How do we deal with the manmade hurricane of racial bigotry?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly before Hurricane Irma hit, Judge Kevin Burke, a NAPCO Board Member and former Chief Judge of the District Court in Hennepin County Minnesota (Minneapolis), was in Charleston SC. Stores were boarding up and people who lived in the lower areas of SC were fleeing. He had a conversation with a very interesting woman about the challenges of raising children. Her sons were in their twenties; his daughter is 12. Their challenges were different than his. She worried about her sons’ interaction with the police and when, they were young, how to explain things like the KKK. He kept thinking about the confluence of these events and wrote the following thought-provoking commentary published recently by the MinnPost. 

Our nation has seen the horror that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused. What happened was not simply the loss of life, but the ravaging and destruction of communities that at best will take years to rebuild. There is no silver lining in this tragedy. Yes, we came together. Yes, the traditionally broken Congress acted swiftly to fund a response, but if you are a victim it will take a long time to heal. Or, is there a silver lining?

Perhaps we learned that if we act in concert, even the most generational catastrophes can be overcome. Swiftly, every living U.S. president joined to plead for donations and support for the victims. People of faith opened their hearts, and in a nation divided by partisanship to the extreme, there was little of it. People are sending money to charities. They are, occasionally, in private crying about the destruction. Everyone knows this hurt.

Manmade disaster
Hurricanes produce a natural tragedy. This recent experience shows we are a nation resilient and prepared to confront the worst. But, there is a third hurricane we cannot ignore. This one is not a natural disaster. The disaster is the manmade racial division and bigotry that exists in our country. If we do not address this category 5 hurricane, we are doomed to a fate equal to the destruction wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Good parents worry about their children. Worry is one of the joys of being a parent. But there are too many African-American parents of sons who worry about what may happen to them as young black men. Will they be stopped by the police? Will something get out of hand? The hurricane in those African-American parents’ lives is a lifetime of confronting bigotry. How do you explain the Ku Klux Klan to a 6-year-old child? If you are from the South, how do you explain to your child who these Confederate soldiers with statues were?

The need to confront racial inequality and bigotry
We are a nation who believes in American exceptionalism. But, for us to achieve that exceptionalism we need to respond to the imperative of confronting the racial inequality and bigotry that has for too long been part of our nation.

The hurricane that is bearing down on our values is every bit as dangerous as Irma and Harvey. There will not be a 24-hour news cycle about racial division and bigotry, but these issues will surely be as destructive as the hurricanes.

Perhaps the reason we are so good about confronting natural disasters is they come upon us so quickly, and they are so ferocious and so graphic. Almost everyone knows denial is not a safe shelter. Maybe more of us need to be shaken by pictures of the bewildered faces of small children who cannot understand the brutal part of our nation’s racial history. Maybe more of us need to hear the agony of mothers’ fear for the fate of their African-American sons. There are people who are in some sense worn out about the struggle for equality. Like the people who do not respond to “Evacuate Now!,” there are too many people in denial and willing to risk their lives and others’ just to ride out the storm.

Parable of two wolves
Our nation has struggled and been divided about racial inequality and bigotry. There is a parable of a grandfather teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”

A lot of people will contribute money to the victims of the hurricanes. It is the right thing to do, particularly when it is a charitable gift to victims they will never meet. Those gifts are from the good wolf in each of us who believes in generosity and compassion. That same wolf in each of us that must rise up and do something which contributes to the dramatic change this nation must make in how we see all of our neighbors.

Change like this starts within the soul. Want to know what implicit biases you have? Take the Harvard Implicit Bias test. If you are a parent or grandparent, have a conversation with a child about the wolves within each of us. And the next time you hear someone say they can ride out the storm of injustice, tell them how dangerous that is.