Though history books and contemporary media are replete with accounts of enmity between the races, there is a long history of race amity that has not received the same level of attention, says Dr. William “Smitty” H. Smith, founding executive director of the National Center for Race Amity based at Wheelock College in Boston, Mass.
Such was one of the dominant themes of the 2015 National Race Amity Conference held earlier this month in Boston. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Race Amity conference, which was themed: “The Impact of Media and Education on the Other Tradition.”
“While we’re all familiar with the tradition of racism; in America, there’s always been a parallel moral counterweight, always pushback,” Smith says, adding that advances in race relations have developed “from organized and not-so organized collaborations across racial and cultural lines.”
As examples of race amity progress, Smith cited the founding and organization of the NAACP and Urban League, the abolitionist movement and even Bacon’s Rebellion in 1605. In all these movements, “you will find close, cross-racial, cross-cultural collaboration and friendship. We need to examine this model, and look at this, because it says something different about who we are,” Smith says.
“It’s ahistorical to ignore the fact that, in history, [there’s] been a huge effort, informal effort, for African-Americans and Whites to get along. But it hasn’t been seen as the central pole of what is needed,” says Dr. Peggy McIntosh, director of the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
Thus, racial conflict “is the norm, partly because writers of history books and newspaper articles — they think it’s not news if there isn’t fighting. They look for conflict. Or, if not for conflict, for attempts to get in control,” McIntosh adds. McIntosh delivered the opening keynote for this year’s Race Amity conference.
Dr. Joe Atkins, dean of students at Colby College, says when young people witness the prevailing metanarratives of racial strife, they can believe that such problems cannot be solved. Yet the Race Amity Conference shows that there are “people who are very happy to sit down and have difficult discussions and learn from each other’s experiences.
“It’s not reinventing the wheel to find a way to ratchet down the tension, the anxiousness, or to narrow the racial gap. You’ve just got to build something to get to each other’s side,” says Atkins, one of the instructors for a Campus Conversations on Race Facilitator Training Institute that was conducted at this year’s Race Amity Conference.
Atkins noted that with him at the Race Amity Conference were six Colby students of various backgrounds who have been active in the Campus Conversations on Race program at Colby, which is focused on fostering cross-cultural understanding through dialogue.
Smith says that, at the National Center for Race Amity, “We’re trying to create a platform, an opportunity to engage in dialogue that centers on amity, conciliation, and access. … To the extent we can create close cross-cultural, cross-racial friendships; we create bonds that are indissoluble.”
For example, Smith noted that among those who supported Dr. Martin Luther King’s quest for civil rights in the 1960s was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who formed a close friendship with King. Thus, Heschel attracted others of the Jewish faith to the civil rights struggle. According to Smith, part of the work of the Center for Race Amity is to affirm the spiritual underpinnings of the quest for racial harmony.
“This initiative, this call is important today because we see this — in all the turmoil, and discord — as being a voice of solace and sanity for our human spirits. … We’re trying to reconnect the spiritual human element to this struggle. We’re trying to humanize it and spiritualize it in a way that connects people’s hearts, because that’s what makes the change.
We’re talking a different talk. We’re talking amity. Most other discussions lead to enmity.”
For more information on the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College, visit http://ncra.wheelock.edu.