Confronting Race and Racial Conflict in America: Silence is not an option

“What about the Native Americans? They don’t have a problem with it,” contended the Pilot (a white male)

“That’s because you people have virtually silenced them …,” I insisted.

“You People!?” exclaimed the Veteran (a white male).

These excerpts from an impromptu verbal exchange between complete strangers and me characterize 10 of the most intense minutes of my life. And although the passionate back-and-forth was short, its impact will stay with me forever.

A few minutes before the commotion began, we were silent strangers sharing transport from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport to our cars parked in a nearby hotel lot. The shuttle driver’s choice of radio programming was a talk show where the host was interviewing a guest on the topic of some NFL players decisions to protest injustice in the U.S. by kneeling during the National Anthem.

For me, the shuttle ride signaled the end of a long day that had begun in Washington, DC with me delivering a speech on the need for peace education and conflict resolution programs to attend to what I call the Granddaddy of all Conflicts: The historical and contemporary conditions of black-white race relations in the U.S.

Admittedly, I was weary and initially only half-listening to the broadcast. But I doubt anyone onboard that evening could ignore the conversation between the two white men seated behind me as they bellowed over the roar of traffic:

“It’s so disrespectful! I didn’t serve [in the military] for this country to be disrespected!” yelled the Veteran.

“They don’t know how good they’ve got it; they should all be fired!” asserted the man dressed in Pilot’s gear.

“If they don’t like it they should go live somewhere else,” said the Veteran.

Their acrimonious mischaracterizations of the NFL Players were unfair, cruel and hurtful. After all, the Players’ causes for kneeling and their right to protest non-violently were appropriate and in alignment with the freedom of expression principles upon which this nation was founded. These are the same principles for which millions of Americans have served, fought and died in our armed forces

It troubled me that nowhere in these two men’s condemnations of the Players were any harsh words for 45 -- the White House occupant whose obtuse labeling of the Players and their purpose had maliciously misdirected the focus of their protests.

“You do know that this isn’t about the Anthem or the Flag, don’t you?” I asked, turning to face them both. “It’s about protesting against injustices where innocent people are being killed.”

“Then why don’t they find some other way to protest?” challenged the Pilot.

I didn’t fight for this country for anyone to kneel at our flag,” boasted the Veteran. “If they don’t want to respect the Flag they should live somewhere else.”

Then, I heard a voice from across the aisle:

“We didn’t ask to be here. Ya’ll brought us here. I’d be happy to go back to the land of diamonds and riches,” noted the young black man seated behind the driver.

At that point, the debate was on. Our passions were authentic. Our positions were firm. No one was backing down.

“What about the Native Americans? They don’t have a problem with it.” said the Pilot.

“That’s because you people have virtually silenced them. But we’re still here,” I maintained.

“You people?!” the Veteran yelled, “Who is you people?”

“I’ve never killed anyone,” proclaimed the Pilot.

“You people means people who think like you and talk like you! It means people whose ancestors have haunted and hunted and killed us for centuries and who still want to annihilate us,” I insisted.

“Why don’t ya’ll stop killing us? If you don’t like the protests, just stop killing us,” said the young black man.

Certainly, I would not characterize the exchange as comfortable; however, I do suggest that it was both timely and necessary. After all, our thoughts and emotions were deeply reflective of the growing divisions which continue to threaten our nation’s stability and challenge its integrity.

“What are you upset about? Are you talking about Ferguson? You’re talking about Ferguson, aren’t you?” chided the Veteran.”

“It’s not just Ferguson. I could list the names of unarmed and innocent black men and women who have been killed by police,” I exclaimed.

“Who? Tell me one name,” challenged the Veteran.

“There is a long list of names,” I said, becoming exasperated. “Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland … and there are others.”

“Trayvon Martin sucker punched that guy, that’s why he died!” yelled the Veteran.

“Are you serious? You think that 17-year-old kid walking with candy and a drink sucker punched that guy? Seriously?” I asked, at a near loss for words.

And then, a breakthrough (I think):

“You said, ‘you people’. But I never had slaves. I’m not responsible for that,” said the Pilot.

“No. But your ancestors had slaves. And my people have lived through Jim Crow and lynch ‘parties’, and other horrors!” I persisted. “My grandfather, father and stepfather served in the military. But my grandmother still had ‘KKK’ burned in her front yard when she moved into a ‘white’ neighborhood!”

“When you criticize them [the Players] for protesting,” said the young black man, “it’s like you’re supporting what they’re protesting against.”

“I don’t want to talk about color. We can’t talk about color!” wailed the white woman sitting next to me, who up to this point had remained silent and still.

At that moment, it became eerily quiet. No one said anything. Maybe like me, they were all processing what was occurring. All that could be heard was the roar of the traffic; the driver had turned the radio program off. Then, further hoping for some sense of shared meaning and understanding to emerge from our discussion, I turned again to both men:

“Did you know the Anthem has a verse devoted to killing slaves? Did you know the man who encouraged Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the Anthem is a Veteran?” I asked.

“Yes, I know that,” said the Pilot. “But I just don’t get all the anger.”

“Sir,” I said, sighing deeply, “it’s not about anger. It’s about hurt. It’s about deep, deep pain.”

Shaking his head slowly, the Pilot only said: “I can’t begin to imagine.”

I turned around in my seat as the shuttle pulled into our destination. The driver opened the door, and in complete silence we began our exits. In those few, brief moments I sensed an odd aura of calm, decorum and respect, which I find especially difficult to explain. Uttering no words, we each gathered our luggage, and walked off to our cars.

Thinking back on that shuttle ride, I have many questions. Among them: Were any of the other participants in our dialogue as impacted by our shared experience as I was? Would they have been willing to continue our talk – possibly at a later date? Once we got past all the emotions, were doors being opened for empathy and understanding? What story did they tell of the experience? And most importantly, what lessons was I supposed to learn and share from my encounter?

When I later shared this experience, one of my peace and conflict studies colleagues, Dr. Necla Tschirgi noted, “There is keen recognition that we need to engage more actively with peace and justice issues in our backyards.” On that night, the shuttle ride was my backyard.

The irony of the timing of this exchange – immediately following my speech at a peace and conflict studies conference was not lost on me. I am convinced that the stars aligned for the events of that morning and evening, so their occurrences were not happenstance. In the words of my colleague Dr. Ronald Fisher: “The contrast between these two events demonstrates the deep divide related to ignorance and ill will that abodes in the country. We need institutional support, skilled facilitators and safe forums to offer those who would like to explore their own attitudes and experiences and build positive relations across racial and other boundaries.”

I have long believed that when offered opportunities to bridge divides we should embrace them – awkward, difficult and painful though they may be. Given that, it would be duplicitous and unethical of me to argue the need for my peace and conflict studies colleagues to attend to the Granddaddy of all Conflicts, if I do not embrace opportunities to do the same in my own backyard.

In closing, this experience caused me to become more fervently committed to the “Truth, Reconciliation and Peace Process” that is the call of my book, “Crimes against Humanity in the Land of the Free: Can a Truth and Reconciliation Process heal Racial Conflict in America?” That process, as I state in the book, would create safe dialogical spaces to engage individuals and groups in discussions of the historical and contemporary consequences of America’s addiction to racism. After all, we cannot remain silent if we truly seek peace; peace begins with truth, and truth necessitates voice.

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Special thanks to: Dr. Pushpa Iyer, Associate Professor – Conflict Resolution Director, Center for Conflict Studies Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey; Dr. Necla Tschirgi, Professor of Practice, Human Security and Peacebuilding, Advisor, Master's Programs, University of San Diego and Dr. Ronald J. Fisher, Professor Emeritus of International Peace and Conflict Resolution, American University. Your words of wisdom, support and encouragement inspire my quest, and are sorely needed by those of us in this nation who must be courageous voices in the pursuit of peacebuilding and social justice for ALL.

To learn more about the annual Peace Education Symposium and how you can become a voice for peace, visit: http://go.miis.edu/edsymposium2017. The 2017 Symposium was hosted by the Center for Conflict Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in its DC offices and co-sponsored by the Alliance for Peacebuilding and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

97-year-old WWII Veteran’s message about national anthem protests goes viral: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWp6oVpW6zQ

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