OPINION: Oxford College dean seeing hope, healing in purple Georgia

The Jan. 5 Senate runoffs will have Sen. David Perdue (from left) vs Jon Ossoff, and Sen. Kelly Loeffler vs. the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

The Jan. 5 Senate runoffs will have Sen. David Perdue (from left) vs Jon Ossoff, and Sen. Kelly Loeffler vs. the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

The more I try to make sense of the partisanship tearing at our nation’s core, the more I feel like one of those bobblehead dolls.

I can’t help shaking my head.

There’s no room for gray, no such thing as compromise and absolutely no maybes.

That, of course, is a child’s view of the world. I am right. You are wrong. I must win. You must lose. I love the country. You do not. Everything is either black or white.

If you’ve managed somehow to put away childish things, it’s enough to drive you mad.

Douglas Hicks, dean at Oxford College of Emory University, has surveyed Georgia’s political landscape and finds himself in the enviable place where he sees a lot of purple.

That, he said, makes him hopeful.

Hicks, mind you, gave up childish thoughts a long time ago. He is a grown-up who lives in Newton County, Georgia, what he describes as the continental divide between blue and red America.

He grew up in red Indiana and worked most recently in blue New York, so he knows a lot about all three.

The good thing about Newton, he said, is there is no majority population.

“I just find it fascinating and important to live in a purple county and polarized purple state,” he said.

Douglas Hicks is dean and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University. (Courtesy of Ann Borden)

Credit: Photo courtesy Oxford College

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Credit: Photo courtesy Oxford College

I find it mostly aggravating but I was intrigued.

I asked him to explain himself. What makes purple look so good to him?

The short answer is people in purple places like Newton County seem more willing, the professor of religion said, to put aside their differences and work together for the common good.

Imagine that.

Hicks’ inspiration comes in part from the diverse student body he is charged with educating but also from the work he is involved in around the county.

He served last year, for instance, on the board of the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce and was encouraged by how members were able to transcend their differences to bring economic development to the county.

“I don’t mean to say it was easy, but we worked together to support small and large business,” he said.

The result?

Bridgestone Golf is located there and is thriving. Facebook is building a plant there. And Takeda, one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world, has moved there.

The county’s Arts Association has also reached across the racial divide to not only teach and entertain but bring the citizenry together. In addition to funding scholarships for students of all backgrounds, the association works to address social justice issues and promote healing through the arts.

And in another show of nonpartisan cooperation, Hicks said he has worked with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, a Republican, on the county’s educational mission to support students in schools and colleges.

“We still have real challenges and real differences of worldview and yet we do work together on all these different fronts — arts, education, economics and jobs,” Hicks said. “We’re like the barometer for the entire nation, which seems to be blue vs. red.”

Hicks is not naive. He understands why a county like Newton with some 100,000 residents and only 55,000 voters might seem of little significance to the rest of us.

But when you’re talking about a margin in the presidential race of over 12,000 votes, who knows what can happen.

“The Senate races could turn out to be even closer than that,” he said. “These purple counties where there is a lot of economic and social vibrancy might make the difference.”

As you may or may not know, Newton voters gave a nearly 11-point edge to President-elect Joe Biden, while the county to the west (Rockdale) voted strongly for Biden, giving him nearly a 41-point lead there, and the county to the east (Morgan) went for President Donald Trump by plus-41 points.

Now we turn our attention to the Jan. 5 runoffs for the all-important Senate races. In the Nov. 3 election, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, won 33% of the vote over Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s 26% in a contest with 20 candidates. In the other race, Republican incumbent David Perdue won 49.7% of the vote to Democrat Jon Ossoff’s 48%.

So how do we navigate our differences during this next phase of campaigning and beyond without widening the partisan gap even more?

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

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Hicks suggested we start to really listen to each other and remember that truth and the facts really do matter.

“You can’t just make them up. They have to be grounded in reality.”

It’s anyone’s guess who will win the Senate races, but the reality is Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. That’s a fact. Now it’s time to move on.

It is as Biden declared when he claimed victory: The season for partisan bickering is far spent.

It’s time to heal, he said, quoting Ecclesiastes.

Biden’s choice of that passage, Hicks said, was tremendously powerful and timely, and it had even more punch because of his own biography. The president-elect has not only walked through seasons of success, he’s experienced seasons of suffering and loss as well.

“That season may not come until after the January runoff, but we need that season of healing,” he said. “My only hope is that we can all live into it.”


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