Letters to the Editor

100 years: Refraction, reflections, reactions

One hundred is a curious number. It brings to mind numerous thoughts and sentiments. It is a mere blink in the history of mankind. Yet, it can reflect the celebration of a long life well lived, or the perfect score on a test or rating. On the other hand, it can be a milestone, a marker or a time for reckoning and discernment.

The date under consideration is July 2, 1917. The place is East St. Louis, Illinois. The event challenges not only our understanding, but our perceptions of our country, our past, our present and ourselves. It calls for reflection and our discernment.

It would be natural to start with the events that immediately preceded the day of July 2, 1917. We could attempt to attribute a cause or triggering event. We naturally would assess blame and responsibility. Human nature, as it is, gives each of us the freedom to escape any responsibility – we were not there, better yet, we were not even alive, in fact, few of us have a relative still alive today. This could be the end of the story and the end of this article.

Some would walk us through the horrible and tragic use of bricks, clubs, guns and rope. Others would be more visceral and describe the impact of the cruelty and acts of depravity as they were furiously visited on one or more of the victims of the rampage (“race riot”) that left 48 dead, 39 of which were people of color.

While this may increase our knowledge of the horrible and horrendous events of July 2, 1917, what would be learned?

When studying debate, one finds a theory based upon human nature – it is difficult to do two things at the same time. It held that you must inform and educate before you can motivate. What that theory overlooks is that you may need to motivate those with whom you communicate to care, to empathize, to appreciate, to want to listen. It takes effort to listen effectively. The listener not only has to listen, but needs to hear, to understand and to appreciate. All of those characteristics are important in persuasion, however, if your purpose is engagement, the ultimate goal is to take the listener to the level of discernment.

The act of discernment requires more than knowledge or perception. It requires effort to gain insight, understanding and perspective. Perhaps most of all, it requires mindfulness, i.e., the ability to suspend (hold in abeyance) preconceptions arising from tradition, heritage, culture and confirmation bias. Discernment incorporates the lessons of experience, but compels the awareness of seeing things as they are rather than what we want or expect them to be.

It starts by looking in the mirror and examining ourselves. Before we undertake that exercise it would be useful to check whether the reflection we perceive is, in fact, the reality of what is in front of the mirror. The science of mindfulness reminds us that individuals focus on different domains or dimensions and have a tendency to overlook or diminish other attributes and components. The question of “who am I” has vexed psychologists and psychiatrists for generations. The study and practice of mindfulness is important, but for present purposes it is intended to provide further weight and substance to the quote of Henry David Thoreau: “It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”.

Most people consider that their mind accurately processes the stimuli perceived by each of their five senses. A properly and fully functioning brain does a tremendous job, but is not perfect and, at times, substitutes embedded traits and characteristics during its processing. The brain’s information processing is inherently “inferential”. The inferences occur automatically outside the conscience awareness of the individual. Science provides numerous demonstrations which confirm the inferential processing of sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell.

Since humans are extremely visual you are reminded that by its organic design each eye has a blind spot and insufficient neurons to fully process an individual’s peripheral vision with the same resolution as the center of our focus, yet we notice neither. Why? Our brain fills in that which is missing with educated guesses supplied by the neurons associated with nearby areas of the brain.

Sounds interesting, but what does this have to do with July 2, 1917?

It is simply to remind each of us that even our senses are subject to inferential assumptions based upon the brain’s architecture and the manner in which information is processed. If that is the case, then is it not only logical, but probable that our understanding of the world, our community and events of July 2, 1917 are influenced by the same type of “inferential lens” of how we were brought up, what we experienced and the “normative” characteristics of those with whom we associate. If this is so, is not 100 years long enough to encourage each of us to challenge ourselves to undertake a re-examination, a discernment, of our acts and omissions as they relate to the wellness of the community today.

The easiest place to begin our journey of discernment is to start with some theoretical and theological principles. Racism is wrong. It is the opposite of what God intended for humanity. It is contrary to the interconnectedness of all things to the larger world and to one another. It elevates self and devalues others. It is a lie to oneself, to others and to our Creator.

What does it accomplish to call someone, even ourselves, a racist, is not the real challenge to be concerned, engaged in and fully committed to the wellness of the entire community? Each individual, each citizen, has talents, skills and attributes which impact the physical, emotional, mental, social, educational and spiritual wellness of the community.

The day July 2, 2017, the 100th anniversary, will come and go. Will it simply be a historic event or a transformative event that stimulates the reemergence of citizenship, the demonstration of the content of our character and the stewardship of servant leaders of all colors, faiths and persuasions? Some would answer that question with “Time will tell”. To those, and the rest of us, “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

Robert E. Wells, Jr. is an ambassador for the Center for Racial Harmony in Belleville, Illinois. According to their website, Racial Harmony is a third-party, neutral, non-for-profit community organization dedicated to promoting understanding, cooperation, and communication among all races and ethnic groups.