That Uncomfortable Topic
Conversations about race with African American friends have been clarifying - helping me better understand some of the deep-seated issues, though conversation must continue.
I think that deep down, I really want to hear that everything is pretty good - to think that things are one a good trajectory regarding race relations in our country. After all, the 50’s and 60’s are in the rear-view mirror and ours is a more enlightened time.
One conversation centered on “morality.” I think we got there when I inquired about the term “white devils.” “Why,” I asked, “is that term used and is it widespread?”
He talked to me about the view, held by many, that the white race is immoral. Wait. What! Immoral?
Certainly some people are immoral. No one can argue that. But collectively immoral?
“Why is that?” I asked.
He pointed out that it was whites who enslaved people. Whites deliberately kept African Americans down and stripped them of basic human dignity through laws like the “Jim Crow” laws. Jim Crow determined legally that some people aren’t good enough to drink water from a common water fountain. What kind of arrogance exists behind the idea that your whole race is in danger of contamination by drinking water from a fountain used by people of a certain other race?
PBS reports on their “American Experience” page, “The segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as ‘Jim Crow’ represented a formal, codified system of racial apartheid that dominated the American South for three quarters of a century beginning in the 1890s. The laws affected almost every aspect of daily life, mandating segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants. "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs were constant reminders of the enforced racial order.”
These laws ended in the mid-1960’s.
But did the repeal of those laws end systemic racism? I think the normal response of white people (based on the non-scientific process of me thinking about conversations I’ve had or overheard from other white people) is that racism is a thing of the past and, for sure, “I am not a racist.”
And, because we (whites) tend to think we are not racist, we don’t think that the issue needs to be talked about.
Bryan Stephenson, an African American Harvard Law grad, addresses the unfairness of our justice system in his book, Just Mercy.
Bear with me for a brief tangent. An African American man in my larger family provided some testimonies for friends and family to consider about the issue of race. The testimony of one woman included her experiences of talking about her college. She graduated from Harvard. Upon hearing that information, a number of white people have asked a follow up question. “Harvard? The one in Boston?”
Back to Stephenson’s book. Remember that the Jim Crow laws were repealed in 1965. He shares the following about laws regarding interracial marriage to support his underlying premise that the justice system still does not work as it should.
Alabama state law contained the following language: “The legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between a white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.”
He highlighted something that I think should shock us. “Even though the restriction could not be enforced under Federal Law, the state ban on interracial marriage in Alabama continued into the twenty- first century. In 2000 reformers finally had enough votes to to get the issue on the statewide ballot, where a majority of voters chose to eliminate the ban, although 41 percent voted to keep it. A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban in interracial marriage, 40 percent oppose such a ban, and 14 percent are undecided.” (Just Mercy; Bryan Stephenson; Spiegel & Grau, 2014; p. 29)
So when I asked my friend about the “immoral” view of whites, and I consider that these feelings, supported until very recently by some state laws, persist, the picture begins to get more clear. We can’t simply dismiss someone else’s perspective as unreasonable when facts actually validate their perception.
This is an uncomfortable conversation for white people. But it is important to listen and seek to understand - even though it is uncomfortable. It is loving to seek to understand the experiences of others. Scripture encourages us in this way:
Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (ESV)