Imaginable

Richard Ober

This post originally appeared on the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation blog.

In the last couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about my late parents.

For my father, who served as an infrantryman in World War II and marched with Dr. King, seeing men wearing G.I. insignia and doing Nazi salutes would have been unimaginable.

For my mother, who opened our home for months at a time to young people from Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, hearing the anti-immigrant nationalist insults would have been incomprehensible.

We were supposed to have left these things in the past through sacrifice — by the farm boys-turned-soldiers who died at Gettysburg. By the real G.I.s who stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. By the brave civil rights activists who risked — or lost — their lives at Selma, Montgomery, and Little Rock.

And yet here we are with Charlottesville — another American city symbolizing our long and complex struggle with racism and bigotry.

And complex it is. As one wise colleague says, we must try to hold and reconcile more than one truth at the same time.

Here’s one: people and institutions of good conscience must stand in full-throated condemnation of white supremacy, Nazism, and all forms of organized hatred. And we must insist our elected leaders do the same. It shouldn’t have to be said, but apparently it does.

Here’s another: any honest assessment of our history must include a clear-eyed reckoning with racist brutality — the displacement and destruction of Native Americans, the enslavement of black Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, the fire hoses and lynchings in Mississippi.

That’s why many questioned post-Charlottesville slogans like #ThisIsNotUs. Because, unfortunately, it is. Our national motto E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one — is not only for when things are going well. We all own part of this.

Unflinching rejection of flagrant racism is necessary, but it is far from sufficient. We also must come to grips with some tough truths. Like recognizing the difference between personal racism, which is relatively easy to spot and condemn, and structural racial preference, which is baked into our lives in ways that are often invisible.

What does that mean?

My dad went to college through the G.I. Bill. His black Army mates were ineligible. That advantage ripples forward in my life. Similar policies and practices underlie chronic inequities that plague the nation today: people of color are less likely to graduate from college, be approved for a mortgage, or own a home. Salaries for white college graduates are 22 percent higher than for black college graduates. The average net worth of white American families is 13 times higher than the average net worth of black families.

Bending Theodore Parker’s long arc of the moral universe toward justice means not only confronting and rejecting overt hatred; it means understanding and addressing the root causes of inequity. That’s the real challenge, and it is a significant one — perhaps especially for those of us whose lives landed on the upside of this systemic imbalance.

This is core work for the community foundation I lead, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which is guided by our vision for “strong, just, and inclusive communities.” We believe it is important to stand with all our neighbors — of all races and faiths and ideologies and countries of origin and gender orientations. We remain committed to listening deeply to people with a wide variety of views and experiences. And we will continue to support groups that are working for social justice, equity, civil discourse, and opportunity.

It’s hard to think about my folks these days because by now the events at Charlottesville should have become unimaginable. Someday, perhaps, they will be. It all depends on how willing we are to learn. To listen. To accept responsibility for where we are as a country and where we want to be.

To imagine.

Richard Ober is president and CEO of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and a member of the CEP Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter at @dickober.

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