Editor’s Note: Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul recently called for a citywide dialogue on racism and proposed changing the name of a street that may have been inspired by a Ku Klux Klan leader. In making his surprise call, Paul also cited his personal attempts to overcome racist thinking. The Reporter asked him to elaborate on those ideas. 

With the arrival of COVID-19 and the reactions to the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the past few months have been the most challenging of my public life. While we still struggle with the ongoing pandemic, we are simultaneously confronting another insidious disease — racism.

Racism is America’s original sin. It arrived on the first slave ship and has plagued us for almost 400 years. In the South where I grew up, racism was not subtle. It was overt. It was on public signs and in the daily vernacular.

Rusty Paul is the mayor of Sandy Springs. He previously served as a state senator, as chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and as an official in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

I have spent a lifetime pulling the weeds of racism sown in my mind as a child and it is a process that continues still today. My family recently watched the movie “Just Mercy,” which chronicles the efforts by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer in Montgomery, to free an individual wrongly sentenced to death for murder. While it was a compelling story, the shock came at the end when it highlighted the dozens wrongly convicted and sentenced to death that he helped free — virtually all of whom were African American.

The outrage on the streets comes from people who believe “enough is enough,” and those of us in public office have an obligation not just to listen, but to act.

Sadly, a small group is using this sincere fear and fury as a cover for criminality and that is dastardly. Not only does it overshadow the genuine message coming from the streets, it gives an excuse to those unwilling to confront the problem an opportunity to change the subject.

While our law enforcement personnel will respond appropriately to any misconduct, we cannot allow these people to subvert a long-needed conversation about 21st century racism. Jim Crow may be dead, but subtle, effective forms of racism plague us still.

To solve the problem, we must talk to each other. We must understand the comfortable, safe, secure environment that many of us experience is not necessarily shared by neighbors, colleagues, friends or the people we encounter frequently in daily life. They have different experiences and realities that we must acknowledge.

I had hoped to convene a citywide convocation to discuss the problem, but the ongoing COVID-19 large group lockdown makes that impossible. It probably would have been less effective in the long run, because only a few could be heard.

So, I’m asking our community organizations — houses of worship, service organizations, non-profits, businesses, HOAs and others — to convene as many small group gatherings as possible specifically to have a deep conversation about racism and how we can eradicate it from everyday life.

It will take some work. Many of our organizations are homogeneous, so this can’t be us talking solely among ourselves. We must include a variety of voices so we can truly hear what so often goes unsaid.

Further, we must listen and understand that our perceptions are not the everyday experience of others who share our community. Finally, we must be tolerant. We talk frequently about the importance of diversity, but we celebrate diversity in everything except the diversity of opinions.

We must endure the pain of confronting opinions that we don’t share or strongly disagree with, but we can’t truly talk about the problem without realizing the emotional legitimacy of those who experience life differently.

Finally, I’m asking these small groups to take notes, listing suggestions, ideas, recommendations, comments and concerns expressed. Then, send them to me at City Hall at communications@sandyspringsga.gov so we can synthesize them into a City Council presentation to use as a roadmap for policy-setting and reform.

The adage, “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in his shoes” applies as much today as ever. So, Sandy Springs, let’s put our shoes on and walk together toward a better understanding of each other and the creation of a better community for us all.

Update: This commentary has been updated with contact information for submitting input.