- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

Is Sen. George Allen repositioning himself on racial justice issues because he plans to seek the Republican nomination for president in 2008? That is the question raised by Allen’s suggestion last weekend that he might be able to support a congressional resolution expressing remorse for slavery. He appeared to be responding to a New Republic article cataloguing the senator’s insensitivity to race relations when he was younger man.

When I was a political reporter, I would have dismissed Mr. Allen’s comments as posturing. I have watched so many politicians reinvent themselves at convenient moments that I stopped believing a person in public life could undergo a genuine transformation.

In the case of Allen, however, I had an opportunity to witness his transformation from a different perspective and I believe it is genuine. I believe his experience in public life has enabled him to mature in his understanding of race relations.

As an organizer of the Faith & Politics Institute’s congressional trip to Farmville, Virginia, last weekend, I watched Mr. Allen interact for three days with the African Americans who were deprived of education when Prince Edward County closed its schools between 1959 and 1964 in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

Mr. Allen was deeply affected by the searing story told by Rita Mosley, whose mother placed her in a strange home in Blacksburg, Va., so that she could continue her education. As a father, he said, he could imagine how painful the separation was for both Rita and her mother. “I don’t know whether I could have done that,” he said, “even if I knew — as her mother did — that it was for my child’s benefit.” The senator also learned how Mosley and others felt when the Virginia legislature voted after waiting nearly 50 years to express regret for its resistance to school integration and to provide scholarships for all of the former Prince Edward students whose education was interrupted by the school shutdown. Farmville Herald Editor Ken Woodley said these actions served as a balm for the suffering of people whose lives had been diminished by a lack of education.

I believe Mr. Allen is willing to consider an apology for slavery because of what he heard from Rita Mosley, not what was written about him in the New Republic.

As those who traveled to Farm-ville with Mr. Allen will attest, he is no longer the racially insensitive kid who wore a Confederate flag pin in high school or the young lawyer who hung a noose in his office in Richmond.

Rep. John Lewis, the liberal Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who co-hosted the weekend trip with Allen, predicted the two men would work together on future legislation to benefit African Americans. Another African American Democrat, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, told reporters on Sunday that he is certain Mr. Allen is not a racist.

This rare example of a Democrat speaking up for a Republican shows how a shared understanding can be reached when politicians lay down their talking points and approach controversial issues as human beings. Messrs. Allen, Lewis and Scott still hold strongly different views on most issues, but their experience in Farmville helped them to move toward a common perspective on race relations in the United States.

In Congress, there are other examples of partisan opponents who have come together because of their shared life experiences. The children of immigrants, Democrats and Republicans, have been able to come together because they have a shared insight into the immigrant experience that is not based strictly on ideology. Those who have struggled with mental illness in their families have joined together across party lines to make psychiatric help more available to Americans.

On the issue of stem-cell research, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) dropped his opposition because of a personal experience. Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has proposed a compromise based on the understanding of stem-cell science that he acquired as a physician.

Until Congress became dominated by professional politicians, there were more citizen lawmakers in Washington who had diverse experiences from which to draw. Now, most of them get much of their information from briefing books instead.

Americans who care about good government are searching for ways to end the partisan stalemate that has prevented Washington from enacting legislation designed to solve some of the nation’s most pressing public policy problems, such as the inadequacy of health care.

The progress that George Allen has made toward a fuller understanding of racial injustice suggests more of our political leaders should seek opportunities to talk to real people, such as Rita Mosley, and rely less on the advice of their political consultants.

Sara Fritz is executive director of the Faith & Politics Institute and a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times.

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