From dismantling the structures of racism to healing our hearts

Lessons from the civil rights movement and its leaders point to an important two-track approach to ending the abomination of racism.
C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette (in front from left to right) lead a march in Nashville on April 19, 1960. James Lawson is in the third row, with a handkerchief. (Jack Corn/The Tennessean)

I recently had the rewarding experience of interviewing civil rights leader and Kingian nonviolence trainer Bernard Lafayette for a film on nonviolence. He told a story I’ll likely never forget: After he, the late John Lewis and many others had succeeded — not without much trouble and grave risk — at integrating a lunch counter in Nashville, he asked his friend and noted “architect of the Civil Rights movement,” Jim Lawson, “Why don’t we just go on and integrate the rest of the city’s segregated facilities?” Lawson’s reply, he said, was one of the most profound lessons he ever learned: “No, Bernard; we’ve taken the first step. Now let them do the rest.” Why? Because “What was the goal?” Lawson asked. Not to integrate a few lunch counters. The goal was to “change the minds and hearts” of the people who were maintaining segregation. “And only love can do that. And that’s the power of nonviolence.”

In shifting focus from the use of excessive force by police to racism, the movement for Black Lives also took an important step. It dug deeper than the immediate issue, or the “trigger event” as it’s called — the murder of George Floyd — to the underlying, systemic, much larger problem that made such a murder possible. Now we can take an even further step, it seems to me: from dismantling the structures of racism in policing or whatever to healing the very root of that abomination, in the human heart.

Working on underlying causes we often find ourselves eliminating problems permanently — and taking care of related problems along with them. By tackling material inequality, for example, the Scandinavian countries found that inadequate healthcare, crime and the totalitarian tendencies sweeping the rest of Europe in the 1930s also dropped significantly (as George Lakey describes in his book “Viking Economics”). In our case the collateral benefit will be tremendous, as I’ll describe further on.

The present moment is, as Detroit-based co-liberation theorist Tawana Petty, says, “an opportunity to deepen the question.” If police brutality is a symptom of racism; racism, in turn, is a symptom of violence. And what is violence? The ill-will that arises from the failure to perceive the other as a part of oneself; a kind of failure of the imagination that prevents us from seeing the interconnectedness of life. We all suffer from this lack of imagination to one degree or other — but that’s exactly where we can make a difference. The degree of this alienation can be changed. Our contemporary culture is changing it all the time — in exactly the wrong direction. Our cultural spaces are flooded by violent movies, books, video games and other demoralizing images. In sports, in business or (perhaps most damaging) in politics we find a prevailing style of aggressive competition. Even in science: A few years ago, papers complained that the French had discovered more new elements than we did!

In all these ways we are feeding the paradigm of separateness of which racism is perhaps the ugliest — but by no means the only — outcome.

Racism is debilitating our country, and current circumstances have brought it to the forefront. As a spiritual progressive, dedicated to healing, I believe we should consider using a two-track approach: We can undertake long-term efforts that address racism in our minds, the way an express train takes you all the way to the last stop – and at the same time we can go on doing just what we’re doing now: dismantling the structures of racism in sector after sector of society. The “express” tactic changes hearts and minds directly, though it takes time; the “local” changes them indirectly but starts immediately to eliminate their outward expression in our institutions and practices. With the latter we are “stopping the worst of the damage,” as Joanna Macy advises, and with the former we’re working on the long-term, deeper task of “changing the culture.”

How? A school superintendent in my county recently said that children should learn about racism from an early age. Well, what if they learned about the unity of life, from whatever age? What if we all did, for that matter? I went through school all the way to a PhD without hardly ever hearing the term, much less learning that there are ways we can bring it into reality. In a world that seeks harmony, race would be seen for what it is: an aspect of diversity, not misunderstood as a threat of difference. It would resonate with the basic organizing principle of life itself, diversity. Not that “race” is a hard-and-fast biological reality: It isn’t. It’s a social construct, and a fraught one at that. But the point remains that by deepening our grounding in the awareness of unity, any perceived differences will be interpreted as examples of diversity, not reasons to create otherness. Race would then participate in the strange paradox that it’s by becoming who we uniquely are that we find our creative place in the connectedness of the whole. Howard Thurman discovered that, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be,” and Martin Luther King added, “and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” In other words, we complete each other, and when we begin to realize that, as Thurman said, “instead of spreading [us] out so the margins of the self fade and vanish away, it deepens and intensifies [our] essential sense of uniqueness without the devastation of a sense of being different.”

Altanta-based activist and mother Amisha Harding, whose “Courageous Conversations for the Collective” is a good example of nonviolence and fierce anti-racism, put it this way to one of my friends recently: “Yes, Black lives matter. But why do they matter to you? It needs to be personal.” They matter to us because only when I know you to be fully human can I be. The recent statement from the Native and Tribal Colleges and Universities includes Wiċoni wak̇an – or Life is Sacred (Lakota) — and Naahiłii beda’iina’ nihił danilį – Black lives matter (Navajo).

Changing a cultural mindset is a long-term goal, but when we begin to address racism at its educational and cultural roots, we find ourselves furnished with three strategic advantages. We find ourselves, first of all, in the classic nonviolent position of liberating the oppressor as well along with the oppressed — and hopefully on some level they are aware of that. Hence the disarming appeal of what Tawana Petty calls “co-liberation,” the importance of which needs to be emphasized. In one of his most profound insights Thurman wrote, “The burden of being Black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being.”

One of the main planks of Gandhi’s famous Constructive Program was “heart unity,” which is what we’re really talking about here. Heart unity means being grounded in a sense of empathic connection with others, wanting to make some kind of contribution to their welfare despite any differences on the surface — be they even differences of wealth and position, not to mention race. It does not mean that for you those differences “fade and vanish away,” as Thurman says, but they no longer interrupt your sense of connection; if anything, they enhance and enrich it. It does not mean “same-ing” the other, as john a. powell, Director of U.C. Berkeley’s Otherness and Belonging Institute calls it, where the other is invited in provided they assimilate to oneself. Rather, they are invited in precisely because they can contribute what they uniquely are.

Second, we’re now carrying out what we might call a “stealth” operation, where the opposition doesn’t realize that you’re a threat until it’s too late to stop you. Gandhi argued against the first boycott of British goods that the Indian National Congress proposed in 1917 — not because he was opposed to boycotting; far from it. He was opposed to tipping their hand before they were ready to carry through on their threat. A few years later, after he had begun to revive the Indian homespun fabric industry by promoting spinning in every home, he then called on Indians to light the bonfires and burn their British cloth. Ten years later he did it again, with the Salt Satyagraha (resistance campaign), about which the Viceroy literally wired to London that he was “not losing any sleep over the salt campaign” until it was too late to stop it without losing the empire in the process.

Third, we are no longer simply against something, namely racism; we are also for something, namely our undeniable native interconnection with one another, and all of life. Steps are already being taken in this direction, as numerous communities are exploring (or have already instituted) restorative justice and alternative policing, transitioning to more nonviolent models of community harmony alongside or instead of simply defunding the police. Here we would simply carry that approach deeper, into the implied cultural narrative. A positive goal, on any level, has a much more encouraging effect on participants; often it makes the difference between their giving up or staying at it for the long haul, what Central American activists call firmeza permanente which is so often critical for a movement’s success.

And now the collateral benefit I mentioned earlier: Once persons liberate themselves from the pervasive propaganda of separateness, release themselves from alienation and begin to get a taste of harmony, why stop there? It could go on to embrace unity with nature, and bring an end to the ruthless exploitation of our planet and other beings that is an “existential threat” to the progress, if not the continuation of life on earth.

With this approach, to repeat, we would by no means drop the changes we’re implementing now in everything from healthcare to voting rights to community policing. But it could mean prioritizing them somewhat differently. It might mean — I think it probably should — changing our conversations from being scapegoating and problem-oriented to liberating and solutions-oriented, in the spirit of Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-racist.”

To the extent that we encourage people not to patronize cultural media that insist on carrying out the old story of competition and violence, and turn instead to the new science and timeless wisdom about human connectedness we will find it easier to complete the job of anti-racism, which is to expose racism for the tragic absurdity it is.

This story was produced by Metta Center for Nonviolence

We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?

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