I thought racism had ended for the most part because of the Civil Rights Movement. I was sadly mistaken.
I grew up on military bases mostly overseas. If you’ve spent time in an environment like that, you understand it’s a little bit of an artificial setup. Everyone has the same access to education, healthcare, and is committed to a shared mission. Because of this, I grew up with the naive notion that racism was something that happened in America’s past—like before the Civil Rights Movement.
I had African American friends in school, played at their houses while their parents watched me and my sister, and had the hardest time understanding anyone with a southern accent. To me, this was America. Even if it wasn’t technically American soil.
My Naïve Bubble Was Burst
And then the second decade of the 21st century started to unfold. My elementary understanding of racial tensions in America began to shift with reports of unarmed black men being shot by police officers. At first they seemed like isolated incidents, but then the frequency became too much to ignore.
Sometime around the tumultuous 2016 election, I learned the statistic that America has the highest percentage of incarcerated people in the world. I also learned some upsetting stories of African Americans who had been unjustly tried and sentenced to prison—forever altering the course of their lives. And that stories like these happen more frequently in the African American community than they do in mine.
Fast forward to Saturday, August 12, 2017. I was at the gym, mindlessly watching the news when the reports of a white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, came on. I thought, surely this is some small, remnant group that has been marooned somewhere in the Appalachian mountains, only now discovering modern America has grown up around them. Coming out of the woods, dazed and confused, this group must have been shocked to hear the Civil War is over and society has progressed. They don’t know racism no longer has a place here in America. (And yes, you have my permission to laugh at me now.)
But I quickly gathered this was not the case. According to some experts, the gathering was the largest group of white supremacists in one spot that our society has seen for a long time.
I watched in shock as the demonstration—which had turned violent at this point due to clashes with counter-demonstrators—not only continued all day, but had started the night before. The only encouraging thing I saw was the report of clergy marching through the streets in silent protest to the white supremacists.
Time to Wake Up
My roommate (the worship pastor at the church I attend) decided to hold a prayer vigil at our house that night. The handful of us who made it dropped our plans for the evening to gather together.
What unfolded put the final nail in the coffin of my under-informed understanding of race in America. As we each shared what our experience had been of hearing the news of the demonstration, it became clear: Most of us were shocked by the news, while only one of us was not.
Tracy is a chaplain at a hospital, a mother of six, and an African American. Very graciously, Tracy shared her story.
We were shocked to learn that Tracy had faced racism in our city. She and her family had moved to Colorado from North Carolina due to the racism her kids were facing in the south. Thinking Colorado would be a little better, they were disheartened when they woke up one day to graffiti on the back fence of their lawn brazenly featuring a racist comment. She told another story of a colleague making a snide comment on what he assumed her food tastes were based on the color of her skin.
Tracy also told us the story of how her older brother sustained brain damage after being beaten by four white boys in his childhood.
As the night progressed, I realized that because I am white, I have had the privilege of ignoring the problem that African Americans are all too familiar with. I realized I had clung to this narrative that the Civil Rights Movement had made everything right and that racism was no longer an issue on a larger, American society level.
I realized that I can choose to ignore the problem if I want to. My livelihood does not depend on understanding how my brothers and sisters of different ethnicity live and how they struggle. I probably won’t have to worry about how my kids are going to be treated or whether they know how to respond if they are pulled over by a police officer.
None of us gathered there would call ourselves racists or would even think that. But what we are guilty of is apathy—and that, my friends, is the other side of the racism coin. We might hear of things in the news and shrug as we think “That’s so sad. I wish that hadn’t happened,” but we don’t know what to do about it. And because the problem isn’t in our backyard, we aren’t reminded of it on a daily basis. Yet hatred is a daily reality for more people than it is not.
So… What Now?
As our prayer meeting progressed, we began doing a couple practical things, which I believe could be of benefit to the broader church:
1. Repent – On behalf of our nation, we repented of the atrocities committed against Native Americans and African Americans. We repented of bigotry, misunderstanding, and apathy. This is corporate repentance. We repented of things our ancestors had done—things that we would never dream of doing today. And yet, the wound remains. This is why repentance is necessary. We also repented individually for things that have contributed to our current problem. I repented of retreating and ignoring the problem.
2. Listen to others’ stories – We tend to fear what we don’t know or understand. I think this is the case with some of the racial tensions we are facing today. When we aren’t used to being in close proximity to someone of another race, it can be hard to know how to relate. This is something Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, talks about. How can we help if we don’t even understand the problem? We’ve got to get close to people to be part of the solution.
3. Don’t stay silent – I know many friends who were disappointed in their church’s lack of response to the demonstration. The truth is that this incident has shined a revealing light on a problem in our society that has not gone away yet. It will never go away on its own. The church, who believes in redemptive and reconciling power of Jesus Christ, can be—and should be—the first to speak. And we should speak often.
The only conclusion I’ve come to at this point is that I don’t have the luxury of ignoring racism anymore. I am a follower of Christ. I am a member of the church. I am a fellow human being. And I cannot afford to be naive any longer.