Exploring Race Relations in America
with Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson of the Conference of National Black Churches
A century after the Tulsa Race Massacre, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans have reignited calls for racial and social justice within the Black community.
Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, Chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, joins host Tetiana Anderson for a conversation on social justice, racism in America, and the role of Black churches in the civil rights movement.
July 02, 2021
Anderson: In May and June of 1921, an angry white mob murdered hundreds of Black men, women, and children and destroyed the Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, the event left hundreds injured, thousands arrested and homeless. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Now a century after the Tulsa Massacre, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans has reignited the call for racial and social justice within the Black community. And joining me to discuss all of this and much more is Reverend Doctor Franklyn Richardson, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York. Dr. Richardson also serves as the chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, and he's written the book "Witness to Grace." Sir, thank you for being here.
Dr. Richardson: Thank you for having me. I enjoy this opportunity to share with you.
Anderson: Let's start with your story. I know that when you got to Virginia Union University, you basically couldn't read, but 35 years later, you became the chairman of the board of trustees and signed the diplomas of the people who graduated. How did you go from being what some would call an underachiever to an achiever? And what's the sort of takeaway you want people to have from your personal story? Dr. Richardson: Well, you know, I started out in the schools of Philadelphia. I was socially promoted. When I got to high school. I came to realize that I had not developed reading skills, to my shock, because back in the '50s and '60s, they promoted you just if you kept good conduct. I eventually enrolled in the community college. I flunk out, and then I still had a desire to go to college. My pastor advised me. I went to Virginia Union. And they gave me an examination and discovered that I had a reading impairment. And they chose to give me a conditional matriculation that required a year of remediation and reading. And they said to me, if I was able to succeed, that I could go ahead and complete my degree. Consequently, I did. And I was blessed to graduate and then go on to Yale and earn a degree and then on to the doctorate's degree. And this has been a wonderful life. And 35 years later, this kid who couldn't read became the chairman of the trustee board. What I would pass on to my colleagues and to those who are behind me is never give up on yourself. Understand, tap into the possibilities of spirituality and determination, and you can make your life whatever it has the purpose and potential to be.
Anderson: And you've certainly seen a lot of things over your lifetime -- one of them, the Civil Rights Movement. Let's talk about the '50s and '60s and that movement and the role of the Black church. It was arguably the backbone. But I'm wondering what you think the role of the Black church is today and if the Black church is being used effectively. Dr. Richardson: Well, the Black church is -- First of all, it is not a monolith. It is very diverse. Diverse in its approach to spirituality, diverse in its approach to public policy and social justice. And we have to constantly be defining what it is when we say "the Black church." However, historically, the Black church has been the custodian of the hopes and dreams and possibilities of African-American people, by and large. The Civil Rights era saw the Black church become engaged -- at least a segment of the Black church become engaged in civil rights. And today the Black church must continue to build on its legacy of advocacy and protection and articulation on behalf of African-American people. It is the only institution that African-Americans in America's racist society held and own. It was in the place -- It was in the Black church that Black people were affirmed. It was in the Black church where Black people had their somebodyness imparted on them. And the Black church today must continue to be a custodian of self-esteem and ambition and aspiration and inspiration.
Anderson: We are at a turning point in this nation. We're hearing a lot of conversations about the need for a racial reckoning. At the same time, we're hearing a lot of conversations about this idea of privilege. But the two don't necessarily go hand in hand, and I'm sort of wondering what the difference is between racism and privilege in your mind. Dr. Richardson: Well, in my mind, race -- racism functions to do two things. It is the intersection of two things. One, it functions to give white people an advantage, to give them advantage, and it functions to give Black people a disadvantage. It is that simple of how it functions. Racism is deeply embedded in the American culture. It is something that we are having a hard time overcoming, but that is essentially the outcome. White people get privilege, and Black people get disadvantaged at the consequence of racism. And therefore we must continue to lift that up and try to repair the damage that that has caused over the 400 years of systemic racism in this country.
Anderson: The last time you were here on "Comcast Newsmakers," we talked about the idea that you're a proponent of something called "face-to-face truth telling" when it comes to reconciling problems. So what is it that we need to be truthful with ourselves about? What is it that Black and brown people need to do right now to be better agents of change for ourselves? Dr. Richardson: First of all, we must not be in denial about the reality and the consequences of racism. But at the same time, we must not dwell there. We must exercise our potential, our possibilities so that we can realize in spite of the obstacles placed in our way. But we must own -- On one hand, we must own that this racism is functioning. Do not -- We must not bury our heads in the sand or pretend -- It will not go away unless we own it and acknowledge it and deal with it. And at the same time, we must not allow it to destroy our self-esteem or our potential and our promise.
Anderson: You're speaking about racism, but there's a whole host of other things, and I'm wondering, whether it's education, whether it's finance, whether it's health, is there something that we should be concentrating on right now? Dr. Richardson: Well, I think that racism gives you a complete window by which to observe the African and people-of-color experience in this country, because racism affects every other issue. It affects the education. It affects health care. It affects financial and economics. And racism is very visibly displayed in how health care was distributed prior to the pandemic. The pandemic unearthed, unrolled, nakedly, how misappropriation of health care has affected African-Americans. The pandemic has shown how it's affected education. How it's affected education, our children will be behind, in minority communities, by and large, because of this year and a half of virtual education that many Black families did not have capacity to. So, I mean, it's an ongoing challenge that we're facing, and the pandemic has highlighted the inequities in our society, and we've got to try to overcome them. And I think we can. I'm not disillusioned. But I just think we have to be honest. I think that's the real thing. We must be honest with ourselves and require an honest conversation with one another, both Blacks and whites in this country.
Anderson: 2021, of course, marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. That was a huge blow to the creation of generational Black wealth. It was a huge blow to the model for the creation of that wealth. Where are we now a century after Tulsa? Dr. Richardson: Well, we're in a different place, and the challenges are great. We're affected by the technology that has come to our communities and to our nation. We also are affected by the inequity of wealth distribution like never before. Not just Black people, but all people in America are suffering from the unequal distribution of wealth, and certainly people who are in the margins are suffering more. So we have a whole new -- different circumstance. It's good and bad because there are some ways in which technology makes us colorblind, because when we deal strictly in the technology, we don't see one another and we don't see the race. But the institutions still perpetuate a race. But, economically, we are going to have to continue to monitor the inequities, call them out, call out how one percent of the population controls 80 percent of the wealth. Call out about how we are marginalized, that people can have full-time jobs and not have enough to support their families. So there are some serious challenges facing us. And we've lost a lot of African-American, minority businesses in the last 150 years. So it's really a challenge. But the field has changed.
Anderson: I know you really seek to inspire people with messages of hope, grace, and perseverance. What advice do you have for us? Is there a message of inspiration you can leave us with? Dr. Richardson: Yes, I would say to us that we must not abandon our hope, that we must stay committed to optimizing our promise, the possibilities that resonate within us, that we must tie in to what we own on the inside and remain optimistic, overcoming fear, overcoming obstacles, overcoming those who would wish us ill, but determined to be the best we can be and determined to make America realize her promise and possibility.
Anderson: Sage words. If people want to find out more about your work, where can they go? What's the website? Dr. Richardson: You may go to WitnessToGrace.org.
Anderson: Dr. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, thank you so much for being here. Dr. Richardson: Thank you for having me.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.