Around New Year’s 2017, a community organizer named Chris Lambert leased a soon-to-be-empty school building for $1 in one of Detroit’s poorer African American neighborhoods. The plan was to pour $5 million into remodeling the building, take on the $1-million-a-year operating expenses and turn the place into a vibrant hub for the surrounding community, with nonprofits, culinary training programs, after-school programs and artists.
Lambert did not communicate this well to the people who actually lived in the community.
When neighbors learned Lambert had acquired the building for a dollar, many wondered why a white outsider, not somebody from within the community, had gotten such a deal. They assumed that he was the cutting edge of gentrification, that he was going to pour money in and push the current folks out. This kind of outsider exploitation is the lived history for many Detroiters.
That month, Lambert hosted some community meetings to mollify fears. They did not go well. People called him a colonizer. They called his black colleagues Oreos. “This white guy is going to subject us to more slavery,” somebody declared.
Lambert wanted to argue back. But his black partner, Dwan Dandridge, advised him to just listen. It’s a hazing process, Dandridge told Lambert. You feel voiceless tonight. These people have felt voiceless their whole lives. Just listen.
This fullest account of the episode can be found in Bittersweet Monthly in an article written by Anne Snyder, my wife. I visited Lambert and Dandridge in Detroit a few weeks ago, a year and a half after the grand opening.
The building, now called the Durfee Innovation Society, has children teeming the halls, a pizzeria, training programs, yoga classes. Lambert is humbled by the mistakes he made, but his center is fantastic. Some of his angriest critics have now taken part in neighborhood festivities held in the building. There is still distrust, suspicion, rage at injustice coursing through the neighborhood. But there is also life together, happening every day.
I see these messy clash-ups across the country, wherever people are trying to do racial reconciliation. You realize that coming together across race is not a neat two-step process: truth and reconciliation. It’s an emotionally complex, thousand-step process, with moments of miscommunication, resentment and embrace. This is the hard process of trying to see each other across centuries of wrong.
The somewhat comforting truth is that it’s always been like this. When you read David Blight’s brilliant biography of Frederick Douglass, for example, you see that Douglass passed through exactly these many moods in dealing with his countrymen of another race — moments of fury and harmony, despair and hope.
Sometimes he was disgusted with America. “I have no love for America, as such,” he once said. Other times he was enraptured: “I am an American citizen. In birth, in sentiment, in ideas, in hopes, in aspirations and responsibilities.”
Douglass’ genius was his ability to balance his indignation at oppression with his underlying faith in the American project. In his speeches he would praise his white audiences in one movement and thunder condemnation in the next. In an 1876 speech about Abraham Lincoln, he both condemned and complimented the man who inspired and infuriated him: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent; but measuring him from the sentiment of his country ... he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.”
Douglass could withstand all the ups and downs, all the ambivalences, because of an unchanging underlying belief: in the natural rights of all humankind.
He constantly returned to the core belief of America’s founding in 1776, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Slavery and racism were not just wrong — they betrayed the divine natural order of the universe. Douglass had an underlying faith in the providence. Justice would eventually triumph. The “laws which govern the moral universe,” he said, would make it so.
And here we get to the nub of what sustained Douglass and what sustains people today as they do this work. It is the belief that all humans have souls. It is the belief that all people of all races have a piece of themselves that has no size, weight, color or shape, but which gives them infinite value and dignity.
It is the belief that our souls make us all radically equal. Our brains and bodies are not equal, but our souls are. It is the belief that the person who is infuriating you most right now still has a soul and so is still, deep down, beautiful and redeemable. It is the belief that when all is said and done all souls have a common home together, a final resting place as pieces of a larger unity.
When people hold fast to their awareness of souls, then they have a fixed center among the messiness of racial reconciliation, and they give each other grace. If they lose the concept of the soul, they’ve lost everything.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.