Putting aside race to focus on character
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Months after the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman controversy has faded from the front pages and the TV cameras have moved on to other spectacles, I remain concerned that the conversations that this tragedy aroused show our country still is focused on the wrong things when we talk about race.
For instance, in August, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker expanded on remarks by President Obama and suggested that many old biases are diminished today. "I'm betting that few women today clutch their purses when a well-groomed man, black or white, enters the elevator," she wrote. My experience would not bear out her claims.
I am an African-American male, highly educated, who wears a suit and tie on most days of the week. I have been appointed to high positions by governors, been invited to the White House (not by the current president), traveled the world and met foreign leaders. I do not have a criminal record. Throughout my 77 years, I have helped to change the lives of many.
And yet, I have been profiled.
Even today, my skin color often precedes what I say, especially on matters of race and diversity. If we are going to take the conversation about race to a higher level, we ought to get it right or least know more than "we think we know."
Especially in the wake of the long Martin/Zimmerman case, some well-meaning readers may be saying everyone needs "to get over it." On that point, I challenge anyone to tell our Jewish citizens "to get over" the Holocaust. I challenge anyone to tell Native Americans "to get over" Wounded Knee. I challenge anyone to tell the gay community "to get over" the bashing.
No people need forget the past and the lessons learned. As a student in downstate Georgetown, I stood each morning as required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and yet I could not eat in the local restaurant, use the public roller skating rink or bowling alley or join the Boy Scouts. If I went to the movies, I had to sit in the balcony. As a college student traveling through the Southwest, I could not use public restrooms and could be served only in kitchens.
These are slights not easily forgotten. Those who have not walked in another's footsteps should be careful in stating or even suggesting that others should "get over" something. But we can move forward. And in that spirit, we should see many things in contemporary American life with fresh eyes. We should acknowledge, for instance, that white American voters, whose majority elected President Obama, judged the president based on his character and qualifications. I do not believe they voted for him because of his race.
So, we can rise above the past, even if its painful residue stays with us. Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech of 50 years ago asked us to judge people on their character and not their skin color. As we share our opinions, I hope and pray that we can always find the balance Dr. King dreamed of. Many fair-minded white Americans fear being branded racist if they express themselves honestly, but I believe that sincere individuals can find common ground, even if their backgrounds are vastly different.
We know we have the capacity to put race aside and focus on character.
I can assure you that my journey in life has been very different from that of Kathleen Parker. Therefore, it is only natural that we see things differently, but that is not all bad. I have found that truth often is found somewhere between opposing views. There are answers to difficult problems when reasonable people sit down and honestly discuss a challenge.
This is the notion I fear was forgotten somewhere in the mix of this summer's events, beginning with the "I Have a Dream" celebration and carrying through the Zimmerman verdict. But over it all, I am constantly reminded that we have an African-American president, and that alone is evidence that we can have conversations that put race to the side. We can focus on character, qualifications and behavior.
• The Rev. Clyde Brooks is chairman of the Illinois Commission Diversity and Human Relations and a former teacher and colleague of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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