Phyllis and I were on our book tour and had been invited to do a reading at a private residence. This is a setting we enjoy for the intimacy it provides. Among the guests who were gathering in the living room was an African American woman who seemed restless and asked several times when the reading was going to begin. I thought, Great! We’ll have an active contributor to the discussion.
Phyllis introduced us and I read a story from our book. I had barely finished when the woman raised her hand to speak. With a tense but controlled voice she asked what we were doing about institutional racism. I said something about the necessity of forming healthy cross-racial relationships as a prerequisite to… but I was interrupted, and what followed was a torrent of passion that escalated into what felt like an attack. “You can take your book and get out of here,” she finally said. And the reading was over.
The woman left the room with the hostess, and I could hear her crying in the kitchen, and through the sobs I heard the words, “my son,” “only fifteen years old,” “he wasn’t doing anything wrong,” “they had him down on the ground with a gun to his head,” and I understood. I had heard that story too many times from black mothers and fathers. She was right. We can’t eliminate racism with good will alone. Our stories won’t protect her son.
I’ve frequently had to ask myself, What good are our stories doing? You can have healthy, solid cross-racial relationships, and black sons, brothers and fathers are still getting assaulted by authorized physical violence, not to mention unequal access to many institutional benefits that whites take for granted. I just can’t rationalize that reality away.
And, yet, how can an institution be just when its members are still acting out of racial prejudice? So, I return to square one – transforming individuals and healthy cross-racial relationships are the building blocks of just institutions and communities. But the assumption that healthy relationships will automatically result in healthy institutions is flawed. I refer the reader to a document from the Bahá’í International Community, Empowerment as a Mechanism for Social Transformation, that states:
The process of social transformation can be explored at both the personal and structural levels. At one end of the spectrum, social change is seen as an outcome of the development of individuals, achieved through education, training, access to material resources, and the like. According to this view, structural change is assumed to be an automatic result of personal change. Unfortunately, this rarely bears out in practice, as even those who benefit from such resources find themselves participating in oppressive social structures. At the other end of the spectrum, the human being is viewed entirely as a product of society, and change is considered impossible unless social structures—mainly those related to political power—are changed first. Yet, too often, this approach has supported the idea that ends justify the means and has resulted in conditions of injustice and oppression.
What I understand from this document is that there are three participants in social development: the individual, the institutions, and the community. Transformation of the individual is not enough to bring about sustainable social development; all three participants have to be in a process of transformation simultaneously. So the big question raised by this document is: How do we do this? Your insights are welcomed.