Politics & Policy

The Best Approach To Racism: Engage Each Other

We should embrace and celebrate our ethnic and cultural diversity instead of using it as a wedge to divide us.

Last weekend’s events in Virginia continue to reverberate across the nation. In 2017, it’s hard for many Americans to believe there could be a rally involving white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klansmen. As a nation, we have made so much progress on race since the days of “separate but equal” and “three-fifths of a man,” but clearly our journey is not complete.

The supremacy of any race over another is not only immoral, it’s contradictory to the fundamental idea of America and our Declaration of Independence, which affirms that all men are created equal. America and the Allied Forces fought and soundly defeated Nazism in World War II at a high cost to our country and the world. History proved the madness of Hitler and his Aryan ideology. No one should be so foolish as to celebrate Hitler’s morally depraved philosophy.

Yet America is rooted in free speech, freedom of association, and the right to peacefully protest, even if a belief is wrong and foolish. But a civilized and peaceful society should be unequivocal in its denunciation and rebuke of the ideology of race supremacy, without hesitation. For those of us who believe that every person is created in the image of God and that each person has inherent value, racial intolerance is especially offensive.

I was disheartened to see people of all ages participating in Charlottesville’s white-supremacist rally. The multi-generational hatred expressed for Jews, African Americans, and a multiracial national culture was another painful reminder that race is still an issue in America. It is imperative that we keep talking about race and act on solutions that will eradicate this evil.

Thankfully, the vast majority of Americans are rightly repulsed by racial hatred. Like Heather Heyer, who was murdered in Charlottesville, many young people are quick to point out injustice and act against it. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the nation to overcome hate with love. Breaking the chain of racism and isolation involves love and action, not just concern.

After the police shootings last summer in Texas, Minnesota, and Louisiana, senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and I challenged our constituents and people all across America to address racial tensions by engaging people of another race over meals in their home. We call it “Solution Sunday.” A “national conversation on race” will not occur at a rally or a big event, since in a crowd we can talk about each other, but not really to each other. I believe that “national conversations” are really millions of individual family and friend conversations, typically over a meal, in our homes.

If it seems too simple and obvious, let me ask you this question: When was the last time you or your family had dinner in your home with a person or family of another race? Friendships and understanding happen when we engage and learn from each other’s cultures and experiences. To say it simply, we will never get all our issues on the table, until we get our feet under the same table. Changing the status quo starts by changing the conversations and examples of race in our own homes.

Before serving in Congress, I served families in full-time youth ministry for more than two decades. I can say without question that parents have the greatest influence on their children’s view of the world. But, with the expansion of the Internet and social media, there are unfortunately many ways for people to be exposed to radicalization and hate-filled views. Parents should be engaged in what their kids see and participate in; you are their role model.

There is also another cultural trend that has led many in our nation to ideologically self-segregate, not based on race, but based on ideology. After two centuries, we are making progress on race, but we seem to be rapidly losing our “melting pot” of ideas. Our current culture encourages people to listen only to those who share their values, philosophy, and ideas, then dismiss or belittle anyone who disagrees. Social media has become a fortress for social reinforcement instead of a place to exchange ideas. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe you should have conversations with people who think differently in the hope of winning them over to your side or learning how you might be mistaken. Screaming angry obscenities at people simply because they think differently only incites violence and hatred; it does not solve any problems.

We have different viewpoints, cultures, and faiths. But, as Bill and Melinda Gates say, “All lives have equal value.” Valuing the life of each person no matter their age, disability, national origin, or background can make a radical statement. Our differences are what give us a unique story to tell, a story that is part of the fabric of this nation. We should embrace and celebrate our ethnic and cultural diversity instead of using it as a wedge to divide us. An appreciation for human dignity is one of the greatest legacies we can leave for our children and grandchildren.

Congress has many important issues to address, but we can’t pass legislation to force racial unity and trust. Unity and trust must be accomplished in our local communities, churches, and families. Sharing meals and spending quality time with people of different races allows us to listen to the experiences of others. As my friend senator Tim Scott often says, “You can’t hate what you know.”

It is easy to shrink back from controversial topics like race or our differences. But to ensure we never return to the racial sins of the past, we must teach, we must listen, we must lean in, we must remember, and we must engage each other as neighbors, friends, and fellow Americans who love this country. Anger and ideological isolation will not solve our problems; love and knowledge will.

Hatred is not a political issue. Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the Civil Rights Act, and it was a Republican president named Abraham Lincoln who changed the course of race relations in America forever. No one should defend the sins of our past, and we cannot wipe out the facts of history, but when the children in our community need a role model for the future, let’s determine to be those role models.

Let me ask you again: When is the last time you or your family invited a person or family of another race to your home for dinner? Next Sunday, over a meal at your home, would you be part of the solution?

– James Lankford is a United States senator from Oklahoma.

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