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One-on-One Relationships Create True Integration
By Mark Mathabane May 7, 2001

"GARY WERMLINGER, MY NEIGHBOR in a subdivision of Kernersville, NC, recently found out that he has inoperable renal-cell carcinoma that has spread to his liver and his muscles. A father of five, his only hope for survival is a stem cell transplant he can’t afford. Since learning the grim news, I’ve been involved in efforts to raise the money Gary needs – about $500,000 – to pay for the procedure, which is not covered by his health insurance.

Gary is white and I am black. Had we been living in segregated neighborhoods, I’d most likely never have known him as a human being, nor cared about his fate.

Gary and his wife Jerrie taught me a lot about how many whites grew up poor and confronted many of the problems faced by poor blacks: lack of access to decent housing, good schools, adequate health care and well-paying jobs. From me, Gary and Jerrie learned about the pervasiveness and perniciousness of white bigotry.

In many ways, we became each others’ teachers. And our example teaches our children a vital lesson about race relations: the need for friendship and assistance instead of hatred and fear. Integration is not easy. When Gary and I met, we had misconceptions about each other, the result of living in a society steeped in racial mistrust. But once the human connection was made and we ceased to be stereotypes, we found that we have more in common than in difference.

We found that we are both devoted to our families, that we both work hard, that our children thrive in public school and are fanatical about sports and that we can depend on each other to watch out for them.

Sure, there have been some misunderstandings as we moved from what Martin Luther King called “mere physical proximity” to “spiritual affinity,” but through honest communication, we found that they arose out of ignorance rather than malicious intent.

We must give one another the benefit of the doubt and commit to doing all we can to make cross-racial friendships succeed. Laws that used to sanction segregation and condone racism have been abolished, but that cannot change attitudes. Those can only change with genuine person-to-person relationships. And only when attitudes finally change and we acknowledge and affirm each other’s humanity will we truly become one nation.

I will do all I can to help save Gary’s life. But even if he doesn’t make it, I know that I’ll continue to care about his wife, Jerrie, and their children. They have become too human for my heart to allow them to fade into stereotypes.
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