Now that Barack Obama has all but sealed the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, there is great anticipation that he might lead the country toward a world of postracial politics. But the opposite fear has also emerged—that of a divisive and potentially mean-spirited debate that only deepens misunderstandings between ethnic and racial groups. While Obama’s campaign has inspired great hope, it has also revealed deep and persistent wounds.
Of course, the problems run deep. Despite the great legislative victories of the 1950s and 1960s that moved the nation toward social and political justice, the divides remain—in some ways reduced but in other ways stubbornly persistent.
What we don’t need at this time is another “conversation” because our national conversations on race feel like bad marriage counseling sessions. We vent, we point fingers, we name the problem over and over again only to find ourselves getting up off the couch in the exact same state of mind as before we sat down.
Why not put the conversation on hold and try a more active approach? What about challenging Americans to focus less on how to identify the problems of race and more on how to solve them?
It’s time for deeds, not words. The goal is not dialogue, it’s understanding. And understanding requires a lot more than talk.
That’s where the work of volunteerism, service and citizenship come in. America’s thousands of dynamic not-for-profit organizations mobilize citizens every day to solve problems both large and small. We all know how valuable these organizations are whether we’re trying to solve the problem of a polluted neighborhood stream or a shortage in a hospital blood supply. Citizens joining together and taking action to address a need are the pulse of America.
It’s a great thing to make a difference in another person’s life whether reading to a child or visiting with an elderly person who’s alone or serving a meal to someone who’s hungry or helping someone who’s struggling to find a job. To reach beyond one’s own interests and offer help to someone who needs it can be transforming in so many ways.
But the real payoff is seeing our differences disappear as we find ourselves pursuing a common dream. When we serve a purpose larger than ourselves, we don’t get hung up on semantics. Differences that may have seemed pointed can all of a sudden seem petty. In the simplest of terms, service can be an experience of healing, especially for those who serve.
If a President Obama or President McCain is going to have a chance at overcoming racial divisions (not to mention other dividers like religion and political party), why not start with a call to action rather than a call to conversation? Why not challenge the nation’s churches and volunteer organizations to build action teams across ethnic and religious lines? Why not invite the people who are out there every day making a difference to create new citizen teams that transcend boundaries of income, ethnicity, party, and religion?
I can imagine an AME church and a Catholic one creating a joint service group on homelessness. I can see the Cleveland Park-Marlow Heights Habitat for Humanity build team. I can envision a National Cathedral-National Urban League job bank. And while I can’t imagine any of these solving the problems without government partnership, I also can’t imagine that they wouldn’t be powerful sources of healing for those who serve together.
How could citizen engagement help overcome a problem as complex as the deep social divisions that plague our country? Think again: it’s the only thing that ever has.
Both Obama and McCain have staked out strong positions on the importance of service as a source of strength for our country. They might also find it a source of strength in our centuries-long struggle to create a postracial country. In that pursuit, why not start with action?