Just as our country celebrates our Columbian heritage with a simple rhyme about 1492 instead of decrying a year which marked the beginning of mass murder and extermination, most Southerners think about slavery as a dark spot on our history, but also maintain images of sweet plantations, and proclaim there are no lasting effects from a system that ended 160 years ago. The import of such thinking is that while the institution itself was unfortunate, everyone made the best of it and for the most part, we have no lingering impact. This narrative, which is still roundly attested to as THE narrative of slavery in the South, conveys our collective amnesia as a nation and belies our need to rediscover our history.
An honest exploration of our collective past reveals the fact that slavery explicitly endorsed the dehumanization that colonization hid under religion and empire. Slaves, human beings, were openly referred to, moved as, insured as, sold as and used as cargo or livestock. The myth of Tara (Gone With the Wind) and the paternalistic, believing and therefore kind, plantation owner did not mitigate the systemic abuse of slaves.
Imagine you are a slave in 1820. If you profess an independent and solid faith in Christ, you are viewed suspiciously. Literacy, or anything approximating literacy, is illegal in most states, so you cannot learn to read or write. If you have natural leadership skills, you might often be beaten as a budding insurrectionist. You are allowed to marry, but your owner likely doubts you are capable of loving relationships, so your children are sold away and your wife is rented out to another plantation 10 miles away. These scenarios are not exceptions; they were the norm by a large margin.
I bring this up because understanding these beginnings is crucial if we hope to understand where we are as a country today. The seeds of dehumanization, planted in the colonial era, grew into the seedlings of racial abuse during slavery. This poisonous plant then blossomed into a racially stratified society, and now produces the fruit of systemic, insidious, racially biased laws, protocols and business practices that often prevent people of color from functioning within the privileged norms of autonomous society.
A cursory view of our more recent past is equally revealing. For instance, imagine you are an African American female in 1960. You are charged a higher rent than white people for the same apartment. Even if you find a job that pays less to you than to your white counterparts, save money, and find a house to buy, you cannot find a bank to carry your mortgage. From trying to get lunch in town to needing to use the restroom while out and about, your kids are daily reminded that healthy, normal society views them as less than whites. Jim Crow laws ensure that you continue to understand your exclusion from American society. Taking the only job you can find, you ride the city bus out to a wealthy area, and become a maid and cook. While your kids are left home alone with no one to care for them, you read stories and make treats for your employer’s children. Your husband wants to save you from this horrible splitting of yourself, but he is powerless to change the system.
You technically are allowed to vote, but you have family members who have been lynched for doing so. Your husband is determined to beat the system, stay with the family, and achieve success, and because of this you are terrified he will be next. Success is not rewarded for most minorities in America, but could instead earn you a death sentence. In fact, more than 130,000 lynchings are recorded in the United States in the past 100 years. Social forces remind you that you are not the equal of whites, and if you try to be then you are fired, put out of your home, beaten, lynched or killed. The system, from top to bottom, is designed to keep him out of a job and away from your family.
These experiences are a matter of historical record for the majority in the North and South only 60 years ago. American laws and social policies ensured that people of color could not establish their value by providing a home, stable finances, a safe neighborhood, or a good school for their kids. I believe this is the history that explains why so many African American men often looked for another way to justify their value as men. This also explains why the streets in many urban settings have become the domain in which some men establish their dominance. For centuries, the policies of our government and the practices of our businesses ensured failure for any black man who attempted to provide and protect his family in productive ways.
Since the Civil Rights Movement, we have come a very long way. I see progress. However, racism, racial misunderstandings, and unjust systems still abound. Indeed, one of the lasting impacts of this myth is that the white, Christian, Southern narrative of history AND our understanding of the present reality is incredibly difficult to challenge, especially by people of color. I know that we are not past racial inequality when I see policies like stop and frisk, in the absurdly high percentages of African Americans in prison, in the demonization of mostly productive protest movements, and in the habits of parents of color teaching their sons how to perform a version of themselves that will appear non-threatening to white people in authority. Today, in this country, a white man with a criminal record is more likely to be hired than a black man without a record. I know there is still work to do when I hear the narratives that have emerged in the wake of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest in Massachusetts, Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown, the lack of justice served in the death of Freddie Gray, the incomprehensible death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. I am dismayed by our inability, especially in the church, to move beyond the “us” and “them” paradigm which served as the foundation for our country, and continues to promote the polarization and fear that leads to police who murder and are murdered.
What can we do? What should the church do?
We can start by reclaiming this history that has been lost or mythologized. One of the things we can do is to understand, explain, and listen to this history, letting it affect the way we think about race now. Just 50 years ago most African Americans knew someone who was the victim of racially motivated violence. Productive conversations can start when we humbly recognize centuries of wrong done to American minorities, not just 200 years ago, but in our own lifetimes. We can understand the tension that exists. We can stand up for the dignity of ALL people. We can resist injustice, knowing the status quo is not good enough. We can resist classism. We can see racism for what it is, and gently or aggressively resist it in all its subtle and explicit forms. We can try to build relationships with people who are not like us. We can have compassion. We can refute stereotypes and affirm the worth of every person. We can acknowledge our own prejudice and reform our bad habits. We can refer to all people as “us”. We can challenge the basis of “them”. Then, as communities and as people of God, we should pursue vulnerable people, building relationships with them, and loving them well. Partnering with them, we can challenge and reform broken systems, habits, non-profits, and laws that keep impoverished minorities in crisis mode. Relationships can develop across class and race when we understand and lean into the tension that exists, slowly replacing it with trusted partnerships. Our communities will not be healthy and whole until we are all healthy and whole. There is no them, there’s only us.