Breaking Out of Race-Based Politics
01 February 1999

Robert Corcoran, National Coordinator of the Hope in the Cities (HIC) coalition based in Richmond, Virginia, reports on the third annual Metropolitan Richmond Day, where HIC activists from across the USA gathered:

Minorities played a decisive role in November's Congressional elections, said Michael Wenger, former deputy director of President Clinton's Initiative on Race, speaking to 300 people at a breakfast forum in Richmond, Virginia, last November. Fifty-nine Blacks and Hispanics were elected to Congress. Minority voters made the difference in key Senate races in New York, California and North and South Carolina.

Quipping that salsa now outsells ketchup, Wenger painted a graphic picture of America's changing racial demography. 'Change is inevitable. Growth is optional,' he commented. While an ethnic meltdown of Bosnian proportions was unlikely, 'the only way to ensure that we do not go down that path is to get beyond our fear. That requires looking in the mirror without flinching, and acknowledging the pain that some of us have endured and the pain that others of us have inflicted.'

This would be harder for white Americans, he went on, because 'it will require we acknowledge and put at risk the unearned privilege with which we have lived since this country was formed'.

The only way to disarm the racial minefield, he said, is 'through constructive dialogue in which we talk with, rather than at, each other. That's why the work of groups like Hope in the Cities is so desperately needed.'

Paying tribute to Hope in the Cities' role in the President's Initiative, Wenger challenged his audience to ask themselves, 'What are you doing to help us reach one America? What might you be doing, or not doing, to slow that journey?'

The forum was co-chaired by Virginia State Delegate Viola Baskerville, Jim Dunn, President of the Chamber of Commerce, and Robert Grey, the first black chairman of the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association.

Seven busloads of high school students took part in the day's annual Richmond Unity Walk through the city, aimed at healing the memories of slavery. Stopping at the monument to Confederate soldiers and sailors, Robin Reed, director of Richmond's White House and Museum of the Confederacy, said that history belonged to everyone. 'It can be a spiritual guide, not a haunting ghost.' At the site of Lumpkin's Slave Jail, Senator Henry Marsh, who was Richmond's first African American mayor, told the walkers that HIC had 'helped me and this community to grow'. He encouraged his listeners to reach out to their enemies.

Community leaders from 12 cities where HIC is building partnerships, aided by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, joined the Richmonders for training and team-building at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical centre.

Nine came from Selma, Alabama, led by the president of the city council, Yusef Abdus-Salaam. They included a journalist, a nun, a leading lawyer and 88-year-old Annie Lee Cooper who had once confronted hostile deputies during an historic civil rights demonstration, and now lives in a street bearing her name. Abdus-Salaam said it was 'divine intervention' that he had read about HIC, only weeks before.

The goal of the weekend was to emphasize the heart of HIC's purpose: its spiritual foundation, the 'walk through history' as a tool for healing, and the essence of honest conversation.

Joining the gathering, Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine, a white who was elected by the majority black city council, paid tribute to African Americans for leading the break out of race-based politics. He said, 'This is the most important work we are doing in the city&emdash;the work of Hope in the Cities.'

A poignant moment came at a healing ceremony under a 350-year-old willow oak at Shirley Plantation on the banks of the James River. Here the plantation's current occupant, C Hill Carter Jr, stood alongside Minnesota singer Joe Carter, whose great grandfather was born to a Richmond slave master. Carter believed his ancestor, 'Big Bill', might well have been born on the plantation.

Leadership Metro Richmond recently honoured Robert Corcoran with the Community Vision Award