As we recently observed our national holiday commemorating the life and prophetic ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., and enter black history month, February, there have been several incidents in the media of on-camera persons apparently inadvertently and unintentionally misspeaking King’s full name in a way that suggested a racial slur. These and the atmosphere created by some national events in the last two years, such the Charlottesville, VA, white supremacist march, and the rise of hate crimes, keep fresh before us the racist history of our nation and cause us to reflect on where we are today as “one nation, undivided, with liberty and justice for all.”
There are at least two levels to racism. First, there is the individual level. Second, there is the societal, systemic level. This second level might easily break into several sub-categories, such as institutional racism, corporate racism, educational racism, and judicial racism. I will lump those expressions of racism in one larger category, a category that is larger than one-on-one individual racism and far more pervasive: societal, systemic racism.
At the first level, almost no one admits being a racist. At the second level, most majority persons (white persons in America) participate in racism by benefitting from it, whether directly or indirectly. Often they refuse to admit the reality that racism exists in systemic ways, beyond just the individual level. I have benefitted from racism by being in the privileged white majority. A black person of my age and life circumstances has had to deal with racist attitudes that I have not. He or she knows what it is be watched warily for walking into a good store; I have not. He knows what it is to be pulled over and questioned by a police officer for legally driving a car; I do not. They know what it is to be presumed guilty; I do not.
This year marks 400 years since the first Africans were shipped here against their wills to become slaves. The indentured slavery of millions of Africans, eventually African-Americans, continued unabated for about 250 years. Under President Lincoln we finally began to end the legalized slavery of people of African origin. But the last 150 years have been a tortured journey for our country in recognizing the full humanity of those persons. In the 1950s and 60s we saw a tremendous movement forward for the civil rights of all persons, especially blacks. All three branches of our government finally made some positive movement for civil rights. The primary face and voice of that movement was Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke to both levels of racism, individual and institutional. Since his emergence in the 1950s, King has both been heralded and reviled. That continues. So it has always been with prophets that speak truth to power. People still fly the flag of the Confederacy—both in the south and in the north. That flag is not a symbol of regional identity, but of armed rebellion against the United States. While some southern cities have removed statues of Confederate leaders and Confederate flags from public places (give credit to courageous white leaders like Governor Niki Haley of South Carolina and Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans), many still stand in public places. Those Confederate leaders took up arms against their country. If they were defending a way of life, it was a racist way of life that demeaned and de-humanized millions of human beings, bearers of the image of God.
It is that second level of racism that continues to be so insidious. An example is that in 2008 we finally elected a person of African origin to be president. That was an amazing step forward for a country with a long racist history. Yet for the greater part of his eight-year presidency, his legitimate birth on American soil was publicly questioned, most famously by Donald Trump for over five years. Institutional racism is evident whenever a black person driving an attractive car is pulled over by police officers because they view a black person driving a nice car as suspicious. I know about this from the black students I teach in classes at Northeastern Seminary. Systemic racism is evident whenever black persons do not receive a fair hearing in our justice system. It is evident whenever blacks are seen as suspicious and dangerous for no other reason than the color of their skin. Can a white person really listen to black Americans and read about the black experience in America and deny that level two racism continues in our country? In some ways it has been growing over the last two years, perhaps as a backlash against the Obama presidency and certainly stoked by some of what President Trump has said and not said.
Of the books I have read recently that deal with the American racial dilemma, none has been more powerful than Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Any white person thinking our justice system is colorblind needs to read this book. Stevenson also envisioned a memorial to the lynchings of thousands of black Americans in the century after the Civil War. That opened last year in Montgomery, AL. I will be visiting it in a month.
While I started this earlier in January, I am now writing on January 31. On this day 100 years ago Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born. Jackie was perhaps the most gifted male athlete of the 20th century. At UCLA he earned varsity letters with distinction in four sports: track and field, football, basketball, and baseball (I don’t believe anyone had ever done that before). And then, in 1947, he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It was an honor that came with the most vitriolic kinds of hate and threats. In a meteoric ten-year career, he excelled in every aspect of the game while he exhibited unbelievable restraint. Some have noted that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., could do what they did for civil rights in part because of what Jackie Robinson did on baseball fields a decade before.
On this day in 1865 the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, ending legal slavery in the United States. President Lincoln established the framework in his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, then worked with all the political skill he had to get Congress to make that new burst of freedom an explicit part of the Constitution (read about that in “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin or see the excellent movie “Lincoln”). In his unforgettable Gettysburg Address, Lincoln articulated that this nation’s foundational document is the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Our ideals as a nation precede and surpass our way of governing. While many of our founders could not envision blacks or women as full participants in this emerging idealistic nation, they set a framework in which social progress and evolving understanding of the civil rights of all people could happen.
Where are we in this long journey in 2019? Acknowledging that much progress has been made, we must also acknowledge that much progress is still to be made. It is not enough to say, “I am not a racist” and leave it at the individual level. Systemic racism is far more insidious and pervasive; this nation has not moved past it yet. One comment by a president, one decision by the Supreme Court, one act of legislation from the Congress, and decades of hard earned civil rights can be endangered.
Update: Saturday morning, Feb. 2. Yesterday it was revealed that the Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat who was elected just a year ago, was in a photo in his Virginia Medical School yearbook wearing either blackface or full KKK regalia. It wasn’t clear which was one was the future governor, but he admitted to being one of them, as the two stood close together. The calls for him to resign are coming from all over the nation, from members of both parties. Of course, he claims he is not a racist. Don’t all white Americans claim not to be racists? The year was 1984. I was 39 years old, a father of two children. We knew better in 1984.
About this, Connie Schultz wrote today: “My heart is so heavy. For all my optimism, I know my grandchildren will not outlive racism in America. Call me naïve for ever hoping that they would, but even this morning, I’d rather be the person who is disappointed than the cynic who gives up on America.” Connie Schultz speaks for me. I, too, would like my grandchildren to know an America that is no longer racist. Hence, I will continue to experience disappointment. But I will not give up hope and I will not be silent.