My Reflections on Racism
I want to share some thoughts on race and racism, on why I
think that America is still a racist nation and why I think that racism is so
insidious and pervasive.
My political science professor, an Episcopalian teaching at Presbyterian College, told us, "I can accept a black on equal terms in an impersonal relationship, or I can accept a black in a personal relationship as long as he is not my equal, but I cannot accept a black on equal terms in a personal relationship."
In so many ways I find that remark still characterizes human relations in America today. I grew up in a strangely contradictory society. I had regular contact with African-Americans, but never in an equal relationship. My black nursemaid took good care of me, and I loved Amy. Later we moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Mattie entered my life. These were kind and loving women who were gentle and knew how to raise children.
As I recall, my aunts and uncles had black servants who were treated as part of the family, but never with equality. When I visited my father's sister on her ninetieth birthday, I noticed her servant James. His eyes looked funny, the way that they do when people need surgery, so I said to my aunt: "Inez, James' eyes look like he may have cataracts."
"I don't know, Robert, I was always taught never to look a Niggrah in the eyes," she responded.
Her response startled me. I had known James all my life. He had gone to work for my aunt's husband as a little boy, and he was now around seventy, having worked for her most of his life. Even though most of that time it was part time, not a day went by that he didn't check on her. He even telephoned my aunt when he was away visiting relatives in New York. He obviously loved her and she obviously loved him, but she had never looked him in the eye.
She was always "Miss Inez," while he was always simply James. Her husband, my father's brother-in-law, was born a little over five years after the end of Reconstruction, and he held to the values of the old South. He was a kind and paternalistic man. He did not hate African-Americans. Their presence did not make him uncomfortable. When a black friend needed something, "Mr. Harrall" would take care of it. It was his duty, and he never begrudged this expense.
Before daylight, their black cook would arrive. How I remember those wonderful breakfasts: hot hominy grits, eggs, sausage and Viola's homemade biscuits, served with real butter. Her midday dinners were even better: fried chicken, butter beans, rice and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and more biscuits. Nobody could cook as well as Viola. I still savor the memory of her meals.
This was the world into which I was born. These were the African-Americans that I knew. They all seemed happy and kind. I was "Mr. Robert" when I went back into the kitchen to chat with Viola or James. She never seemed to mind the intrusion of a curious little boy watching her cook on the old, black iron stove. I was always treated as an honored guest.
Over the years, whenever I would go to South Carolina and visit my aunt, I would always visit with James. Sometimes that meant that I would travel down to where he lived and visit him in his home on the way out of town, but I always went to see him -- he was part of my family. Viola died many years ago, but I last saw James in the late summer of 1998. I was in South Carolina and took my family to see my aunt. It was just short of her 102nd birthday. After visiting with her for a while, I went out in the yard, where James was working. He still called me "Mr. Robert." But we hugged each other and spoke affectionately. He had a stroke less than a month later and died shortly thereafter.
That was one side of race relations in the South in which I was born -- it was warm and personal but terribly unequal and demanded a measure of deceit from the African-Americans who successfully navigated the intricacies of that paternalistic world. But I did not understand that for years.
When I was a junior in high school, I worked as a desk clerk in a small hotel; the bellhop was a middle-aged black man. He was introduced to me by his first name, Charles. He educated me more than anyone else about the black experience. "Do you think I like acting like a fool -- smiling and laughing at white folks making fun of me? I got to feed my kids, and the more I act like a fool, the more food I can put on the table."
Charles got me to think. He was the first black who was really honest with me. It had never dawned on me that the kindly African-Americans of my childhood had had to keep us in the dark about their true feelings. Their very survival depended on it. Under Charles' tutelage the contradictions of my upbringing began to register.
I had only known adult African-Americans; I had never met their children. Many of the white children that I grew up with did not have any kind of personal relationship with African-Americans. I had gone to all white schools, and African-Americans were oftentimes the objects of scorn and twisted humor. Older boys bragged to me about riding through "N. i. g. g. e. r. town" and shooting African-Americans with twenty-twos. They had replaced the lead with wax. This other side of my life, the public side, was completely devoid of African-Americans.
My first job was pumping gas at Chapins' Shell Service in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; I was thirteen, and Daddy believed that I needed to learn how to work for other people. We had three restrooms: "Men," "Women" and "Colored." When our only black employee quit, the "Colored" restroom was never cleaned again. It had no light bulb and was nasty.
My father was a health officer; once I was with him when he inspected a black school. "Separate but equal," he said, as he got in the car, "there's not a damned thing equal about their schools . . . used books, worn-out equipment, buildings needing repair." Daddy believed in being fair: "N. i. g. g. e. r. s. love me, because I treat them just like white people." To the best of my knowledge my father never mistreated a black person. He was a kind and decent man, a good father and an active churchman. But my Daddy was a racist, and he taught me to be a racist, too.
In so many ways my mother exemplified the contradictions of my society. Mama would drink coffee with our maid in the kitchen. She cried with her and went to the funeral when Mattie's father died. After I became a Christian, I asked Mama about African-Americans coming to our church, she responded, "Oh, Robert, I couldn't stand it if a Niggrah man sat down next to me!" How well I remember Daddy coming home from a session meeting and proudly telling us that the elders had passed a resolution on how to handle these agitators: "We agreed to meet them at the door and ask why they had come. If they tell us that they are here to worship, we'll tell them they have their own churches to worship in and send them away." Mama was relieved.
This action on the part of the officers of my church was not isolated. Back in the sixties, my wife and I worked at Thornwell Orphanage; it was under the oversight of the Synods of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida of the Presbyterian Church U.S., and black children weren't allowed there. My alma mater, Presbyterian College, finally admitted a couple of African-Americans my senior year. I remember a chapel sermon preached by Bob Jones, Jr., back when I had attended his university. "Blacks have never had a successful civilization." "They are only happy when they are in the role of a servant." It was in flight from that world that I went to the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., back in 1968.
During the four years that I was in seminary -- three in Philadelphia, one in Pittsburgh -- I became acquainted with Northern people. Since I was married and had to work at least part time, I discovered that there was at least as much bigotry up North as there was in the South; it's simply that the non-Christian Northern folk with whom I worked were less honest about their prejudices than the non-Christians in the South. Once again, to quote my political science professor: "I can accept a black on equal terms in an impersonal relationship, or I can accept a black in a personal relationship as long as he is not my equal, but I cannot accept a black on equal terms in a personal relationship."
In many ways the South is becoming more like the North; it has become more hypocritical, and relationships between African-Americans and European-Americans have become much less personal. By and large, racism on the surface is gone; there are lots of changes that have come. The nineteen sixty-four Civil Rights Act has guaranteed many things, but underneath, in so many ways, little has changed.
Illiteracy among African-Americans is far greater now than it was fifty years ago. There is still great disparity in everything from jobs to housing. Streets are poorer; streetlights are left burned out more often; mailboxes are harder to come by. And black folk, especially males, are far more likely to be stopped by the police.
I know the response that is usually given by white conservatives to these things, but I wonder about corporate responsibility. My ancestors on both my mother and father's sides owned slaves. In many places in the old South, it was illegal for a black to be able to read or write. A marriage between African-Americans was not accorded the same legal status as that between European-Americans. Families were broken up: fathers and mothers were sold and separated, sometimes by hundreds of miles.
I don't feel guilt for the past -- Adam's, my ancestors or my own -- because the Lord Jesus died in my place as my substitute and became a curse for me (Galatians 3:13). But I do accept responsibility to work for change. I will not respond like Cain; I acknowledge that I am responsible. A society that has systematically, overtly and legally discriminated against African-Americans for several hundred years is responsible, too.
I believe that most Americans are racists, at least at some level, but hopefully most are not hateful, malevolent racists. That's true for African-Americans as well as European-Americans. Until we recognize it in ourselves, we cannot deal with it. Racist thinking is a bit like self-pity, pride or lust, it sometimes knocks on the door of the conscious mind, but the Christian person must learn to reject it by the authority of the name of Jesus.
Does 2 Samuel 21:1-14* have anything to say to us in America today, other than, "Thank God, I'm under the New Covenant!"? (I have placed the relevant verses at the end of this page.) As I come to the chilling implications of 2 Samuel 21:14 ("After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land."), I understand that I am affected by what my ancestors and my federal representatives did long before my time. It makes me wonder if systemic racism isn't a curse on American society just like abortion and public sodomy.
As with Daniel and others, it makes me confess my sins and those of my fathers. It causes me to see that the burden is on me for improved race relations. It is my obligation to take the first step, to go the second mile, to be the first to open my home for a meal. And it is my task to work together for a better world, coming not as a superior to teach, but as a brother to share and learn.
Over the past decades, I have prayed together with black pastors on a weekly basis; some of us have swapped pulpits. I have learned much more than I have taught. It is a bright spot of encouragement in a world that is becoming increasingly racially polarized.
I long to see the day when my professor's words are no longer true: where African-Americans and European-Americans enjoy both equal and personal relationships.
For some more thoughts and something you can do . . .
Why I still march in January . . .
Have a Dream
*2 Samuel 21:1-14:
1 During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the LORD. The LORD said, "It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death."
3 David asked the Gibeonites, "What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends so that you will bless the LORDís inheritance?"
4 The Gibeonites answered him, "We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death." "What do you want me to do for you?" David asked.
5 They answered the king, " . . . let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and exposed before the LORD at Gibeah of Saul -- the Lord's chosen one." So the king said, "I will give them to you."
8 But the king took Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah's daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul's daughter Merab, whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite.
9 He handed them over to the Gibeonites, who killed and exposed them on a hill before the LORD. All seven of them fell together; they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning.
13 David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up.
14 They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saulís father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. AFTER THAT, GOD ANSWERED PRAYER IN BEHALF OF THE LAND.
In effect, the sins of one man profoundly affected those who lived after him, even to the point of God's refusing to answer prayer until the matter was put right and those who had been wronged spoke blessing.