Commentary: When it comes to race, America is an unfinished project

On a recent Easter weekend, lonely in a hotel room and far from a church, I found myself searching YouTube for hymns I remembered from my boyhood. I came across a video of President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of one of the victims of the church massacre in Charleston, S.C.

The sincerity of his gesture led me to sob even more deeply than I had in 2015. For as he sang, I thought about how many killings since then had worked to drive those nine awful murders from our thoughts.

More than anything, President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney reminded me how very far we seem from grace today. It reminded me that as we hope to see America live up to its great promise — and as we work to make that happen — we struggle with a hatred we cannot seem to shake.

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The Austin bomber could have left his murderous packages anywhere, but he first targeted a part of the city home to many people of color. It is hard to see this as an accident. We can parse his motives 100 ways — but in the end, what matters are the people he killed and injured, and the families and community he harmed.

What matters also is the inadequate police response to the murder of his first victim, a family man who did nothing to deserve his fate.

Like so many white Americans, I have been reluctant to acknowledge the profound disregard we have for each other in this country. I told myself that this was the land of opportunity, and that hard work would eventually be rewarded no matter one’s race or ethnicity.

Like a lot of white Americans, I have been reluctant to talk about racism, hoping that if we just take people as they come, everything will work out.

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So many of us don’t want to think of ourselves as bad people; yet, there are wrongs done to others every day that we bear responsibility for. Sociology has fancy terms to describe this, but perhaps it is enough to say the following: It is not necessary to be bad in order for bad things to happen in our name.

For instance, I have never met an Austin police officer that hasn’t been courteous and professional with me. So, when reading the news, it is hard for me to explain how an unarmed African-American man can be chased down and shot in the back of the neck without having committed a crime. Yes, I might not run when an officer orders me to halt — but I would feel comfortable obeying such a command precisely because people in my shoes aren’t so regularly harmed by police officers.

It is often said that America is an unfinished project. I believe that to be true — and I think we have a special burden to come to grips with the sins of our past.

My colleague Ted Gordon recently pressed Austin’s school board to change the names of schools commemorating Confederate soldiers. He ruffled some feathers — but I am glad he persisted. Symbols are important, and our values are reflected in what we call things.

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The removal of Confederate monuments and plaques is a good beginning. While it is possible to miss the artistry of those bronze statues, perhaps the empty pedestals will prompt reflection and conversation about how much is left to do.

For we need to do a great deal more to make America fairer for all. Where should we start? I have three suggestions:

• First, we need to support our system of public education in this city, state and nation — from pre-kindergarten through community colleges and the research universities. Public education is the gateway to a better life for many, and needs all the resources we can afford. Strong schools help lead to a stronger society.

• Next, we need to insist that public safety not come at the expense of civil rights. Our police officers have a hard and stressful job, certainly, and most are extremely competent at what they do. At the same time, however, they are carrying deadly weapons. We have an obligation to demand oversight of and accountability for their actions. There is no room for police brutality in America.

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• Finally, we need to support journalism, both in this newspaper and across all other forms of media. Good reporters are a society’s eyes, ears and conscience. Our journalists need the freedom to follow stories of importance, no matter how difficult or painful the truths they uncover.

The words of the beautiful hymn that our president sang nearly three years ago point out that we have already come through many dangers, toils and snares. The song also promises that “grace will lead us home.” I believe in my heart that we will need grace to get us safely to where we are going.

But grace alone will not be enough. We will need to work hard — and together — to have an America whose amazing potential is available to all.

Bruster is a professor of English at the University of Texas.

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