Forget about being a “post-racial” society. But we must learn to embrace the country’s ever-greater diversity
Race is about the American story, and about each of our own stories. Overcoming racism is more than an issue or a cause—it is also a story, which can be part of each of our stories, too. The story about race that was embedded into America at the founding of our nation was a lie; it is time to change that story and discover a new one.
Understanding our own stories about race, and talking about them to one another, is absolutely essential if we are to become part of the larger pilgrimage to defeat racism in America. It is also a biblical story, and now a global story in which we play a central role. We all start with our own stories about race, so I will begin with mine.
Fifty years ago I was a teenager in Detroit. I took a job as a janitor at the Detroit Edison Company to earn money for college. There I met a young man named Butch who was also on the janitorial staff. But his money was going to support his family, because his father had died. We became friends. I was a young white man, and Butch was a young black man, and the more we talked, the more we wanted to keep talking.
When the company’s elevator operators were off, Butch and I would often be the fill-ins. When you operated elevators, the law required you to take breaks in the morning and in the afternoon. On my breaks, I’d go into Butch’s elevator to ride up and down and talk with him. On his breaks, Butch came to ride and talk with me. Those conversations changed the way I saw Detroit, my country, and my life. Butch and I had both grown up in Detroit, but I began to realize that we had lived in two different countries—in the same city.
When Butch invited me to come to his home one night for dinner and meet his family, I said yes without even thinking about it. In the 1960s, whites from the suburbs, like me, didn’t travel at night into the city, where the African Americans lived. I had to get directions from Butch. When I arrived, his younger siblings quickly jumped into my lap with big smiles on their faces, but the older ones hung back and looked at me more suspiciously. Later, I understood that the longer blacks lived in Detroit, the more negative experiences they had with white people.
Butch was very political, and even becoming militant—he always carried a book he was reading, such as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, stuffed into the back pocket of his khaki janitor’s uniform—but his mom certainly wasn’t. She was much like my own mother, focused on her kids and worried that her son’s ideas would get him into trouble.
As we talked through the evening about life in Detroit, Butch’s mom told me about the experiences all the men in her family—her father, her brothers, her husband, and her sons—had with the Detroit police. Then she said something I will never forget as long as I live. “So I tell all of my children,” she said, “if you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, and you see a policeman, quickly duck behind a building or down a stairwell. When the policeman is gone, come out and find your own way back home.” As Butch’s mother said that to me, my own mother’s words rang in my head. My mom told all of her five kids, “If you are ever lost and can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He will take care of you and bring you safely home.” Butch and I were becoming friends. And I remember his mother’s advice to her children as vividly today as I heard those words fifty years ago.
Five decades ago, revelations about race in my hometown turned my life upside down—and turned me in a different direction. Encounters with black Detroit set me on a new path, on which I am still walking. My own white church ignored and denied the problem of race. People there didn’t want to talk about the questions that were coming up in my head and heart—questions that suggested something very big was wrong about my city and my country.
As a teenager, I was listening to my city, reading the newspapers, having conversations with people. I wondered why life in black Detroit seemed so different from life in the white Detroit suburbs. I didn’t know any hungry people or dads without jobs, and I didn’t have any family members who had ever been in jail. Why were all these things happening in the city? Weren’t there black churches in the city too? Why had we never visited them or had them come to visit us? Who was this minister in the south named King, and what was he up to? Nobody in my white world wanted to talk about it—any of it.
All of this drew me into the city to find answers to questions that nobody wanted to talk about at home. When I got my driver’s license at age sixteen, I would drive into the city and just walk around, looking and learning. I took jobs in downtown Detroit, working side by side with black men, and I tried to listen to them. That’s how I met Butch and many young men like him who had grown up in an entirely different city from me—just a few miles away.
In Detroit, I found the answers I was looking for, and I made new friends. I also met the black churches, which warmly took in a young white boy with so many questions and patiently explained the answers. When I came back to my white church with new ideas, new friends, and more questions, the response was painfully clear. An elder in my white church said to me one night, “Son, you’ve got to understand: Christianity has nothing to do with racism; that’s political, and our faith is personal.”
That conversation had a dramatic effect on me; it was a real conversion experience, but one that took me out of the church. That was the night that I left the church I had been raised in and the faith that had raised me—left it in my head and my heart. And my church was glad to see me go.
During my student years I joined the civil rights and antiwar movements of my generation and left faith behind. But that conversation with the church elder was indeed “converting,” because it led me to the people who would later bring me back to my Christian faith—“the least of these” whom Jesus talks about in Matthew 25, which would ultimately become my conversion text.
How we treat the poorest and most vulnerable, Jesus instructs us in that Gospel passage, is how we treat him: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me” (v. 40). My white church had missed that fundamental gospel message and, in doing so, had missed where to find the Jesus it talked so much about. My church, like so many white churches, talked about Jesus all the time, but its isolated social and racial geography kept it from really knowing him.
At the same time, black churches were leading our nation to a new place. Their more holistic vision of the gospel was transforming my understanding of faith, and my relationship to the churches was forever changed.
I had to leave my white home church to finally discover Christ himself and come back to my faith. In doing so, I discovered something that has shaped the rest of my life: I have always learned the most about the world by going to places I was never supposed to be and being with people I was never supposed to meet. What I discovered by driving from the white suburbs to the city of Detroit every day, and going into neighborhoods and homes like Butch’s, were some truths about America that the majority culture didn’t want to talk about—truths that are always more clearly seen from the bottom of a society than from the top. This different perspective continues to change me, and Matthew 25 continues to be my conversion passage.
As a teenager, I didn’t have the words to explain what happened to me that night with my church elder, but I found them later: God is always personal, but never private. Trying to understand the public meaning of faith has been my vocation ever since. How that personal and public gospel can overcome the remaining agendas of racism in America is the subject of this book.
Much Has Changed, but Much Still Hasn’t
A half century later, much has changed. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the black churches of America led a civil rights movement that changed the country and impacted the world. The historic Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Black elected officials moved into office around the country for the first time since Reconstruction. And Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States and reelected four years later. African Americans have achieved much in every area of American society, from law and medicine to business and labor, from education and civil service to entertainment, sports, and, always, religion and human rights. A new generation, of all races, is more ready for a diverse American society than any generation has ever been.
But much still hasn’t changed. Too many African Americans have been left behind without good education, jobs, homes, and families—and these factors are all connected. Perhaps most visibly and dramatically, the treatment of black men by police and a still-racialized criminal justice system in America became a painful and controversial national issue over the last few years, making visible what has been true for decades. The cases of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri;
Eric Garner in New York; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, along with countless other black men whose names didn’t receive national attention, have provoked a raw and angry racial debate in our nation. As I finish the final edits on this book, yet another story has drawn national attention, this time involving a young black woman named Sandra Bland, who was on her way to take a new job at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater in Texas, until she was arrested in a routine traffic stop and died three days later in police custody.
The facts in specific cases are often in great dispute. But the reality that young black men and women are treated differently than are young white men and women by our law enforcement system is beyond dispute. A half century after my relationship with my friend Butch’s family, there is still not equal treatment under the law for black and white Americans. And that is the great moral and religious failure we must now address.
I feel a deep sadness at recent revelations that show how deep our racial divides still go. The stories of young black men, in particular, are still so different from the stories of my young white sons. As a dad who is also a person of faith, I believe that is an unacceptable wrong it is time to right.
All the black parents I have ever spoken to have had “the talk” with their sons and daughters. “The talk” is a conversation about how to behave and not to behave with police—“Keep your hands open and out in front of you, don’t make any sudden movements, shut your mouth, be respectful, say ‘sir,’” as my friend and regular cab driver, Chester Spencer, said he told his son. “The talk” is about what to do and say (and what not to do and say) when you find yourself in the presence of a police officer with a gun.
White parents don’t have to have this talk with their kids. That’s a radical difference between the experiences of black and white parents in America. Why do we continue to accept that? As a Little League baseball coach, I know that all the parents of the black kids I have coached have had the talk, while none of the white parents have had such conversations with their children. And most white parents don’t have a clue about those talks between their children’s black teammates and their parents.
My Comments on this link..
In my opinion I agree a lot with what this Author has to say. How we raise our children has alot to do with it. If we are raising our children to view those of a different color on a different level then we are once again segregating ourselves. In my opinion God did not put one race to above the other we are equal. For he does not love by color or bless in that manner either. Man has done this and it continues because of ignorance. I have three daughters and we raised them to never judge by the color of someones skin. We wanted them to base there decisions on how someone treated them. We have evil in all race.
When I came home one day from work my youngest daughter wanted to show me some thing on the internet. I went over and looked and she asked me to sit down and really take the time to look. When I looked it was pages of young boys that needed homes. She said can we adopt them mom?? I was so choked up because of what I was reading these young boys have been through and how many pages there was of these children needing homes. But what came to me was we had done something right. She had wanted a brother yes but she never cared they were of color! Because it doesn’t matter then or now we are all equal and created by God! We are all beautiful and perfectly created as our Father ment for us to be. But we must take responsibility in our own thought process and stop dividing what God didn’t intend for us to do. We are all brothers and sisters.
By..Standing Strong In My Faith