There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)
Today at my church we had our first adult Sunday School class since before Christmas. We turned from a rather feel good Advent study to a really tough, thorny topic: race and race relations. We’re exploring this topic through Rev Jim Wallis’s remarkable book “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.” The study is being led by a biracial couple that attends our church and has been active in the race discussion here in Northern Utah.
It started with a bang, as there was no shortage of people who wanted to talk. One of the most poignant moments came when Dennis, an African American man and one of the leaders of the study talked about the first time he encountered explicit racism. Dennis is originally from Houston, Texas. He described a job he had down there in high school, working with a trucking company. One day he and two coworkers, who were also black, decided to go get a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant while the truck was being loaded. The two coworkers wandered off, and Dennis waited until the loading was done, then he headed to the restaurant. Alone, he walked through the front door of the place and sat at the front counter.
A black man.
In the early 60’s.
He quickly felt something was wrong as all the other patrons (who were white) were staring at him. Then one of the wait staff came up and told him “We don’t serve n*ggers here.” Dennis said flippantly, “that’s fine, I don’t eat n*ggers either!” That, needless to say, ratcheted up the tension. A couple of minutes later one of his coworkers came and grabbed him, and hauled him out back, where the black people ate. He asked Dennis if he was nuts and asked him if he didn’t understand the “way things are.” Shortly thereafter the cook came out and talked to him. The cook, who was also black, told him “Hey, I’ll fix you the best steak in my kitchen and only charge you for a hamburger as long as you EAT IT BACK HERE.”
Dennis joked that he kind of sold out his Rosa Parks moment right then and there, but he ate the best steaks in city all summer long! The joke cut the tension in the class a bit, but people were stunned. Really stunned.
You see, it’s fairly rare to encounter a lot of overt racism in Utah. There are very few African Americans here, and for the most part the religion of the area does pretty good job instilling in people at least a basic sense of human worth. Still, while that is tested more and more each year as the Latino population grows, it’s relatively rare to come across an overt racist who will throw out words like the N word and various slurs about Latinos, at least in public. So it was absolutely startling to hear about Dennis’ experience for many in the room.
Not for me though. I’ve had other experiences.
Back in the early 2000s one of my best friends, Jeff, and his wife Andrea were living in Memphis while Jeff went to Optometry School there. I went down to visit them one summer and they took me to see all the sights: Graceland, Beale Street, you name it. We went to BB King’s blues club, heard some legendary music and had a bit too much alcohol and BBQ, but we were young and had a designated driver.
The next day, a bit hungover, we went to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. We bought our tickets and went in. After awhile we each started to have a distinct feeling of discomfort that had nothing to do with amount of alcohol consumed the night before. We went through the museum and finally up to the room where Dr. King died, which as been preserved. As we looked around we noticed that we were the only white faces in a crowded little room.
I can’t speak for Jeff and Andrea, but did I feel uncomfortable and maybe a bit guilty? You bet I did. But why should I? After all, the three of us were the epitome of liberal college students. We all had degrees and considered ourselves on the forefront a new multiethnic movement. Were were TOLERANT, damn it!
But we were like caged animals in a zoo.
Why? I struggled with that for years. In 2007 I moved to central Florida and found out why. One day I was walking our dog not far from our house and older black man came towards me on the same side of the street. I went to touch my ball cap to say hello to him and he crossed to other side of the street. I was stunned. (I’ve told that story on the blog before.)
I asked my father in law about it. I wanted to know if I had done something I shouldn’t have. I was perplexed and you bet I was thinking about that day at the Lorraine Motel. He explained to me that it was just the way older black people in the area had been brought up, to be distrustful of white people, and to cross to the other side of the street when they encountered a white person. Their experience in life was vastly different than my sheltered life in Utah.
I still didn’t quite get it though, but over time it came to me. I mean, it’s the 21st century, why should they still feel like that?
Then I started to pay attention to the way many white people behaved and spoke.
“I love black people, I think everybody should own one!”
“Why don’t they send more n*ggers into space? Because they already sent a monkey!”
“Look at those little n*gglets over there, playing in that filth.”
“I don’t know why we had the civil war (or War of Northern Aggression), them blacks were treated just fine and knew their place until the yankees showed up.”
You get the picture? If not, imagine a family walking into a restaurant for dinner but then leaving because there were too many black people in there.
So no, I was not stunned to hear Dennis’s story today.
But what does it say about our society that I can still hear those jokes in this country 50 years after Dennis had his experience? And guess what, I left Florida in 2008. I’d place good money on the thought that those jokes became even more prevalent in the last election cycle.
Many of us, myself included to an extent, are guilty of thinking that we largely moved on from race after the election of Barack Obama. Nothing is further from the truth. Much of the hate and anger that fueled the last election is a direct backlash to that thought. Many, MANY poor white Americans have always thought that it was ok to be poor, because at least they weren’t black. Better to be white trash than black. Now you have a black man as the President with a beautiful family and a successful career, and the hate machine fires up. Many on the right latched onto that idea and figured (correctly) that it could help them get back into power. However, now the genie is out of the bottle and who knows where we go from here.
I look forward to more discussion in this class, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the blog about it. However I hope everyone will pray that God gives us strength to overcome a lot of the nastiness going on right now. Don’t just do that though. Take a look at yourself. Look at your own experiences with race, and think about how you use those experiences to start making the world around YOU a better place.