The Key to Race Relations

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This is an unprecedented moment in American history. For the first time in my adult life it seems like everyone is talking about race.

Every podcast I’m subscribed to … every email list I’m on … every online service I use … every group I’m a part of … has made a statement about the death of George Floyd, the current unrest, and the need for racial justice.

I’ve hesitated to say much online. One reason is a sincere and humble fear of saying the wrong thing. I’ve done that too many times in my life (on all sorts of issues, in all sorts of situations), and I’m scared to death of doing it online, where it will live forever and can be seen by millions.

Another reason (related to the first) is that I’m not an expert in this field. In fact, one of the things I’m realizing as I process this moment in my own heart and mind is how much I DON’T know—and how much I need to learn.

But I have become convinced that there is a key to race relations.

And it’s important enough that I will even refer to it as THE key.

Notice I said key. I didn’t say answer. I didn’t say solution. I said “key.”

A key opens a door. Once the door is open, you still have to go through it. And once you’ve gone through it, you still have to deal with what you find on the other side. And even when you deal with what’s on the other side, there are no guarantees.

I would never claim to have the “answer” or the “solution” to the centuries-old, multi-layered, intricately complex, deeply embedded, and excruciatingly painful problem of racial injustice.

But I think I know where to start.

And the reason I think I know this—the reason I claim to know “the key”—is that it’s the key to transforming any conflict.

It’s called Listening.

Please note that when I say “Listening,” I mean real listening—deep listening—listening to understand. I mean empathic listening—the kind of listening where you put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Listening has power. Listening changes things. Listening is the first step in conflict transformation.

Listening doesn’t mean you agree. It doesn’t mean you’re endorsing behaviors that you believe are wrong.

It just means you’re trying to understand.

And understanding can lead to peace.

Just ask Daryl Davis.

Davis is a professional musician. One night after playing a gig at a night club, Davis was approached by a customer who complimented his playing and said, “This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” As it turned out, Davis had played with Jerry Lee Lewis (and Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley, and Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires) and he explained that blues and boogie-woogie actually originated with African Americans. A lively conversation ensued, and Davis sat down with the man to enjoy a beverage and discuss the origins of rock and roll. The man wrote down his phone number and asked Davis to call him the next time the band was in town.

The man was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

And he and Davis became friends.

Eventually Davis became friends (yes, friends) with a number of Klan members, including the Grand Dragon of Maryland. And by listening to these friends—not agreeing, not condoning, but listening—Davis has convinced at least 200 of them to give up their robes.

Says Davis,

The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be …

Give them a platform.

You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.

So [the Grand Dragon] and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.

Some have disagreed with Davis’ approach, raising concerns that befriending Klan members may appear to grant legitimacy to hate groups. I get that.

But what you can’t argue with is the power of listening. Davis has shown that, even in extreme cases, listening can lead to dialogue that can lead to change.

Of course, listening is not the only thing. There are some things that need to come before listening or it won’t work. Things like humility. Caring. Compassion. A belief in the value of all human beings.

And before those things comes prayer. Prayer is where God shapes the heart that can truly listen.

But those things being said, I’m convinced that listening is the key. So let me ask you:

Are you listening?