“Why is racism still such a powerful and pervasive force in the Christian community when they should all know by now that Jesus was a dark-skinned Middle East person with black hair like almost everyone else with Semitic ancestry in that area of the world.”
This is a great question. First, let me be clear, I know that many Christians are not racist. (at least outwardly) But, there is virulent strain of racism and bigotry that runs though Christianity, especially among conservative, Evangelical, and fundamentalist believers. I know this because I pastored people who were racist and I saw the same racism among the clergy I associated with. And if I am honest, as much as I thought I was color blind, I had my own problem with racism. More than once I said, I don’t have a problem with blacks, I just don’t want my children marrying one. I would then launch into a justification of my racism, quoting statistics about mixed race couples getting married. It took me a few years before I saw that the real issue was the deep-seated racism taught to me by my racist John Bircher parents and the churches I attended.
Part of the problem for me was that I had no contact with minorities. I was six years old before I saw my first black person, a porter on a train in Chicago. I grew up in a white monoculture, insulated from other races except for the Mexican migrants who showed up once a year to pick local tomatoes. In the 1970′s, I attended Findlay High School, one of the largest high schools in Ohio. In a school district with thousands of students, there were two blacks, a boy and girl who were siblings. That’s it. Findlay, a community of 40,000 plus, was as white as white could be, and I suspect people liked it that way. I know my parents did.
My parents were extreme right-wingers, supporters of Barry Goldwater in the 1960′s. My parents despised Martin Luther King, Jr, a man they considered a communist. They saw the riots in Watts and Detroit, along with the rise of the Black Panthers, as proof of their view that blacks were inferior to whites. In many ways, their thinking was no different from many whites of their generation.
Let me share a few illustrations from my past that I think will help illustrate the racism I saw in the fundamentalist/Evangelical church.
One church I attended as a youth traveled once a year to the south to help the Cedine Bible Camp,a black Evangelical camp. The church had good intentions, but it seemed at the time that the church felt they had to help these poor, helpless black folk. The deep-seated racism in this church was exposed when one of the woman from the church moved back to Bryan, Ohio with their new, much darker husband. They thought they would be welcomed with open arms. While no one went to them and said, no blacks allowed, church gossip made it clear that many church members were not happy having a black person or a mixed married couple in the church.
In the fall of 1976, I moved to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College. Pontiac had a large black population, as did Detroit to the south. Yet, the church associated with the college, Emmanuel Baptist Church, pastored by Tom Malone, a man born and raised in Alabama and schooled at Bob Jones College, had few black members.
At the time, Emmanuel was one the largest churches in the United States. The church operated a large bus ministry that bussed in countless black children. But, here’s the thing. These black children, for the most part, weren’t a part of the regular church services and Sunday school. Instead, they had their own Sunday school in the afternoon. It was called B Sunday school. (which some of us understood to mean BLACK Sunday school)
During my sophomore year, a new pastor assumed control of the bus ministry. His name was Julian Lyons. He quickly stopped running the buses to Detroit. While we were told that the reason for doing this was cost, some of concluded it was due to race. Lyons and I got into it over this. He accused me of having a bad attitude and I told him I thought he was a racist. To this day, I am surprised that I didn’t get expelled from school.
Over the course of 25 years in the ministry, I encountered racism numerous times. I can’t tell you the times I heard church members talking about “those people.” You know, those lazy, good for nothing blacks that were on welfare or in jail or living in government housing. My favorite one is when people would start talking about “colored people”; “colored people” because respectable Evangelicals don’t say nigger. When church members used the colored people phrase I would ask them, “so what color are they?” “Oh preacher, you know what I mean”, they would tell me. If I had the opportunity, I would gently remind them that, in most cases, mentioning a person’s race is not germane to the discussion. Often the phrase was used in a pejorative sense, usually connected to some negative human behavior.
My wife’s family is quite racist, even though they would be offended if someone called them such. They like to “think” they are free of racial bigotry, but their reaction to the Kenyan born black that is currently president suggests otherwise. Let me share a family experience from a previous post:
…Christmas of 2009 was insufferable for Polly and I. Everywhere we turned we saw accusatory looks. No one talked to me, though they did talk to Polly and our children. Every year someone buys a gag gift and gives it to one family member. The gag gift for Christmas 2009 was a President Barack Obama commemorative plate. Our nephew, Cyle Hughes, bought the plate at Big Lots and gave it to Polly’s uncle, James Dennis. Everyone but us laughed. What a great gag gift for the patriarch of an IFB, God is a Republican, Duck Dynasty loving, gun-toting, right-wing family. (and a family that has a racist streak running through it)
After this, I was fuming and I was ready to go home. But, for Polly’s sake I shut my mouth and said nothing. (my thoughts were definitely x-rated) Later in the evening, one of James Dennis’s young grandchildren picked up the plate and asked him what the plate was for. James Dennis replied, to poo-poo on. (to shit on, for those not initiated in IFB slang) Later in the evening, while everyone was busy eating, I put my old-shoplifting skills to use and I stole the plate. I took it home with me and donated it to Goodwill. (I feel v-e-r-y good over stealing the plate)…
Evangelicals and many white Americans bristle when they are accused of racism. They think as long as they don’t use the N word that they are not racist. I have come to the conclusion that my parent’s generation will likely never lose their deep-seated racist beliefs and my generation will continue to battle with how our parents racism affected our thinking. I like to think I am color blind and accepting of all races and cultures, but I know that I am not perfect.
The hope of a post race world rests with our children and grandchildren. While I am worried about the increasing racism in Europe and in certain parts of American political and religious culture, I do see progress. After all, we do have a black president. But, the vitriol towards him reveals that there is still racial hatred percolating under the surface of the American experience. We must continue to battle racism wherever it is found. We must also come to terms with what white America did, not only to blacks, but to Japanese-Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Latinos. We have much that needs atoned for, and waving our hand and saying it is all in the past will not suffice. There is no path forward until we are willing to embrace our past. If we don’t allow history to teach us so we can we choose a different path, we will certainly repeat the sins of our racist ancestors.
Charles brings up the irony of Christian racism. The Jesus Christians worship is a dark-skinned man of Middle East descent. He would blend in well with those trying to cross our southern border. Why is it that many American Christians fail to see this?
Because they see Jesus like this:
rather than like:
For many American Christians, Jesus is just like them. Since we continue to be quite segregated in America, we are not forced to come into contact with other races and cultures. We never even question if there is any such thing as race to begin with. If the human race started with Adam and Eve and later with Noah and his family, didn’t we all descend from the same race? Isn’t the racial diversity we now see due to evolution and adaptation? Why is it so hard for us to see race from this perspective? Why do we have such a hard time understanding that culture and tribe affects everything, from what we eat to how we live? Instead of walling ourselves off from other races and cultures, why not attempt to experience and understand the racial and cultural uniqueness of others?
While I do not support forced integration, I do think it is advantageous for me to know people who are different from me. From a political and social perspective, I think everyone, regardless of their race, should have equal opportunity. Instead of pointing to the failures within this or that race and culture, let’s take the time to understand why these failures are happening. It is not enough to point the finger at a class of people and make a “those people” conclusion. If flag waving whites want to expose the failures within the black community, I hope they will take the time to understand why these failures are happening. And in answering the why question, perhaps they will be forced to admit their own culpability in many of the things they see.
Instead of talking about race and “those people”, let’s talk about the collapse of our cities, which are overwhelmingly populated by people of color, and poverty, jobs, school funding, the war on drugs, and equal protection under the law. If we seriously address these kind of issues, I suspect that things will improve for everyone, regardless of their skin color.
I wish I could say I was optimistic about the future, but I think that we are a long way away from a post-racial society. Frankly, Grandma and Grandpa need to die. A future that is post-race lies in the hands of our children and grandchildren. But even then, as we are now seeing in the increase of white nationalism in Europe among unemployed young adults, if we don’t address joblessness and a lack of economic mobility, we will continue to have racial tension. To some degree, it’s human nature. When we are pushed into a corner we tend to seek the comfort and support of like-minded people. We then start to see things through the lens of our race or tribe. Is this not what we see in the Middle East and Ukraine, places where neighbors are now turning against each other because of their religion or ethnicity?
Let me close this post with a video that aptly reveals the racism that is still quite prominent today. Witness the words and reaction of US Congressman Curt Clawson to several U.S. government workers that Clawson thought were foreigners:
While I am not suggesting Clawson is a racist, I AM suggesting that this is a good illustration of how many white Americans view people of color.