Opinion: Work to bridge racial gaps in divided age

Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

My wife and I moved to Atlanta in 1987 as part of the RJR Nabisco corporate headquarters relocation. By that point in my life, I had come to the conclusion that our country’s unwillingness to assimilate our black teammates into Team America was, to use Tocqueville’s expression,” not in our self-interest, well understood.” Since I knew that my 20-year career with that company would soon end, I decided to pursue other interests, one of which was to test my hypothesis that Atlanta was the best city to address our nation’s racial issues. I did that by using the Woody Allen method—by just showing up in the black community. (You’ll just have to read my book to learn how that was done.) I did confirm my hypothesis, but was unable to convince Atlanta’s white leaders in the clubhouse to join me in the effort. (I had not realized how little leverage I had once my corporate title, office and letterhead were gone.)

Notwithstanding this failure, my personal experience in trying to exorcise my own racial demons by interacting with the black community has convinced me it is time to try again.

Let me put my thoughts into perspective.

“Never let a crisis go to waste” is putative wisdom purveyed by politicians. They are presently applying this principle to the latest round of protests seeking racial justice. If history is any guide, they will crucify the presumptive villains, and our country will return to normal.

Unfortunately, as it relates to matters of race relations between whites and blacks in America, normal is entirely unsatisfactory. Particularly in a democratic republic such as ours, the elusive goal of justice delivered by governmental coercion is fleeting at best and occasionally counterproductive.

We are well past the time in our country when governmental coercion involving human relations, particularly as regards race relations, is helpful. Simply put, as regards issues of race relations in America, is it not time to substitute real human interaction for action by proxy, i.e. removing statues; changing street names; or voting for politicians?

As regards race relations in America, we have longstanding problems to resolve. For far too long, we white Americans have ostracized our black American teammates. We need help in overcoming this congenital defect. We need to reduce the level of discomfort we all feel when dealing with matters of race. We need help in creating the vehicle to augment communication and appreciation between our communities. We need help in believing in Team America again.

Arnie Sidman

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Any plan to improve race relations between Black Americans and white Americans must be voluntarily implemented outside the political realm. As suggested above, politicians are engaged in business for themselves — any concurrence between a politician’s goals and the country’s well-being is purely coincidental. In addition, any plan should have a modest goal, be easily understood, and rely for its achievement on credible institutions of long standing. Experience suggests that the initial goal should simply be making blacks and whites more comfortable with one another in a social setting. This could be implemented by matching a substantial number of pairs of black and white churches for a series of mutually created social gatherings.

Although Tocqueville recognized a broad range of civic associations active in making democracy in America work, it seems to me that the historic role of Protestant Christianity in the founding, development and fracturing of our country could elevate and sanctify the new racial harmony implicit in the social gatherings. Ideally, our leading white churches would quietly seek out appropriate Black churches with which to partner (and vice versa) contingent upon achieving a mutually agreed upon minimum number of congregational pairs. Upon reaching the agreed minimum, public announcements would identify the participating pairs and invite other congregations to create additional pairings.

Notwithstanding the devastation wreaked by COVID-19, the Zoom option could create opportunities for numerous pairs of Black and white congregations and other associations to meet and discuss family stories and items of mutual interest or concern in a less threatening and confrontational medium than protest marches. Such interactions, if structured by leaders of the paired-groups, could have the additional merit of publicly conveying the message that these gatherings are intended to be constructive without the ambiguity and lack of cohesion often inherent in protest demonstrations.

None of these actions are going to occur spontaneously. Church leaders who are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the institutions they serve will need the palpable support and encouragement of their lay leaders and congregational members. Fortunately, that is what our country is all about: many of the latter will recognize the initiating process described above as the human capital analog to the raising of venture capital followed by an initial public offering (IPO).

The above-described process is not mutually exclusive: members or alumni of such civic associations as Rotary, Kiwanis, Leadership Atlanta and the Metro Atlanta Chamber could pledge to encourage similar pairings of any other organization to which they belong. My experience tells me that parallel Black and white organizations presently exist in Atlanta running the entire gamut of human activity.

As a Southerner by choice, I would hope to see a city like Atlanta take the first step. However, in view of the lateness of the hour, I would not object if the plan were implemented by a community of Yankee hypocrites.

Arnie Sidman is a former senior vice president at RJR Nabisco Inc. and a veteran tax attorney. He lives in metro Atlanta. He is the author of the book “From Race to Renewal: It’s Not All Black & White.”