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Encountering Nelson Mandela in person for the first time, I remember thinking he looked more daunting and noble in person than he did in photographs.
It was December 1999, and I had gone to South Africa to help organize the youth program of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Mandela was the keynote for the event. After the thunderous applause died down, and after a chant from the Xhosa tribe washed over the crowd, Mandela began to speak. He related how proud he was that people from a range of religions, races, ethnicities and tribes were working together to build a “rainbow nation.”
The apartheid past, he emphasized, was a foreign country. South Africa needed to forge ahead, focusing on reconciliation and cooperation. He advised this as the way forward for all the peoples of the world.
It is easy to forget how justified Mandela would have been in choosing a different path, the path of retribution. The apartheid regime not only oppressed entire racial and ethnic groups in South Africa, it sought to destroy Mandela specifically, imprisoning him for 27 years on Robben Island.
But as his close friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu was fond of saying, there is no future without forgiveness. And Mandela was all about the future.
Together, Mandela and Tutu organized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which invited both the perpetrators of racist evils and the victims of those evils to give public testimony. In this way, the brutality of the apartheid system was laid bare for all to see. The victims could begin healing, and the perpetrators would be allowed to apply for amnesty.
Putting the brutality of evil regimes on public display has long been a strategy of social justice movements. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that peaceful marches would be met with violent police truncheons, vicious dogs and punishing fire hoses. The images would unstick people from the status quo, and move their sympathy squarely to the side of social change.
The ugliness of the Trump era has always been visible to those with eyes to see, from the racist “birther” campaign against President Barack Obama, to the racist Muslim ban, to referring to COVID-19 with the racist phrase “China virus.”
But on Jan. 6, reality was undeniable, even for those who did their best to ignore the brutality and bigotry that went before. A crowd, fired up and sent forth by President Donald Trump, chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” swarmed into the Capitol building with weapons and attacked police officers, killing one.
The rioters were roundly condemned, and even their family members reported them to authorities. The public placed the responsibility squarely on Trump, sending his approval rating plummeting. Liz Cheney and nine other House Republicans voted for impeachment. Major companies pulled their support from elected representatives who continued to embrace the debunked conspiracy theory that Trump had actually won the election.
As more details emerge of the nature of the insurrection, the level of premeditation and coordination, I suspect that the number of people willing to follow the so-called Q Shaman deep into crazyville will dwindle further and further. Yes, we will see a rise in recruits for right-wing militias, but a significant number of the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump in 2020 will be looking for an off-ramp.
That is the group President Joe Biden should have top of mind. He should craft a strategy that welcomes the willing from the other side back into the circle of decency. He should look to rebuild the American big tent, the civic center, that every president from Ronald Reagan to Obama has extolled.
I am not proposing some kind of truth-and-amnesty for Trump or for his political allies and enablers. I am certainly not advocating for the insurrectionists to get off without appropriate time in prison.
I am simply suggesting that Biden keep the Oval Office and the bully pulpit focused elsewhere.
Let the American majority get to work stitching the fabric of our nation back together, led by Biden following the model of Mandela.
There are many examples of Mandela reaching out to those who worked in the apartheid regime, from forming friendships with his guards at Robben Island to speaking to the white staff holdovers in the South African government in their native Afrikaans and requesting that they remain in their posts.
But perhaps the most dramatic example of Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation and cooperation was his very public embrace of the Springboks rugby team, the subject of the film “Invictus.” Long a favorite symbol of white Afrikaner pride, the Springboks were generally hated by Black South Africans. Mandela made it clear that the Springboks were his team, and should indeed be viewed as the team of all South Africans as they competed in the World Cup.
His message was clear: For the future to have a chance at all, parts of the past had to be left behind, and all of us have to convene around common symbols.
Along the way, Mandela found a powerful partner in team captain Francois Pienaar, a white South African of Afrikaans ancestry who welcomed Mandela’s embrace of the Springboks and insisted that his teammates learn the Black liberation song “Nkosi Sikelele.”
To move the nation forward, Biden must fully embrace this template. He must choose to embrace a symbol that is generally associated with red America and find partners in that world willing to convene around a common symbol and meet on common ground.
My suggestion: decent policing, the sort that is needed in both Black communities and on Capitol Hill. The sort that would have kept Black people like George Floyd and Laquan McDonald alive, and the kind that would have properly prepared to protect Congress from a white mob.
Biden has knelt with Black Lives Matter protesters, an act of reverence for the lives that have been lost to violent and racist policing. What if he stood now with police chiefs committed to positive reform, perhaps at an interfaith prayer service, an act of commitment to a more perfect union?
Following the example of Nelson Mandela, Joe Biden can be a commander in chief of cooperation and unity.
Following Biden, we can all play a role in uniting our nation.
( Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and author of “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
On Apr. 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while assisting striking sanitation workers.
Back then, a half century ago, the wholesale racial integration required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act was just beginning to chip away at discrimination in education, jobs and public facilities. Black voters had only obtained legal protections two years earlier, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act was about to become law.
African-Americans were only beginning to move into neighborhoods, colleges and careers once reserved for whites only.
I’m too young to remember those days. But hearing my parents talk about the late 1960s, it sounds in some ways like another world. Numerous African-Americans now hold positions of power, from mayor to governor to corporate chief executive – and, yes, once upon a time, president. The U.S. is a very different place than it was in 1968.
Or is it? As a scholar of minority politics, I know that while some things have improved markedly for black Americans in the past 50 years, today we are still fighting many of the same battles as Dr. King did in his day.
The 1960s were tumultuous years indeed. During the long, hot summers from 1965 to 1968, American cities saw approximately 150 race riots and other uprisings. The protests were a sign of profound citizen anger about a nation that was, according to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Economically, that was certainly true. In 1968, just 10 percent of whites lived below the poverty level, while nearly 34 percent of African-Americans did. Likewise, just 2.6 percent of white job seekers were unemployed, compared to 6.7 percent of black job seekers.
A year before his death, Dr. King and others began organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”
On May 28, 1968, one month after King’s assassination, the mass anti-poverty march took place. Individuals from across the nation erected a tent city on the National Mall, in Washington, calling it Resurrection City. The aim was to bring attention to the problems associated with poverty.
Ralph Abernathy, an African-American minister, led the way in his fallen friend’s place.
“We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity,” Abernathy said, “and we will stay until we get it.”
So, how far have black people progressed since 1968? Have we gotten our fair share yet? Those questions have been on my mind a lot this month.
In some ways, we’ve barely budged as a people. Poverty is still too common in the U.S. In 1968, 25 million Americans — roughly 13 percent of the population — lived below poverty level. In 2016, 43.1 million – or more than 12.7 percent – do.
Financial security, too, still differs dramatically by race. Black households earn $57.30 for every $100 in income earned by white families. And for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04.
Another troubling aspect about black social progress – or should I say the lack thereof – is how many black families are headed by single women. In the 1960s, unmarried women were the main breadwinners for 20 percent of households. In recent years, the percentage has risen as high as 72 percent.
Black Americans today are also more dependent on government aid than they were in 1968. Currently, almost 40 percent of African-Americans are poor enough to qualify for welfare, housing assistance and other government programs that offer modest support to families living under the poverty line.
That’s higher than any other U.S. racial group. Just 21 percent of Latinos, 18 percent Asian-Americans and 17 percent of whites are on welfare.
There are, of course, positive trends. Today, far more African-Americans graduate from college – 38 percent – than they did 50 years ago.
Our incomes are also way up. Black adults experienced a more significant income increase from 1980 to 2016 – from $28,667 to $39,490 – than any other U.S. demographic group. This, in part, is why there’s now a significant black middle class.
Legally, African-Americans may live in any community they want – and from Beverly Hills to the Upper East Side, they can and do.
But why aren’t those gains deeper and more widespread?
Some prominent thinkers – including the award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander – put the onus on institutional racism. Coates argues, among other things, that racism has so held back African-Americans throughout history that we deserve reparations, resurfacing a claim with a long history in black activism.
Alexander, for her part, has famously said that racial profiling and the mass incarceration of African-Americans are just modern-day forms of the legal, institutionalized racism that once ruled across the American South.
More conservative thinkers may hold black people solely accountable for their problems. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is in this “personal responsibility” camp, along with public intellectuals like Thomas Sowell and Larry Elder.
Depending on who you ask, then, black people aren’t much better off than in 1968 because either there’s not enough government help or there’s way too much.
I don’t have to wonder what Dr. King would recommend. He believed in institutional racism.
In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council sought to tackle inequality with the Economic Bill of Rights. This was not a legislative proposal, per se, but a moral vision of a just America where all citizens had educational opportunities, a home, “access to land,” “a meaningful job at a living wage” and “a secure and adequate income.”
To achieve that, King wrote, the U.S. government should create an initiative to “abolish unemployment,” by developing incentives to increase the number of jobs for black Americans. He also recommended “another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
Those ideas were revolutionary in 1968. Today, they seem prescient. King’s notion that all citizens need a living wage portends the universal basic income concept now gaining traction worldwide.
King’s rhetoric and ideology are also obvious influences on Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in the 2016 presidential primaries advocated equality for all people, economic incentives for working families, improved schools, greater access to higher education and for anti-poverty initiatives.
Progress has been made. Just not as much as many of us would like. To put it in Dr. King’s words, “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
Children are listening.
During the election, messages of hate, fear and intolerance were propagated across different media and into communities. And the messages continue. While parents view and listen to these ever-present messages, alongside them are their children, hearing these same messages through a lens ill-equipped to discern the implications of negative stereotypes and incorrect portrayals.
These messages, no matter their voice, were designed and intended to target adults. As pediatricians, we’re now seeing, however, that children were listening and they are responding in ways we might not have anticipated.
As parents, caretakers and citizens, we have the power to turn this tide. And as we approach the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday, now is the time to explore ways to teach children to communicate with love and respect.
One response to the messages children hear is to incite more hate. In April 2016, a now well-cited survey of 2,000 teachers conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program found that more than half of respondents reported seeing an increase in uncivil discourse in their schools. This, along with other findings from the survey, was used to coin “The Trump Effect,” a term denoting the hateful acts performed by children and adults alike.
The change we’ve seen in children’s behavior may be happening for the same reason they react to the violence they see in media. Prior research has shown that children exposed to media violence have higher levels of violent behaviors, hostility and that they are more desensitized to violence, including a lower likelihood of intervening in an ongoing fight and less sympathy for the victims of violence. Media violence itself can instill fear in the young viewers that may be persistent for years.
Hate and intolerance touted in the media is no different. As is their nature developmentally, children adopt what they hear as truth, adapting it to their lives, and in many cases across the nation, acting upon it.
Another response can be love. Recently, a Facebook group was started by a Seattle-based mom, encouraging children to write letters to the president-elect explaining the importance of being kind. To date, 10,000 children have joined, from across the country, writing how kindness should guide the future administration. To quote one sixth grade child, “Please show kindness to people, no matter their race, religion, beliefs, or most importantly, who they are as a person.”
This dichotomy of responses begs the questions: Why are children uniquely positioned to respond to messages of hate strongly, and how do parents guide their children to respond with love over hate?
Children’s actions may depend heavily on their developmental stage. Older teenagers are generally better able to discern the meaning and implications of the strong emotions conveyed in the media, but younger children often are unable to decode them.
Emotions like hate, fear and intolerance are complex. Younger children are not equipped to understand the context and ramifications associated with these complex emotions, especially when seen in an abstract form, such as media. In addition, we know that young children are not developmentally able to discern paralanguage, the complex, emotional undertones of speech. Without these underpinnings, it’s nearly impossible to understand when messages are rooted in sarcasm or are based on fallacious assumptions.
Parents fear loss of control
Older children may be able to think more critically about what they hear, but may have a hard time deciding what they should believe. Children who identify as a part of a minority group based on their race or ethnicity, nativity status, sexual orientation or ability status may also internalize the messages, which can lead to increased distress. This distress may be associated with concerning behaviors such as withdrawal, anger, anxiety and conduct problems.
In 2015, over 65 percent of Americans had a smartphone and over 95 percent of homes had a television. In 2016 The American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of over 66,000 pediatricians, revised its policy statement to encourage the use of these types of media for children as young as 18 months in a structured way to facilitate learning.
However, many families feel conflicted on how to select for beneficial content, while filtering out the harmful content, such as stories that highlight hate and intolerance. A study published in the November issue of Annals of Family Medicine found caregivers felt they had less and less control over the content their children viewed in today’s age of rapidly evolving technologies.
This effect was seen increasingly in families with lower socioeconomic status and lower income. These caregivers wanted their children to be exposed to the advantageous aspects of technology, but worried about how to set limits and make the right choices for their children.
As parents, we know it is hard to totally shield our children from the media, so how do we silence the noise of hate and usher our children toward actions of love and respect?
The strongest change you can make is in your own home.
Here are four ways you can scaffold the messages our children hear, providing them with context and skills beyond their developmental stages to filter and respond to the hate and intolerance seen in the media.
And remember, children are listening. While we may not be able to change the messages in the media, we can change how our children respond to them, and that change starts with you.
Nia Heard-Garris, Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar, Clinical Lecturer, Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases, University of Michigan Medical School, University of Michigan and Danielle Erkoboni, National Clinician Scholar and General Pediatrician, University of Pennsylvania