Once upon a time, when the phrase "race relations" represented a living hope that separated people would come together, blacks and whites, young people, old ladies in white gloves, businessmen, clergy and concerned people of every stripe talked endlessly with each other. They talked of differences, issues, stereotypes, images, discrimination. Everyone had heard of or read Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma. The NAACP and the Urban League were the only games in town.
Little by little mutual respect appeared. Friendships germinated, then flourished. Many people, both black and white, began to have some understanding of the deep roots of racism in the institutions and psyche of America. New energies bubbled. New interracial organizations appeared: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Delta Ministry. Consciences were stirred, determination strengthened, and the freedom marches began. A great American majority formed that insisted racial discrimination not only no longer would be supported by law -- it would be against the law. "Black and white together, we shall overcome," we sang.
Perhaps hopes rose too high, resistance to change was more deeply rooted than we had imagined, rage burned more fiercely among the dispossessed than we had noticed. In any case 1968 came, Martin Luther King was assassinated, broad stretches of urban black America were literally aflame, and the coalition of blacks and whites of goodwill disintegrated. Whites were evicted from groups they had helped form. We were told to go work on other white folks, but the motivation and sensitivity to do that job dried up because we were separated from the power and perspicacity of black men and women.
For me as a white Washingtonian, interracial collaborations I had valued became part of my past rather than my present. I missed cochairing the Coalition of Conscience with Walter Fauntroy; I missed cochairing the Free D.C. Movement with Marion Barry. No longer would I walk the streets of the capital with Dr. King pressing for home rule, or travel to Groveland, Fla., with Thurgood Marshall to investigate a rape case. The moment had passed.
About eight years ago, transplanted to New York as Episcopal diocesan bishop, I was walking through Central Park on a sun-filled October afternoon. Dressed in mufti, I was on the way to my doctor's office. Ahead of me I saw three black teen-age boys moving slowly toward me, laughing with each other, idly kicking a tin can. I realized there was no one else in sight, and I suddenly felt a little stab of fear.
Oh come on, Paul, I said to myself, those are just boys having a good time, like the kids you used to play with back in Jersey City. As the trio came closer, I greeted them: "Hi, boys."
"Excuse me, sir, can you tell me what time is it?" one of them asked.
I looked down at my wrist. And then I saw the knife, pointed at my belly.
So when I say, as I do, that our present time is one of an increasing threat of personal violence, I speak out of my own experience. I can say to my mugged friends, when we get to that comparing of unpleasant notes, "They took my cash but not my credit cards. And I wasn't hurt."
But the threat is not just to me and to others who are well off. You can feel it in Harlem and other poor black areas of New York: frustration and despair that lead to personal violence that leads in turn to something approaching a state of anarchy. And often the victims of the violence are the violent themselves. Take a look at the suicide rate among the poor.
I have reached my 60s now. Whether I am wiser than I once was is for others to say, but I can say that I am no more resigned to the "inevitability" of injustice than I was 10 or even 30 years ago. Not long ago a young man, a good-looking, well-spoken young man, a former acolyte at one of our churches, came to see me to describe his long and so far unsuccessful effort to find work. I listened -- and I said to myself, If this kid were white, I think he'd have a job. And it made me mad.
I have no great answers. I have a sense small answers may be best anyway. So my modest proposal is simply this: that blacks and whites of goodwill start trying to work together again. Most of the black leadership is less self-consciously black than it was in the late '60s and early '70s. Most of the white liberal leadership is less patronizing and less guilt-ridden than it was then. And the agendas that confront us require all the help they can get. Whites cannot win the battle against militarism alone. Blacks cannot win the battle against poverty alone. The battles are part of the same war anyway.
Our common goal must be to overcome white prejudice and black slogans and get down to the business of remaking our country's mind and reinspiring our country's soul. We whites, we blacks, we are on this same planet together. Once more, with feeling: "Black and white together, we shall overcome."