Responding with Grace to the President’s Charleston Eulogy

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In his first CitiesSpeak blog post, the inaugural Director of NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative encourages city leaders to reflect on this past summer’s events and respond with grace to racial tensions in their own communities.

The city of Charleston, S.C., where the Mother Emmanuel AME Church is located. (Sean Pavone/Getty Images)

We have now had a few months to reflect on the tragedy that occurred at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. on the evening of June 17. The shooting that occurred was an ugly, unconscionable and incomprehensible act of evil — and an awful reminder of the racial hatred that we, as Americans, have allowed to continue even after so many believe we have ended racial discrimination in this country. For far too long, we have turned a blind eye to the racial bias and the historical barriers that exist in this country as a result of institutional, structural, and systemic racism. We have not shown a willingness to be bold and courageous in doing what is necessary to call out these injustices.

Summer’s passing has given me ample time to apply these reflections to my own work. I feel I have been complicit in not demonstrating the boldness and courage necessary to explicitly acknowledge the need to focus on the implications of racism.

I have fought tirelessly on behalf of youth, families and communities for over 20 years. I believe passionately in changing the sociopolitical system in which we operate as well as the policies that guide that system. I have worked with mayors and other city leaders across the country to strengthen their capacity to make policy changes and systematic changes to improve outcomes for children and youth and to strengthen families.

But I cannot honestly say that, in my field of work, we have been intentional about acknowledging the historical barriers that exist because of institutional, structural and systemic racism. In many ways, I myself have turned a blind eye and have rationalized that I can pursue the changes we seek for cities and communities across this country without needing to refer specifically to the injustices caused by racism.

The Charleston massacre painfully reminds me what happens when we, as a country, seek to avoid addressing racism and allow it to fester and contaminate our society. I can only begin to imagine how our inability as a nation to take on the tough and uncomfortable issue of racism has impacted so many aspects of our individual lives, our communities, our politics, our policies, our systems, our institutions and our way of life.

“As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace. Amazing grace.”
– President Barack Obama

That is why, for me, President Barack Obama’s remarks during the eulogy of Reverend Senator Clementa Pinckney offered a sobering reality check and an inspiring opportunity for us, as Americans, to be bold and courageous in how we turn this tragedy into triumph.

I have heard and sang “Amazing Grace” since I was child. But never have the words of that song rung so loudly as a national cry for social justice until the president’s remarks. The President’s reflections on the idea of grace were not only appropriate for the eulogy of Rev. Pinckney and the eight others who were assassinated in their church, but they were a hopeful message for our country: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.”

The president shared how grace provides an opportunity to not be blind to the injustices we see around us. His reflections provided a mirror for us to see ourselves, and a chance to ask ourselves, “Was this simply another moment, another symbolic gesture — or are we in fact ready to do the hard work necessary to create lasting change in our country?”

I am ready to do that hard work, as is the National League of Cities (NLC). The Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) initiative is our effort to equip NLC members with the capacity to respond to racial tensions in their communities and address the historical, systemic and structural barriers that further inequality and racism in our nation’s cities.

This focus on racial equity provides NLC the opportunity to align its unique strengths and resources across the organization to proactively prepare city leaders to apply a racial equity lens to policies, initiatives, programs and budgets. A racial equity lens offers city leaders the opportunity to create meaningful conversations and take action by assessing the ways in which municipal government can both benefit and burden racially diverse communities.

While the REAL initiative is designed to eventually address concerns expressed by city leaders related to all equity issues, such as discrimination based on income, class, gender and sexual orientation, race is arguably the most prevailing equity issue in American society today. Slavery is a shameful and embarrassing part of our nation’s past, while systematic, institutional racism continues to be a part of our nation’s present. Race is therefore a critical concern as well as a difficult subject to talk about and take action upon.

To put it another way, tackling the issues of racism and inequality in American cities is hard work. But it is work that I am prepared to do, and I am better equipped to do so with the many resources that the National League of Cities has to offer. As the director of NLC’s REAL initiative, I pledge to work hard in this arena – and I hope to do so with grace.

About the Author: Leon T. Andrews, Jr., is the Director of the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative at the National League of Cities.