A map circulating on Facebook asks you to log the states that you have visited. I’ve never been to South Carolina. I know why. I do not want to visit a state that flies the Confederate flag.
But I have been to Tennessee. I saw a Confederate flag flying on a construction site crane at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I have been to Texas. A Confederate flag was draped over a fraternity house balcony at Southern Methodist University. I live in Oregon. I cycle on a rural road past a home proudly waving the Confederate flag.
President Obama has changed the conversation about this symbol. His presidency alone shines a spotlight on the latent and overt racism of our country. As Republican Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff during his time as secretary of state said, “The real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin. And that’s despicable.”
Why is there so much racial backlash throughout our country, right now, as President Obama nears the end of his term? Events are escalating: police brutalities in Missouri, New York and Baltimore, the shocking murders of the Mother Emanuel Bible study group, and this past week, the burning of southern black churches.
The Adaptive Leadership model, developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky of Harvard’s Kennedy School, can offer some ideas. First is the concept that having authority is quite different from exercising leadership. The person in authority is expected to keep us safe from harm, offer us direction, and make sure that order is maintained. The challenge of being in authority is that you must negotiate compromise in order to stay in that position.
Exercising leadership, however, is about helping people manage the losses that come with change. It is risky and very difficult to do when you are constricted by the needs of the system.
Until recently, President Obama has been hampered by political pressures, as well as by the obstructionism of Republicans whose racism leads their decision making. He has had to compromise in order to function as the authority. But as he nears his last year in office, he has made a commitment to change which is defining his presidency. He is exercising leadership in new bold ways that are provoking those who expected him to simply finish out his term.
The second concept is to clarify the difference between technical and adaptive challenges. A technical challenge may be complex and require great expertise, but it is not necessary to change a value system in order to accomplish it. President Obama has succeeded in many technical challenges by using his authority well. Osama bin Laden was found and killed. The Affordable Care Act was created. The economy was revitalized.
The adaptive challenge, however, demands something new. It requires a change in values and beliefs. This is what President Obama is asking our country to do.
In his spectacular and moving speech at the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, he said, “Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”
He separated the technical — take down the Confederate flag — from the adaptive, as he continued, “To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again.”
Fifty-one years ago, the Civil Rights Act became law. Fifty years ago President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The brutality of events in the south surrounding those epic laws are reflected in the horrific acts of today. The laws are in place; the technical challenge has been met. And now, President Obama is leading us to the real work.
He then illuminated a third principle of Adaptive Leadership: we are all part of the mess. “Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty or attend dilapidated schools or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.”
Unless we care for all the children, he is saying, we are complicit in creating a person like Dylann Roof, the boy who was invited into Mother Emanual, who listened to Bible study for an hour, who hoped to re-ignite the Civil War with his heinous act. He, too, was without education or prospects, living in a culture of hate. This is a hard message to hear.
Near the closing of his eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, President Obama said, “What is true in the south is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too; that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress. It must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world.”
In the 1949 musical South Pacific, U.S. Army Lieutenant Cable sings:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
We must do everything we can to change the lesson plan.