Monday, May 16, 2005

More Thoughts on the Black-White Divide

Sometimes the complexity and enormity of a problem can lead to paralysis. But this needn’t and shouldn’t be the case.

Stephen Carter—the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University—recounts a personal experience in his book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. Describing the fear and discomfort of moving into an all-white neighborhood during the racially charged 1960s, he writes:

. . . in 1966, sitting on the front step of our grand new house in our grand new lonely white neighborhood of Washington, I felt as if we had moved to the fearsome Virginia of the sixties, which in my child’s mind, captured all the horror of what I know of how white people treated black people. I watched the strange new people passing us and wordlessly watching back, and I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here. I knew . . .

And all at once, a white woman arriving home from work at the house across the street from our turned and smiled with obvious delight and waved and called out, “Welcome!” in a booming, confident voice I would come to love. She bustled into her house, only to emerge, minutes later, with a huge tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she carried to our porch and offered around with her ready smile, simultaneously feeding and greeting the children of a family she had never met—and a black family at that—with nothing to gain for herself excerpt perhaps the knowledge that she had done the right thing. We were strangers, black strangers, and she went out of her way to make us feel welcome. This woman’s name was Sara Kestenbaum, and she died much too soon, but she remains, in my experience, one of the great exemplars of all that is best about civility.

Sara Kestenbaum’s special contribution to civility back in 1966 was to create for us a sense of belonging where no had existed before. And she did so even though she had never seen any of us in her life. She managed, in the course of a single day, to turn us from strangers into friends, a remarkable gift that few share. . . .

This story illustrates what I mean when I say that civility is the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our fellow passengers. Sarah Kestenbaum was generous to us, giving of herself with no benefit to herself, and she demonstrated not merely a welcome that nobody else offered, but a faith in us, a trust that we were people to whom one could and should be generous. And so we have the beginning of a definition of the sacrificial civility we have been discussing:

Civility has two parts:

generosity, even when it is costly,

and trust, even where there is risk.

. . . By greeting us as she did, in the midst of a white neighborhood and a racially charged era, Sara was generous when nobody forced her to be, and trusting when there was no reason to be. Of such risks is true civility constructed.

This illustrates one of the reasons that I am hesitant to make the focus of race discussions about “justice.” Don’t misunderstand: I believe justice—properly defined—is true, biblical, and necessary. But “justice” as the main theme of racial discussions says far to little. Let’s say that Sara Kestenbaum went home from work every night and watched television. She never spoke to the white kids in the neighborhood, and she certainly never made them cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. If that were the case, then it would be entirely “just” for her to similarly ignore the new black kids who moved into the neighborhood. In other words, justice, important as it is, doesn’t require the generosity, trust, and risk of which Mr. Carter so eloquently speaks.

Yes the issues are complex. Yes the problems are serious. But how much could change in your neighborhood and the lives of those with whom you live and work, if we would simply take Jesus’ command seriously: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Sara Kestenbaum didn’t write any books (or articles, or blogs). She wasn’t a politician. She was just an ordinary person who took a proactive step of love toward those who didn't feel like they belonged or were accepted.