When I was about 21 or 22, a close friend of mine who was black came to me one day and told me she could no longer be my friend. When I asked her why, she said that it was because I was racist and sexist. I asked her with horror what I had done that was racist and sexist. In the end, she could not show one specific thing I had done; the damning evidence was that I was white and male. That was a memorable moment for me, particularly because I have always prized my friendships with males and females of many difference races and cultures.
That event has been in the forefront of my mind a lot lately as I’ve been helping to lead our church small group through a study on Christians and Racial Justice. This has been a longstanding area of interest for me, and I have often worked to help open up discussions of racism and the structures that support it. And I continue to reflect on my own understandings of racism and ways in which we can best overcome it. Still, this is the first time I’ve tried to lead an extended series specifically on the topic for a group. As with most other teaching opportunities, I find I learn as much or more than those seeing the material for the first time do.
In the PBS series “Race: the Power of an Illusion”, the case is made that race is not a biological/genetic phenomenon, but a social construct for economic and political power. The history of the United States is based on near genocide of one race, and the enslavement of another. How counter to our ideals as a nation, which we should and do hold very dear. The result is a paradox in which we fight for freedom and justice for all while in reality each generation of whites has a starting line further and further ahead of the starting line for their black counterparts. When a white child and a black child from families of equal wealth are compared in their ability to achieve throughout life, there is no difference; there is equal opportunity for all. But historic and current denial of capital rights mean that the average black family has far less wealth, and with it, less chance for a quality health and education, less opportunities for rehabilitation instead of retribution within the justice system, less chance for economic opportunities that can lead to asset-building that can provide a better start for the next generation.
My first new insight from the series to date is: if race is not a biological phenomenon but instead an historical one established to enable white supremacy, then do we really want to strive for racial diversity? As I now understand it what we really need to strive for is racial healing and reconciliation that then paves the way for cultural diversity. The disservice my friend almost 25 years ago did to me was to frame her statement in such a way that assured my whiteness and maleness meant I could never be other than racist and sexist. What I needed then, and what is still needed now, is deep meaningful dialog that helps all of us to come to grips with the deep wounds that come from the dark side of our country’s history, painful as that will be. Only through dialog, and ultimately confession and repentance, can we find a way to heal those wounds and to reconcile as a nation.
Later in the third episode, the PBS series did a nice job of clarifying the history of redlining and its contribution to the creation of the white suburbs for our group. What the video did an especially good job of was highlighting that these were culturally diverse suburbs. That is, people living in these newly created communities of the 1950s and beyond came from different countries, spoke different languages in the home, and even practiced different religions. One culture in particular, though, was intentionally kept out of this mix, the African American culture.
Here’s what really struck me within this particular presentation of this part of our nation’s history. I’ve heard it said that Sunday mornings are the most segregated day of the week. I’ve also heard it argued that this is likely not to change because we just like different kinds of worship. We like to be with our own people on Sunday. The suburban history lesson would suggest that this viewpoint is flawed. We were willing to come together with different cultures as long as they were not black, and that this was based as much on the government-designed and implemented policy of redlining. Redlining and later block busting led to segregated communities. Subsequently a myth was created to explain in polite, acceptable terms why we “chose” to be segregated – because we wanted to be with our own people. It was developed for the suburban segregation and I have rejected it there over and over again in conversations. But it was also applied to the church, and in that case I believed the myth. In so doing, I repeated and strengthened racism; not intentionally and indeed at the same time that I have been praying for racial diversity within our church and then questioning why the prayers have gone unanswered.
I read recently that it is very difficult to have a racially diverse church. In that same article (I wish I could find it again), it also suggested that in a number of cases, those that were racially diverse become all black when the leadership of the church passed from a white minister to a black minister. In No Cheap Peace, Leah Gaskin Fitchue points out “The church of the black community is the only institution that community totally owns.” It seems clear that in many if not most Christian churches, it is difficult to overcome racism – whites must retain the power or whites and blacks will remain segregated.
We have a long way to go if we are to truly heal, reconcile, and bring about freedom and justice for all: that is, to truly and finally overcome racism. I now believe more than ever that it begins through intentionally diverse communities brought together for dialog leading to real healing and reconciliation.
Race: The Power of an Illusion http://www.pbs.org/race/
No Cheap Peace: The True Cost of Reconciliation by Leah Gaskin Fitchue (2000), in Crossing the Racial Divide, 2nd Edition, Sojourners Press.
Christians and Racial Justice (2007) Sojourners Press.