How I’m Starting to “Get” the Race Problem

I grew up in south Louisiana in a town where – from my perspective – racism was not out in the open. At least, I did not “see” instances of racism. My parents raised my siblings and me to respect everyone regardless of color, and because I did not see my parents speak of or act toward African-Americans in a derogatory or prejudiced manner, I assumed that everyone else was of the same belief. As such, I saw the world as one in which racism was an issue of the past.

There were moments, though, when it would hit me that my town still had a “black section.” Further, I did find it odd that our high school had a very disproportionate ratio between whites and blacks (if I my memory serves me correctly, I think it was 99% whites to 1% black, or something close). However, I assumed that the way I saw things was good – that we were beyond the racial strife of the ’60s and African Americans now enjoyed the rights and privileges whites had always enjoyed. In short, I didn’t see any problems with the way things were, and I had no problems with African Americans.

It was not until I moved to Kentucky to attend graduate school that I came to recognize that my view on race issues was not accurate. I began to see every time I visited home that there was a tenseness that increased the further south we travelled – that while there were no racial issues overtly public, it seemed to simmer just below the surface (this is not to say that racism is primarily in the south; rather, it is to say that my view of the south, in particular, was wrong). I also began to see racism differently; how I had initially understood racism (an overt act against another person because of their race) was a very narrow view, one that did not factor what I had been guilty of for quite some time – prejudice that isn’t overt, but which infects the very assumptions and beliefs of my worldview.

For example, for quite some time I believed that African Americans were given the same opportunities as me – a middle class white male. They lived in an age where the Civil Rights Act was firmly in place. Thus, any African American who lived in poverty and its resultant problems did so because they didn’t take advantage of what was available to them. That is, essentially, they “chose” to be who they were and where they lived (that is, that’s how I saw things). Any protests or demonstrations by African Americans was just an issue of “playing the race card” and refusing to work hard to get out of whatever situation they were fighting against. In short, I saw the current state of many African Americans as their own fault.

How wrong I was! It took me a while to really see that racism is not just an overt act against one of another race; rather, it is something that reaches down to one’s very attitude and assumed beliefs. It can lurk unseen, impacting how one interprets current events, how one votes on issues, and how one acts towards others not like themselves. We tend to focus too much on one’s visible actions; instead, the issue lies with the heart and one’s underlying beliefs and attitudes.

The news in our nation lately has been consumed with tragedies that have renewed the racial strife that defines our nation. In particular to recent police shootings, Jake Meador over at mereorthodoxy.com has a helpful post (On Alton Sterling and Philando Castile) in which he encourages white Americans to look at the heart of the issue that we tend to “not get”.

White people need to listen to our black neighbors when they tell us that they are afraid of the cops—and we shouldn’t assume the worst when we hear them say that. Indeed, the Castile shooting seems to be something of a perfect rebuttal to all the people who have, so far, tried to dismiss the other shootings as results of individuals not complying with police. Castile was calm, disclosed to the officer that he had a gun, and was reaching for his license and registration when shot. You cannot simply cite the more ambiguous cases, like Michael Brown, and act as if that solves the issue. It doesn’t at all. There are plenty of examples that adequately explain why a completely innocent African American, and especially an African American man, would still feel afraid when they see a cop (emphasis mine).

What Meador is getting at is that we white Americans tend to not see the real race issue behind the recent shootings – what looks like isolated events to us is instead to the African American just one more injustice in a long history of injustices at the hand of those in a position of power.

If we broaden out to our culture in general, I think Meador’s observations apply. It’s easy for whites to look at African Americans and think that they don’t encounter the racism and prejudice experienced just a generation ago. It’s easy to think as such since we are now in a day of civil rights, where we now have laws protecting against discrimination based upon race. And, indeed, this is true. No longer are African Americans enslaved or under the crushing burden of Jim Crow laws – America has changed laws and entities that prevent the sins of our past toward our African American brothers and sisters. But what American law and government cannot change are the decades upon decades of beliefs and attitudes that undergirded race relations from the beginnings of our nation. Laws and government pronouncements cannot change the hearts and minds of men and women who grow up within a particular context and culture – one in which whose fabric is made up of the attitudes and beliefs of those who have gone before.

So, for the African American, there is a long and arduous history of oppression and discrimination at the hands of whites in some form of power or authority. Thus, fears, apprehensions, and distrust toward whites is handed down to future generations because it is in the very fabric of their lives. Sure, the Civil Rights Act has given them the equal standing they rightly deserve, but what the Civil Rights Act cannot change are the hearts of men in which lies attitudes and beliefs of prejudice, discrimination, mistrust, and wrong perceptions. So while race relations have indeed made improvement and the law seeks to be blind in regard to race, African Americans still face the attitudes and beliefs that have shaped and defined our culture for over two centuries. As such, the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Paul O’Neal are not isolated events – rather, they are one more note in the cry of anguish from a people still seeking to overcome the oppression caused by the sins of our nation. Further, acts of discrimination (real or perceived) are not isolated events – rather, they are yet another affirmation that the status quo continues. [The author of the blog Beyond the Glass Wall wrote a very helpful blog post titled “Why I am a Racist…” that explains better than I can what I tried to express here.]

Some may say: Are there acts of racism not just by whites, but by blacks (and Hispanics, etc.) as well? Yes. Is every white person racist? No. What I am saying is that though many white Americans do not condone racist acts and beliefs, we can unwittingly harbor prejudice beliefs that cloud how we interpret current events such that we don’t see things the way the African American community sees it.

Personally, I don’t think white Americans will ever “get” it – that is, we will never fully know the struggle that African Americans speak of. We won’t ever truly understand their cries for justice and pleas for peace after yet another tragedy, because we, as white Americans, have not had to experience what their people have faced and still face. But, we can do our best to try to understand their pain – to see why they continue to fight for their rights. What has helped to open my eyes to their plight (and here I get to the point of my post) is probably the one source that most anyone would not think of – fiction. Several works have had significant influence in opening my eyes to my own prejudices that have gone unnoticed for quite some time. Here are a few with some thoughts:

  1. The first work that had a significant impact on me was The Same Kind of Different as Me, by Denver Moore and Ron Hall. This is a true story (the only non-fiction book I note in this post) of how an international art dealer from Texas and a homeless, former sharecropper African American became best friends and brothers in Christ. The chapters alternate between each men as they tell their history, how they crossed paths, and how their friendship grew into brotherhood. The book is a picture of God’s saving grace and his divine healing of both men from the sins of their past and racial prejudice.
  2. Another influential book was Leon Uris’ Trinity – a book about the Easter Uprising in Ireland (1916). Though it takes place in Ireland and the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants, it captures the very matter I discuss in this post – the struggle of an oppressed group to overcome prejudice and discrimination, and to break out of the cycle of despondency brought about by oppression. What stood out in particular was how prejudiced beliefs and attitudes played out through politics, economics, and even religion can have a long-lasting affect upon successive generations, creating a perpetual gyre of hopelessness and despondency from which a rare few can break.
  3. The works of Ernest Gaines – a Louisiana-born, African American, award-winning author (for a biographical note on Gaines, go here) – are of particular importance to me and my changing view of the racial issue that divides our nation. The setting for most of Gaines’ novels is in the Louisiana of the 1960s and 1970s in which, through the power of fiction, he illustrates the struggle of African Americans in a post-Civil Rights South. Two novels in particular that have had an impact on how I have come to understand race relations from the perspective of African Americans are: A Gathering of Old Men – a novel in which a black man kills a white farmer in self defense, yet is in danger of being lynched by the dead man’s powerful father. The second novel is In My Father’s House – a novel about Phillip, a minister and civil rights leader who encounters his past when his son from a previous relationship seeks to contact Philip for the first time in years. These two novels – in a simple yet powerful way – illustrate the struggle of African Americans that we hear spread over the news after yet one more tragedy. Here one experiences the fear of injustice, the struggle to overcome discrimination, and the herculean effort to fight the past in order to forge a new, hopeful life. Gaines gives the reader a unique perspective that otherwise would be missed by anyone not in the African American culture.
  4. The Forge by Thomas Stribling follows the Vaiden family in the moments before and during the Civil War, followed by their changed way of life during the Reconstruction. Though the Vaiden family is a white family, Stribling using them to illustrate the attitudes of the white South toward blacks, and how they justified slavery and the social structure of the Old South. Interestingly, despite the Vaidens’ attempt to begin life anew in an ever-changing post-war South, the family illustrates how racism kills essentially deadens a culture, stripping away any life and vitality.

There are many more books that help us to “see” what the race issue is about, particularly those of us who have never had to face racism or prejudice directed toward us. These, however, are the books that have had a very significant impact on me and have changed how I view our culture.

Jarvis Williams, PhD, is a professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he has done significant work in calling for racial reconciliation within not only the Southern Baptist Convention, but within American Christianity as well. He recently sent me a helpful link of past and current works by African Americans on the race issue in America – thoughtful pieces that seek to put into perspective the reality of racism today, and how we can move forward. The link was put together by the African American Intellectual History Society in the wake of the Charleston shooting on June 17, 2015. This is a great way to gain a deeper understanding of America’s racial issue.

The race issue today is complex, and it will take all parties’ cooperation to move forward. Everyone, regardless of race, has some level of prejudice that must be dealt with. We must all do our parts. And one way we can move forward is for white Americans to strive to understand African Americans’ side of the race issue and to reassess attitudes and beliefs accordingly. This isn’t the only step needed for reconciliation, but it is a necessary and vital one.

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