As a result, when white Americans look at black struggles, they attribute them to individual failures, while black people see them as the outcome of collective "privilege" in a society that is designed by whites to favor whites. When a black American accuses a white person of "privilege", the white person becomes defensive because they look at privilege from an individual perspective and if they are personally disadvantaged in any way, they cannot relate whatsoever to being a recipient of "privilege".

As my friend Brett described how his athlete friend opened his eyes to the world from a black person's point of view, he indicated how patient his friend was with his questions, many of which he's sure were insensitive or not particularly artful. I've no doubt that his friend learned something about how Brett viewed the world. Because they were both Christians who not only believed the Word but did what it said, they extended grace to each other and were slow to take offense. Moreover, they exhibited the humility that allowed them to accept each other's experiences as genuine and worthy of respect.

How many times have you been offended by someone's comment or question and they reacted with surprise because they had no idea they were being offensive? How many times have you shared a deeply personal experience only to have someone reject it out of hand because it's never happened to them or around them and they can't fathom it? Grace and humility are the lubricants of constructive conversation because they create space in which we can speak and be heard without fear.

My wife is from the Alsace region of France and, before I met her, I was only familiar with it because of a brief recollection that it had gone back and forth between Germany and France throughout history. She was attending Texas Tech University on a semester abroad and had never been to America before. She and I became friends and spent several months just talking to each other and learning about each other's cultures. It was a fascinating experience; I remember after watching the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with a group of friends, she asked me, as the only black person in our group, what the fuss in the movie was all about. Puffed up with importance, I started to impart to her an abridged history of race relations in America as if I was an expert! It was fascinating to me that, although she was white, she was completely innocent when it came to race. Truth be told, I was a babe in the woods on that topic, too. I had been raised mostly on integrated military installations and spent a good part of the 1960s far away from the strife of the civil rights movement. I hadn't heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. until the night he was assassinated. My first exposure to the challenges of race was in 7th grade and, ironically, it was my classmates at a predominantly black school who harassed me for "acting white" because of the way I spoke, dressed and respected my teachers. That drove me to becoming a loner and it wasn't until 10th grade that I started to come out of my shell and trust the world again. Still, here we were, two people from different worlds trying to learn from one another, and we must have liked what we learned because we married three years after we met and have been married for 33 years.

In some respects, we broke through the barriers of culture because we applied the four factors of cultural intelligence:

  • Metacognition - We had the capacity to become aware of our cultural differences.
  • Cognition - We acquired knowledge of how our cultures were similar and different.
  • Motivation - We had the interest and desire to connect with one another.
  • Behavior - We took action.

In fact, there is more academic verbiage to these concepts than I provided, but the point I'm making is clear. Rather than assuming we know what the other person must think or feel or perceive, perhaps we should start with the understanding that our experiences in this great nation are fundamentally different, get to know how those experiences have shaped us, show a genuine interest in one another and take the necessary steps to come together. After what we've witnessed today, do you see a better alternative?

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. ~ Philippians 2:3-4

Ron Miller of Lynchburg, Virginia is an associate dean and assistant professor of government at Liberty University, a commentator and author of the book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch. He serves the No Walls Ministry as a member of the board of directors and the director of No Walls University.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” ~ Galatians 3:28