Over the past week, I sat down at my computer to write about black America, by which I mean Americans of African descent and their culture. I had hesitated to do so for a long time, for I was certain that no matter what I wrote, it would cause offense. However, I have come to feel that this fear is actually detrimental to the cause of racial reconciliation, and that only in sharing our stories can we ever hope to understand one another. I therefore sat down to write, and what came out of me was not a few brief thoughts, but a continuous stream of contemplation. I present this very long article to the public in the hope that it might be somewhat helpful. I particularly hope it can benefit the Church.
Perhaps it seems silly to speak of myself experiencing black America, as I am white and have not spent a substantial portion of my life in the company of a large number of African Americans. However, the fact is that practically everyone has experienced something of black America. What they’ve experienced might represent a tiny fragment of the whole, but it helps to define how they view black Americans and think about issues of race and/or ethnicity. Looking back on my life now, I realize how those experiences have helped to shape my ideas. Not only that, but they have taught me some things about the Church.
When I was young, my church/school was located in the city of Muskegon proper, in what was by that time a predominantly black neighborhood. When the church was founded in the early 20th century, the neighborhood was likely dominated by the white middle class. I imagine that over the course of the next few decades, Muskegon experienced the same changes as other industrial towns in the Midwest, as black families continued to move north in search of work and a slightly more welcoming environment than what they experienced in the South. The result in Muskegon was presumably the same as everywhere else: the white families move to the suburbs, and the inner city was left to the newcomers. I didn’t understand this history when I was young. I didn’t know about the numerous methods that had been used to ensure segregation in nominally unsegregated areas. I just knew that the black people lived in one place and we lived in another.
Despite the changes in the neighborhood, the church did not move, and it was popular enough to draw white families out of their suburban environments and back to the city. There they formed a kind of island of whiteness in a sea of black. I say this because despite the church’s location in the middle of that predominantly black neighborhood, it had only a small number of black congregants. This was not due to a complete failure to reach out to those around us. In fact, many neighborhood children attended our AWANA program on Wednesday nights. I believe this caused frustration for the adults, as there were some behavioral issues. No one should have been surprised by that, as the income and education levels in that neighborhood were quite poor, and these children could hardly have been faulted for reflecting the chaos of their situations. Nevertheless, it left an impression on my young mind.
I knew that within the walls of my church/school, I could be safe and comfortable, but when I stepped outside, I was entering a different and more dangerous world. Perhaps you think I speak metaphorically, but I mean it quite literally. The neighborhood in which that building was located had one of the highest violent crime rates in the state of Michigan. I recall days when we were not allowed to go outside for recess because crime had spiked and school administrators were afraid that children on a playground could be targets. Things were not always that bad, but a few such incidents can leave a strong impression on a young child’s mind.
Thus, my earliest experience of black America was not with the sizable black middle class or the educated elite breaking barriers across America, but rather the much stereotyped segment of black Americans living in poverty, unable to break out of their situations. To this day, there is one particular section of Muskegon where I would prefer to stick to major roads and not stop for gas. This area is known for drug dealing and violent activity. Some people at our church attempted to reach out to the people who lived there, but my own gut reaction from a young age was one of fear.
I see now that it was a real blessing for me to spend some of my formative years in the company of at least a small number of black Americans. I did become friends with some of the girls who came to AWANA from that neighborhood. I remember certain observations that I had about them as a young person, when I was in a relatively uninhibited mental state. Their hair looked different from mine, and it did different things. They liked to put colorful ball ornaments in it, which seemed kind of cool, if entirely foreign. All of us were routinely told to hold hands during certain activities, and I remember thinking that their skin felt different. I was also amazed to see that the palms of their hands were much lighter than the rest of their skin: almost the same color as mine. I didn’t know why that was the case.
Perhaps you find all of this rather absurd, but these are the kinds of thoughts that go through the mind of a 6-year-old. The physical differences between human beings are obvious enough, and young children naturally observe them, even as they might comment on someone who seems rather tall or short, or who has an odd birthmark or large head. We chide our children for making these observations known, but perhaps we view their comments through the wrong lens. My sense of wonder at encountering humans different from myself was due to my inherent curiosity—not anything particularly nefarious.
I was not making value judgments, but the older I got, the more I realized that the very physical differences that I had rather innocently observed were used as weapons by others. To say that black people had tougher skin, or more frizzy hair, or larger lips, or anything of the sort was in fact code for something else in the adult world, often tied in with centuries of pseudoscience that had attempted to prove that black people were less intelligent, better suited for physical labor, more closely related to apes (on account of being less evolved), etc. As I grew older, I realized that this same supposed science had been used to fuel oppression, not only in the enslavement of vast numbers of Africans, but also in the murderous persecution of Jews and Slavs by Nazi Germany. What I had innocently observed was, for many people, not innocent at all, but rather the language of hate.
Thus opened a second stage in my experience of race in America—one that was characterized not so much by fear of physical danger, but rather fear of saying the wrong thing. I was not a completely oblivious child. In fact, I was rather smart. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that there were tensions between white people and black people, or when I had not heard that black people were the subject of unfair discrimination. As I grew older, I also grew in my understanding of just how nasty people who looked like me often were to people who did not look like me. I was always told that this was a bad thing in need of correction, and that I must be careful what I said, so as not to offend people.
There was, I learned, a set of rules about what one could and could not say. I was instructed to follow these rules so that black people would not be offended. Rule number 1: they were very particular about what they were called. “Black” was not the favored adjective of the day. “African American” was the politically correct way to refer to this group. Use the wrong word and people would get mad. The old terms “colored” and “person of color”, I was assured, were absolutely anathema. They might have been acceptable in the past, but now they were offensive. This was a bit confusing for me as a child, but I certainly didn’t want to make anyone feel bad. I tried to make a habit of saying “African American”, though it seemed a lot more clunky than “black”. One thing that helped convince me of the need for this change was that I read a book about Martin Luther King Jr. intended for children. It included an account of his first experience of being called “black”, and how he thought it was odd because his skin was actually brown. Well, if it had made Martin Luther King feel bad, then I certainly didn’t want to make anyone else feel the same way.
And now I will tell you something that you might find hard to believe, but which is nevertheless true: I did not know that the “n word” existed. As a young child, I never once heard it used. I found out about it because of the O.J. Simpson trial. My mother, like most white Americans, believed that O.J. was guilty. (Given that the victim’s blood was found in his car, this was not necessarily a racist conclusion for people to reach.) However, she explained that the defense was able to keep O.J. from being found guilty by convincing the jury that the one of the detectives was a racist. They achieved this in part by providing a tape of him saying a bad word. “What word was that, mom?” I asked. She reluctantly told me and said it was incredibly offensive and never to be used. It was hard for me to believe that anyone would make such terms a part of their normal vocabulary. It was only as a teenager that I began to learn about the complicated history of this word, and the debate over when (if ever) it was permissible for certain people to use it.
The size of my church congregation had grown substantially, and after a long financial campaign, the money was raised to buy a 60-acre property in another part of town. The new building would be located near the expressway and the biggest shopping center in town. It was about as different from our present location as possible. So when I was about twelve years old, the church/school packed up shop and moved out to the suburbs. We would have room to grow there, they said, and it was somewhat true. For example, we had nowhere to put all the cars at our old location. Nevertheless, when we said good-bye to the city, the nature of the church changed a bit. For a little while, we may have tried to use buses to transport people out to the new location, but that certainly didn’t continue for long. Things were much more comfortable in that new building. We had gained so much that whatever we had lost was quickly forgotten.
During middle school and high school, my life was entirely suburban. My family lived in an upper middle class neighborhood that was about as white as a polar bear. My church often had more than 1,000 people pass through its doors on any given Sunday, but I’m guessing not more than a couple dozen were black or Latino. To a certain extent, this reflected the makeup of the neighboring community, but again, we had chosen to leave one neighborhood for another. My small Christian school had a handful of black students, most of whom had been sent there as a means of escape from terrible public schools or family situations. The father of the only black student in my grade was in some sort of correctional facility. I never asked about it, and this student never volunteered any information. He was at the school largely due to the influence of a loving grandparent.
I didn’t witness much of what I would call blatant racism at that school, though I sensed that it must have been awkward for the black students to adjust to what was undoubtedly a different cultural milieu. The students themselves were very accepting of the black students and included them in all their activities. However, there were two more unfortunate moments that stand out in my mind.
The first was when our high school choir was going to perform a song from the musical film Sister Act that included a short rap solo. Apparently, some of them automatically looked at the one black guy in the choir (my classmate) and asked him to do the rap. He was seriously offended by this. On another occasion, we had a high school lip sync competition. During one of the numbers, the lone black girl in our high school got really into the dance and did some move that the adult judges decided to classify as a “head bang”. They immediately disqualified the group. I remember thinking, “What the heck?” I’m sure this seriously hurt her feelings. She didn’t mean to do anything wrong or inappropriate.
One of the few places where I often encountered “blackness”, if you want to call it that, was in the realm of sports. I became a big fan of football and basketball, even participating in the latter. (I wasn’t any good, but I at least showed up in the correct uniform.) This is where things start to get complicated. Even a casual observer knows that African Americans are heavily represented in certain sports. Basketball is exhibit A in this regard. It was somewhat rare to see white players making the starting lineup of an NBA squad. I remember watching the NBA draft as one young black man after another was invited up to the stage to have his photo taken with David Stern. I made an off-hand comment that black people seemed to be better at basketball than white people. “Don’t say that!” I was told. “It’s very offensive. They don’t like people to imply that they don’t try as hard.”
This was an odd moment for me. I was certainly willing to adjust my speech and bring it in line with accepted societal mores, and I was worried that my comment might have betrayed some kind of subconscious prejudice. However, it seemed odd that this rule should be a rule. Was it really wrong to observe, for example, that for the past several Olympics, every man in the final of the 100-meter dash has been of West African descent? Was that observation in and of itself racist?
I had certainly never meant to imply that black people did not work hard to achieve sporting excellence, that a less talented black person was more capable of dunking than a more talented white person, or that athletic and intellectual abilities were mutually exclusive. Yet it seemed that the cultural baggage of years of discrimination and pseudoscience had caused people to assume that I must mean one of those things if I said, “Black people are better at basketball than white people.” It was not regarded as a compliment, but rather an insult. Would the result have been the same if I said that the Chinese are good at table tennis, the Dutch are good at speed skating, or the Brazilians are good at soccer? Perhaps not, but I was beginning to doubt.
By the time I was in high school, I had been told about so many things that offended black people, that I started to get the impression they were offended by anything and everything. Indeed, it seemed they were offended by the very fact that I was white, as this must mean I was an oppressor, or at the very least that I could never empathize with their pain. I began to worry that even the simplest comments might be offensive in a way I could not understand. I will not say that I was petrified, but I think a part of me was acting out of fear. It’s not hard to see how a person could get to the point where they conclude that making no attempt to engage is better than trying to engage and causing offense.
Were black people really that easily offended? Was it really so difficult to speak with them? I didn’t know the answers to these questions, in part because I had so little contact with the black community. I could count on one hand the number of black people who entered our home up to my 18th birthday, and not for a lack of hosting social functions. We never had an entire black family over to visit—at least, not that I can remember. Before you conclude that we were exclusionary, consider that I was not exactly receiving an avalanche of invites to black homes. I was 17 years old before I crossed the threshold of one such home for the graduation part of my only black classmate. Even then, I was only there for a few minutes and didn’t really experience the place.
The fact of the matter is that we simply lived separate lives from the black community. They had their neighborhoods, churches, schools, and businesses, and we had ours. Don’t get me wrong: this wasn’t like the South under Jim Crow. No one could have prevented a black family from moving into our neighborhood, and indeed one multiracial family did enter eventually. We invited them over for dinner and attempted to form friendships with them. No one was trying to exclude the few black people who came to our school or church. They were welcomed to participate in anything and everything, and some did.
Even so, the lack of outright discrimination was clearly not enough to make Muskegon’s black population feel comfortable among us, and in any case, many of them probably did not have the money to buy a house in my neighborhood or pay the tuition fees at my Christian school. A good deal of scholarship money was available, but even so, I think that many black people would have simply found it difficult to attend a church that was so different from the ones in which they had been raised, and where there were few people who shared their background. I likewise would have felt rather out of place attending a black church or living in a black neighborhood.
Had I known my history better, I might have understood how the black church became a separate entity from the rest of American Christianity, beginning as a haven from the horrors of slavery and continuing as a haven from societal injustice. Black people wanted to be safe and comfortable, just like us. The difference was that, despite the strains of poverty and violence in many of their own communities, that was where they felt safest and most comfortable: safe from the injustices of society and comfortable to express themselves in the way they had always known.
You see, black Americans want integration, and yet they don’t. Why? Because they know very well the cost of integration. They remember how the first black children attending white schools were treated. They know that if they are the only dark person in a room, everyone will look at them differently. They know that if they ask white people to change their ways in order to make black people more comfortable, it will usually produce a negative reaction.
White Americans know things too. They know that black children coming to their schools from poor neighborhoods might bring along behavioral issues. They know that the types of worship songs and sermons favored in black services are different from what they usually experience, and there’s nothing that gets older members of a congregation more worked up than change. They know that addressing the years of societal injustices that have put us in this position will ruffle feathers and cause a lot of pain before we can get to the healing. After all, many white people don’t feel that they should be made to pay for offenses that are not their own. Their understandable unwillingness to personally take the blame for all four hundred years of oppression can at times make white Christians unwilling to discuss the problem at all or take responsibility for their own smaller part in it.
Therefore, the end result is that both groups conclude, “I’m happy where I am. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. The people here understand me. They not only sympathize with me, but they actively empathize with me. I don’t have to be something I’m not. I don’t have to adjust what I’m doing to assuage the (possibly unreasonable) concerns of others. I don’t have to put myself through all of that pain in pursuit of a healing that may never come.”
That was where I ended my high school experience: almost completely separated from black America. It would take a change or two in situation to bring me back into contact with what I had lost.
I have often heard people say that one of the privileges of being white is that you never have to think about your whiteness. Whereas a black person goes through the day constantly aware of the fact that they are part of an ethnic minority group and their cultural experiences are undeniably “black”, a white person makes few observations related to their own ethnicity and views their daily patterns and cultural experiences as a matter of course rather than anything definably “white”. There is some truth in this conception of American society, but the full story is a bit more complicated.
The fact is that Americans in general are rather disconnected from their ethnic identity, by which I mean the place from which their ancestors emigrated and the customs present there. Americans whose families have lived in this country for many generations typically have few if any records of their non-American ancestors. This seems to be almost as true for white Americans as it is for black Americans. Even as black Americans are usually forced to conclude that their ancestors came simply from “Africa”, white Americans can often give no better answer than “Europe”. Those are both entire continents that contain scores of ethnic groups and cultural traditions. White Americans who casually say they are “part Polish, part British” might be shocked to learn that Polish immigrants to the U.K. are viewed in much the same manner as Hispanic immigrants to the U.S.—that is, they are not considered to be part of the same ethnic group.
Americans have long promoted the idea that this country is a “melting pot”. People come here and leave their old cultural identities behind, instead adding bits and pieces of their former traditions to the diverse stew of “Americanness”. However, this isn’t exactly how it works. While there is definitely some collective melting going on, it is just as possible to identify three separate melting pots: one white, one black, and one Latino.
The enslaved Africans brought to these shores were the first to weld themselves into an identifiable sense of American “blackness”, no doubt because of their common circumstances. Up until the first half of the 20th century, there were still major fissures among various European descended groups, but at this point in history, it is rare to hear white people describe those with Irish, Italian, or even Jewish blood as significantly different from themselves in an ethnic sense. There is simply a general concept of “whiteness”. Most Latino Americans are still relative newcomers on the scene, having migrated here in the last century or so. However, as time goes by, I expect to see the continued synthesis of Mexican, Central American, and even South American cultures into a single version of American “Latinoness”. We’ll see….
Therefore, there is a somewhat definable sense of whiteness in this country, but white Americans rarely see it as such. It can be rather shocking to hear a black person criticize something as belonging to the “majority culture” or “white culture”, when as I have already noted, these things seem to the white person to be just a matter of course. They view these aspects of culture as possibly “American”, “Western”, or within the context of evangelicalism, “Christian”. They do not typically view them as “white”. So who is correct? I think both groups are correct to a certain extent. There are things that white people tend to say and do more than black people, although they do not typically develop these patterns in order to be intentionally “white”, nor do they view them as such.
Likewise, the “majority culture” in the United States has not been completely unaffected by ethnic minority groups. Much of our popular music, for example, descends from African forms of music. The tunes of African slaves gave birth to jazz, which gave birth to rock n’ roll, which gave birth to pop, which has more recently been combined with hip-hop. African Americans have made a definable impact in nearly every segment of American life. Just look at all the white kids listening to Jay-Z and Beyoncé while keeping posters of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in their lockers, and you’ll see that “majority culture” is not purely white. Nevertheless, it feels very white to black Americans, who were excluded from parts of American culture for so long, and in some cases still are.
It took me a long time to put these pieces together, and it is still a work in progress. At age 17, I left Muskegon and started attending a small Christian college in rural Indiana. Given the location of this institution, it was hardly surprising that the vast majority of students were white. (At the time I attended, so was more than 85% of Indiana’s population.) I will say this: there were far more black students at Taylor University than there were at my high school. With many ethnic minority groups represented on campus, numerous children of international missionaries, and a sizable chunk of students from more cosmopolitan locations, the student body was certainly more diverse than anything I had previously experienced.
This was a very positive period in my intellectual development when I was confronted with a wide range of ideas, not only in the books I read, but also in the minds of my professors and fellow students. Issues related to social justice were given significant amounts of attention. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday was set aside every year for seminars on racial reconciliation and understanding. We also took one week each year to focus on a particular world religion, with Islam being the first. Students were constantly encouraged to participate in volunteer activities both at home and abroad, and the school administrators were working to require all students to spend at least a month studying in another country in order to graduate. Various student organizations filled our campus with a range of global cuisines, even as our chapel services were frequently filled with the sounds of a gospel choir.
These experiences were all very valuable in helping me understand the concerns of those from different ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds than myself. I was increasingly drawn to various causes related to social justice, by which I mean a biblically based concern for those who are poor, sick, oppressed, marginalized, etc. I spent a lot of time studying the Old Testament Prophets, and I saw the unmistakable call for “justice and righteousness” in scripture. Of course, I had always known about this to some degree, but I think it hit home at that point more than it had previously. Another formative experience during this period was my struggle with depression and anxiety, which began my freshman year. God used this trial to make me more sensitive to others who were suffering.
Taylor required all students pursuing a Bachelor of Arts to fulfill certain requirements outside of their chosen major field, and one of these was to take a “cross-cultural” course. A variety of options were presented, and I chose to take “Ethnic and Minority Issues”. I reasoned that this was something about which I knew far too little, and if I had to fulfill this general education requirement, I might as well take something that could be truly helpful.
This course was not simply about African Americans. It examined a wide range of issues related to ethnicity. However, the black experience in America was certainly a key topic of discussion. Unsurprisingly, the class included a higher than usual percentage of students from ethnic minority groups. This was very useful, as we were able to hear from their personal experiences. I couldn’t help thinking that this was one class that really ought to be required for all students who did not belong to an ethnic minority group. I learned about the history of the civil rights movement in far greater detail. I was particularly impacted by the story of Fannie Lou Hamer and felt it was practically a crime that I had never heard about her before that time. To fulfill a class requirement, I watched a documentary on the history of rap music that was narrated by Snoop Dogg. I was somewhere between bemused and confused when he began talking about how the C.I.A. introduced crack cocaine into black neighborhoods as a form of population control. (This is just one example of how the very definition of truth can be affected by one’s ethnic identity, a fact displayed in the differing responses to the murder trials of O.J. Simpson and George Zimmerman.)
As a political science major, I spent much of my time studying political issues. Here ethnic tensions seemed to reach their apex. People say that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in American life, but I disagree: Election Day takes the cake. Growing up almost exclusively around political conservatives, I certainly witnessed the frustration and misunderstanding that can result from something as simple (and complex) as the push of a button or tick of a box in the voting booth. In my experience, conservatives often assume a certain degree of ignorance on the part of black voters on account of their continual support for the Democratic Party. “What have the Democrats really done for them?” conservatives ask. “Have they ended poverty or improved education? Have they really made the lives of black people better?”
The irony, of course, was that most of the people at my church or in our social circle during my childhood years were as loyal to the Republicans as black Americans were to the Democrats. The reasons for this can be discovered with a simple examination of U.S. history. As Republicans are keen to point out, they were the ones who were stronger supporters of the abolition of slavery. The movie Lincoln tells the story of how the Republicans, led by President Abraham Lincoln, pushed for the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in the entire United States of America. (The Emancipation Proclamation, ironically, only freed the slaves in the Confederate states.) The Democrats largely opposed this measure. In the century following the Civil War, the divide between these two major political parties was much different than it is now: Democrats dominated in the former Confederate states of the South, while Republicans owned the more economically powerful Northeast. One would hardly have concluded at that time that the Democrats were better champions of black Americans.
Then something rather extraordinary happened. Lyndon B. Johnson became president suddenly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. LBJ was not actually that sympathetic to the concerns of black Americans. The depiction of him in the recent movie Selma as a political opponent of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders is largely accurate. It was LBJ and his staff who tried to silence Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Nevertheless, LBJ did sign into law the Voting Rights Act, and this piece of legislation is often interpreted as the thing that lost the South for the Democrats, whether or not the president actually said that day, “We have lost the South for a generation.”
In one of the greatest political transformations in American history, the Southern Democrats turned into Southern Republicans, even as the Northeast started to move toward the Democrats. The parties became split by social issues as much as anything economic. When abortion on demand was legalized by the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, a group of conservative Christians led by figures such as Jerry Falwell came out in strong opposition to it. They threw their support behind a Republican presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan, who pledged to pass a new, anti-abortion amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Reagan was easily elected, but he never made good on his pledge. Instead, a movement known as the Religious Right was born. Motivated largely by the single issue of abortion, evangelical Christians moved increasingly into the Republican camp. By the turn of the century, the use of the term “evangelical Christian” in the media was usually code for a Christian whose political views were conservative.
This move by white evangelical Christians into the Republican camp has been mirrored by a movement of black Americans in the opposite direction. There are a variety of reasons for this. Democrats are often perceived as being more concerned with issues that affect African Americans, or of being less racist in general. The traditional stereotype of Democratic subsidies vs. Republican tax cuts has an impact on those who pay little in income tax but rely on government funding, though you would probably be surprised at how few African Americans receive benefits such as “food stamps”, SSI (supplemental security income), free preschool, etc. However, beyond these more tangible benefits, segments of black America have also been influenced by forms of liberal ideology that are traditionally framed as fighting oppression. The language of the Left and of liberal sociologists seems to be the language of many black Americans.
Can we really blame them for this? I don’t think so. Understand that for black Americans, the rosy history of American capitalism is not so rosy. The claim that everyone can achieve the “American dream” if they just keep their nose to the grindstone has not proven true for many with darker skin. This feeling of being left behind by the system has only increased as many of the traditional manufacturing jobs for which black Americans migrated to the cities of the North are no longer available. An expensive education is now often a pre-requisite for getting a job that pays well. Black Americans correctly calculate that given the inherent prejudice against them that still exists in much of American society, they need government protection to have a fighting chance in today’s economy, even as they needed the government to force apartment complexes, restaurants, and schools to open their doors to African Americans in years past.
The result of all this is that we have two very different political communities. In evangelical America, you may well face criticism if you vote for a Democrat. In black America, the opposite is true. Yes, this is something we must acknowledge: black Americans who hold a more conservative ideology or do not repeat the usual narrative are frequently chastised by members of their own ethnic group. I witnessed this recently when a black Christian brother of mine wrote an article criticizing certain theological beliefs in what is commonly called “the black church”. To be fair, the black church in America is not a monolith, and he never claimed that it was in his article. He was referring mainly to the type of church in which he grew up, where he found some serious doctrinal issues. His conclusions may have been right or wrong, but some people had a major problem with him writing the article at all. I was disturbed to see another online acquaintance of mine (who is also black) refer to him as a “house n—–“. As much as I hate to see white Christians with more liberal leanings ungraciously criticized, I was equally troubled to see how this brother’s differing opinion caused him to be labeled as a stooge of the majority culture. I knew that the more liberal man was probably responding out of years of pain, so his words were perhaps understandable, but that did not make them right or godly.
I struggled during my college years to navigate a course through these thorny political issues. Like many evangelical Christians my age, I felt that my parents’ generation had fixated too much on the single issue of abortion while failing to respond effectively to the A.I.D.S. crisis, extreme hunger, drug addiction, environmental destruction, and a host of other issues that impact human lives worldwide. It seemed like they felt biblical principles only applied to certain issues. They could therefore call themselves pro-life while supporting the flood of guns into American society, opposing increased funding for public schools, giving massive tax cuts to the richest among us, supporting an invasion of a country that had done little to provoke us, refusing to increase funding for things that would really help single mothers (like child health care, free preschool, and increased maternity leave), and supporting the death penalty.
I personally began to drift in a more liberal political direction at this time. I was definitely pro-life, but I noticed little difference in real abortion outcomes under Democratic and Republican presidents. Three decades of Republican appointments to the Supreme Court had not succeeded in reversing Roe vs. Wade. It seemed that the loyalty of Christians to the Republican Party had been no better rewarded than the loyalty of black Americans to the Democrats. Therefore, as the 2008 presidential campaign season began, I became a cautious supporter of Barack Obama.
Like most people, I first recognized Obama’s potential when he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His speech certainly reflected his status as a black man in America, but it also appealed to Americans of all types. It was poetic and inspiring. Moreover, I could tell that Obama was a very intelligent man who seemed to be levelheaded and thoughtful in his approach to political issues. I thought he could help to repair some of our fractured relationships with foreign countries. (International security is my educational specialty.) I did disagree with him on some important issues, including abortion. However, the fact that he was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination made things rather easy: he was certainly preferable to his primary opponent.
Not everyone liked the fact that I supported Obama, even if I did so with caveats. When an old family friend saw that I had an Obama sticker on my car, she told me that because he was pro-choice, a vote for Obama was like Pontius Pilate washing the blood off his hands. Regardless of her remarks, I was not the only young evangelical Christian who was attracted to Obama’s message. In fact, Obama performed fairly well with that demographic.
In the summer of 2007, I did a brief stint as an intern for U.S. Senator Carl Levin in Washington, D.C. Obama was a senator from Illinois at that time, but he was definitely in campaign mode for 2008. So many interns wrote to his office asking to get their picture taken with the senator that they decided to hold a joint event where he would take one photo with everyone who was interested. About 200-300 people showed up, and true to his word, Obama arrived and posed with us on the Capitol steps.
Afterward, he shook hands and encouraged us all to volunteer for his campaign. (Perhaps this was the real reason he took time out of his busy schedule for a photo op.) As Senator Obama made his way in my direction, I reached out my hand. The mass of humanity was so great that he did not even look me in the eye as he clasped it. However, we still had a genuine hand shake, and in that moment, I suddenly had a rather odd epiphany: “He’s black.”
You might be thinking, how did you fail to previously note that Obama was black? Well, of course I knew that he was black! I knew it intellectually. I knew that his candidacy was an important moment in American history. Yet when our hands touched, I felt his skin. I was instantly transported back to when I was a little girl and used to hold hands with the black girls who came to my church for AWANA. It was the same feeling: slightly different from mine. In that brief moment that our hands touched, I came to fully realize the significance of who Barack Obama was as a person and what it would mean for the United States of America when he became president (as I anticipated that he would). It was a surreal moment, and yet one that was important for me. I will never forget it.
In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau introduced a new option for race/ethnicity. For the first time, Americans could mark themselves as belonging to two or more races. This change was interpreted as a reflection of changing realities in this country, as the number of biracial or multiracial children had grown by leaps and bounds over the past few decades. President Barack Obama caused somewhat of a stir in this regard. Though he is undoubtedly the most famous child of a black man and white woman in American history, he marked himself as simply African American rather than biracial. This was a testament to the complex issues of identity facing Americans with a mixed racial heritage. Obama had always said that despite being raised primarily by his white mother and white grandparents, he felt more akin to black Americans.
This is the legacy of policies in place for many years in the United States, where even a small amount of “black blood” was seen to trump a person’s “white blood”. A person’s racial identity was often reduced to nothing more than the amount of melanin in their skin. If a person looked a bit darker than the average white person, they were automatically black. Yet melanin only tells part of the tale of our ethnic heritage, a fact brought into stark relief by the revelation that Thomas Jefferson had fathered multiple children with one of his black slaves, Sally Hemmings. The Hemmings family had testified for years to their descent from one of America’s greatest Founding Fathers, but the white descendants of Jefferson and numerous historians dismissed their claims. The advent of DNA testing proved that the Hemmingses were just as much the children of Jefferson as anyone else, despite their darker skin. A more recent example of this principle was the announcement that Strom Thurmond, a long-time proponent of racial segregation, had a black daughter. Melanin doesn’t tell the whole story.
The same year that the U.S. Census Bureau changed their questionnaire, I began dating a biracial man. No, he was not the same mix as the president: rather, the non-white portion of his racial heritage came from his Indian father (as in the country of India). For a whole host of reasons, his upbringing had been more “white” than “Indian”. Nevertheless, when I asked him how he answered the census question, he said that he chose to mark himself as Asian American rather than biracial.
Perhaps it seems odd, but while I was very much aware of Jai’s Indian heritage and treasured that part of his identity, I never really thought of us as belonging to different races. Perhaps that was because he had a white mother, or perhaps I too was subconsciously falling back on the melanin argument. (Jai’s skin is so light that people are often surprised to learn of his Indian heritage, assuming instead that he is Italian.) Whatever the reason, while I by no means denied the fact that his ethnic heritage was somewhat different from my own, I did not spend much time pondering whether we were actually an “interracial couple”. Then one day, I asked him, “Jai, do you think we’re an interracial couple?” He instinctively responded, “Yes.” That led to a good discussion between the two of us, and I really appreciated hearing his thoughts on the issue.
For our wedding day, I wanted to make a point of celebrating Jai’s heritage along with my own. The difficulty with this was that much of Indian culture is wrapped up in Hinduism—at least, the portion of Indian culture from which Jai’s family comes. This is why Jai was not always in touch with that part of his heritage growing up: his father had converted to Christianity after arriving in the United States, and with a typical convert’s zeal, he did not want his children participating in anything close to Hinduism or Hindu rituals. Shortly after we met, I had to explain to Jai that there was a holiday called Diwali and that it was a big deal in India. He was not aware of it because his father had objected to the fact that it had Hindu origins.
There was no question that we were going to have a thoroughly Christian wedding ceremony. I chose to model it on the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, which had been used by my ancestors for hundreds of years. However, I tried to find ways to honor India as well. I selected red and gold as our wedding colors, as these are the colors of an Indian bride’s dress. Our rehearsal dinner and reception both included foods from a local Indian restaurant, and our cake was crowned by a pair of tigers. We entered our reception as a newly married couple to the song “Jai Ho!” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire, a favorite of ours because it includes my husband’s name in the title.
When I became a Mantravadi, I entered a different world. Having been raised in an environment that was almost entirely white, I was now part of an extended family that looked a bit like a gathering of the United Nations. We had white people, Asian people, and even a few black people. (One of Jai’s uncles married an African American woman. Their son refers to himself as a “Blindian”.) I was introduced to new foods and traditions. If you come to my house today, you are as likely to find me cooking Jalfrezi as anything else. Don’t get me wrong: I do not think less of my own family because they are not as ethnically diverse. I just think that in bringing me in contact with the Mantravadis, God was making me a part of something even bigger.
One small example of this would be a recent visit I made to my in-laws’ church in the Houston area. I have never seen another congregation quite like it. The ethnic makeup is approximately 50% black, 25% white, and 25% Latino or other. That is fairly unusual in the United States of America. However, what truly distinguishes this congregation is how incredibly friendly they all are. I must have been greeted by 50 people during the course of that two hour lovefest. At one point in the service, the worship leader asked everyone to say hello to one another. My own church in Ohio does the same thing, but we get through it in less than a minute, whereas it went on for about 10 minutes at my in-laws’ church. Only when every person had seemingly shaken hands with every other person in the room did it end.
By no means do I think the people at that church were blind to their ethnic differences, but if it was causing them mental hang-ups, I didn’t notice. The black congregants were not at all hesitant to strike up a conversation with the white visitors, even as my white mother-in-law treasured all her brother and sisters in Christ equally, regardless of whether they were black, white, Latino, or something else. This church is not without problems, but I think they have accomplished something that many churches with far more money and influence fail to do: they seem to have fostered a genuine climate of ethnic inclusiveness. What makes all of this even better is that the sermon I heard that morning was thoroughly saturated with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It confronted people with the reality of sin, but also took them to the Savior. They seemed to be succeeding in both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I could only say to myself, “Wow!”
Unfortunately, the relative harmony at that church has not been mirrored in broader American society. Many people hoped that the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States would mark a turning point in ethnic relations in this country. It was certainly a turning point, but not in the way they hoped. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel that racial disharmony increased rather than decreased during the Obama presidency. The hopes that many had that Obama would be able to help promote interracial understanding were denied, and in any case, they were misplaced. No one person has the power to single-handedly end the “race problem” in America.
In many ways, it was more difficult for Obama to speak out on issues related to black Americans, because he was seen to be biased. Any time he commented on racial issues—e.g. the arrest of Harvard professor and noted African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. or the shooting death of Trayvon Martin—it was seen as proof by many conservatives that he was on some kind of “black power” crusade. What began with the dissection of every word previously uttered by Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ended with Obama unable to do much of anything in response to police shootings of unarmed black men in the closing years of his presidency. That was the sad irony of America’s first black president.
As the news cycle continued to be filled with stories of unarmed black men gunned down by police, some people acted as if things had suddenly gotten much worse in America. I understand why they felt this way, but it is my firm belief that what we are seeing now is not anything new, but rather the continuation of a longstanding trend. What has changed the situation recently is the explosion of social media. Things which previously occurred in the darkness are now broadcast for the entire world to see, such as the live-streamed aftermath of Philando Castile’s death. Black men have always been more likely to be killed at the hands of police, but we are now more aware of it than in years past.
By no means am I suggesting that the police are evil. The details of every incident are slightly different, and I am in no position to make a moral judgment about all of them. However, there is no question that our justice system has not delivered justice for African Americans throughout our country’s history. It can be difficult to find definitive proof of systemic injustice. For example, the fact that black people are more likely to be arrested can be dismissed as the result of more criminal behavior. However, when one looks at trial outcomes, the divide is much clearer. Perhaps the most telling statistic is how much more often a black defendant receives the death penalty when the victim is white versus the other way around. Add to that the fact that many black men after placed behind bars for relatively minor drug crimes thanks to the existence of “mandatory minimum” sentences, and you get what some have labeled the “New Jim Crow”.
I had a chance to see our justice system in action when I was given a ticket for an expired license tag. The odd thing was that I did have an updated tag on my plate, but it was for the wrong car: the state of Ohio had sent me a renewal form with the plate number for a car I no longer owned rather than the one I was currently driving. It was my fault for not double checking, but the fact was that I had paid all the money they required: the tag was just associated with the wrong plate number. I thought about paying the fine, but a couple of people urged me to plead “not guilty” due to the extenuating circumstances and my obvious efforts to comply with the law.
After entering my plea of “not guilty”, I was given a court date. When I went to meet the prosecutor beforehand, I was very nervous. I had all my papers in order and had rehearsed the explanation of what went wrong and why I did not believe I should be penalized. I sat down and gave my prepared speech, only to have him respond rather flippantly, “So basically, you’re guilty.” He saw no gray area in the law. I did not have the correct tag on my plate, and therefore I was guilty even though the state had made the mistake on the form. At this point, I think he expected me to simply back down and agree that I was guilty, but I was unwilling to hand an admission to him on a golden platter. He then asked me if I had any previous citations, and I said no. The meeting ended and I went back into the foyer to wait for my time before the judge, not knowing exactly what would happen.
As it turned out, the prosecutor came up to me a few minutes later and said, “I understand that you want to keep your perfect record, so I’ve arranged for the charge to be dropped. You’ll just have to pay the court fee, but your record will be clean.” The result was that I ended up paying nearly the same amount of money as the fine would have been, but as far as the public records system is concerned, I never received that ticket.
You might assume that I was happy with this turn of events, but I was actually somewhat unhappy. It was obvious to me that the prosecutor believed I was guilty, but he had decided to let me off because I was a nice girl who didn’t want a black mark on her record. In short, he had given me special treatment. I had not gone there looking for special treatment. I went there because I honestly believed I had fulfilled the spirit of the law, and that the fault was as much with the state of Ohio as it was with me. Maybe the court disagreed, and if so, I was prepared to accept the consequences of my failure to double check the license plate number on the form. However, by giving me special treatment, the prosecutor almost made me feel dirty. I would have rather paid the fine.
Perhaps this feeling of special treatment was enhanced by what I had experienced on the day I entered my plea. The courtroom was full of people charged with a wide variety of infractions. I noticed a contrast between two cases. The first was a young white man who must have been about 16 or 17 years old. He arrived at the court in a suit, with his parents and their defense lawyer by his side. This teenager had evidently been arrested for driving under the influence. When the four of them approached the bench, the judge explained to the young man that he had discussed everything with the lawyer, and they had come to an agreement by which he would essentially be let off with a slap on the wrist.
A few minutes later, a black man in his 30s approached the bench wearing what was probably the nicest thing he owned: a dress shirt and jeans. His lawyer was evidently a public defender. The defendant had previous infractions on his record, and this time the charges came with potential jail time. The lawyer explained with some emotion that the defendant had made efforts to reform, and that his mother was brokenhearted over the situation. The judge briefly acknowledged these words, then immediately sentenced the defendant to jail time. As we all looked on, he was handcuffed and led out of the room by corrections officers. It was a very sobering moment, and I couldn’t help feeling that the young white man was given the benefit of the doubt, while the black man who could not afford a fancy attorney got the short end of the stick. Obviously, their crimes were not the same, but it seemed like something less than justice was handed down that day.
Even as African Americans were not getting the benefit of the doubt in court rooms, they did not seem to be getting the benefit of the doubt on our nation’s streets. In my own town, a black man was shot dead at Walmart. A fellow customer had called the police and reported that a black man was walking around the store waving around a gun. Given that the store sold guns, this wasn’t necessarily proof of anything nefarious. However, the fact was that the man in question was carrying neither a shotgun nor a rifle: it was a BB gun. As the police entered the store, they may or may not have told the man to set down the weapon. He was on his cell phone and possibly wouldn’t have heard a command even if it was given. The police interpreted his actions as threatening and shot to kill.
However, the incident that affected me the most occurred in 2015 when Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was welcomed by the people there, sat with them for some time, and then proceeded to open fire, killing nine congregants. The shock of this mass murder spread across the country. Many black people felt a unique emotional pain, but I must say that I myself was shaken. To me, this was not merely an attack on black Americans, but an attack on the Church of Jesus Christ. The members of that church showed Christian hospitality to Dylann Roof, and he answered it with murderous hate. The past few years have brought us several shootings at churches, many of which had nothing to do with race. However, there was one thing that particularly impressed me about the Charleston shooting, and that was the response of the victim’s family members. Despite having every reason to hate the white supremacist who had stolen their loved ones from them, they went on national television and spoke about Jesus Christ, His Word, and forgiveness. Their testimony was both powerful and inspiring.
As violence and ethnic hatred continued to tear at the fabric of the United States of America, I longed for reconciliation. However, of one thing I was absolutely certain: true reconciliation could only come through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is what you give to someone when you have not personally experienced their pain, but you nonetheless feel compassion toward them. In order to have empathy for someone, you need to have actually experienced whatever is troubling them. You need to have walked a mile in their shoes. Sympathy is useful, but those who are experiencing suffering often feel a special kinship with those who can empathize with them. The thing is, empathizing isn’t always an option if you’ve had different life experiences, so how do you make a hurting person feel that you understand? How do you take your sympathy to the next level?
One of our chapel speakers during my time at Taylor University said something about Martin Luther King Jr. that I will never forget. He said that King “entered into the pain of the people”. The speaker went on to explain that this is a mark of great leaders: they make people feel that they understand their pain and share in it.
How can I, as a white person, hope to enter into the pain of my black brothers and sisters? How can I know what it is to walk a mile in their shoes? I hear black Americans say again and again, “You just don’t understand.” Then sometimes they say, “It isn’t possible for you to understand.” Then when they are truly hurting, they sometimes conclude that no white person’s opinion is valid simply because they are white…and therefore they cannot possibly understand.
It isn’t only black people who feel this way. We all want to be understood, and we often feel cheated in that department. Yet black Americans feel more cheated than most, for throughout American history, their narrative has not been the dominant one. It is the narrative of white America that has usually set the tone. The predominance of that white narrative and the segregation of our lives from one another—whether by force or by choice—have contributed to this lack of understanding.
Of course, the frustration goes in both directions. Some white Americans may conclude that there is no way for them to win. When they are being told that their status as a white person prevents them from ever possibly understanding, then they are likely to conclude that no matter how hard they try, they will never satisfy the demands of others. Are all black people making such demands of white people? No. Do white Americans give up far too easily? Yes, of course they do. Is this all a big mess of misunderstanding? Quite possibly.
This problem of understanding, which we might also call the problem of empathy, lies at the heart of our racial discord. Those on both sides who make efforts to understand often hit a wall where they realize it is not as easy as they imagined. They begin to feel that the demands of the other side are unreasonable. Eventually, they take their ball and go home.
What am I getting at here? Simply this: there is a danger in working toward racial reconciliation. Yes, that’s right. Engaging with people from other ethnic backgrounds is dangerous. Why? Because the moment you seek to understand another group of people, you will be required to enter into the pain of that people. It is not possible for us to all share pain in a literal sense, but if you are going to have a real relationship with someone, you have to reach a level of emotional intimacy in which you actually feel what they feel: their hopes and dreams, their trials and tribulations. You have to know what it is to be that person. In doing so, you must take upon yourself a piece of their pain. You must understand and treasure it so deeply that it becomes a part of yourself. You will be in grave danger of having to sacrifice your comfort, and while you may be physically safe, there is no guarantee that your dearly held presumptions will be safe.
Although I have sought at many points in my life to understand black Americans and comprehend their sufferings, I am always somewhat limited. There have been few times when I can be said to have truly entered into that pain that is felt by so many—when I have drunk from the well of 400 years of suffering and felt its cold sting. The African American experience is not only pain. It is also joy, love, hope, and thanksgiving. It is the proud history of a people drawn from the rich jungles and plains of Africa, where the mountains and deserts meet the sea and form a beating heart that sends its lifeblood out to the far corners of planet earth. Nevertheless, to see the joys and not the sorrows is only to see half the picture.
It was not enough for me to embrace the hand of Barack Obama. It was not enough for me to share in the joys of victory. It was not enough for me to understand things on an intellectual level. I needed to encounter black America on a more intimate level if I was ever going to grow in my understanding. As it so happened, life provided me with such an opportunity.
In the early months of 2014, I began a new job as a field interview for the University of Michigan Institute for Social Science Research. I would eventually be assigned to work on three different longitudinal studies: the Health and Retirement Study, the Panel Study on Income Dynamics, and the Transition to Adulthood study. These were paid research studies in which we returned to interview the same participants every two years. Some of the interviews were conducted over the phone, but for many of them, I was required to interview the person in their place of residence. It was this aspect of our studies that brought me into contact with black America in a new way.
I mentioned earlier that I did not cross the threshold of an African American home until the age of 17, and then only very briefly. Thanks to my job with U of M, I began entering such homes on a regular basis. Here I saw a side of black American life that had previously been hidden from view. Sure, I had watched movies and TV shows that were set in black homes, but that’s not quite the same. Even though I only spent about three hours a piece with my interview respondents, I learned a great deal through these interactions.
Regardless of the income level of my black respondents, there were some things about their homes that tended to be the same. First, they almost always had photos of their loved ones prominently displayed. That was hardly shocking: you would find the same thing in white homes. Second, they often had specifically African or African American décor elements. Many homes I visited had framed prints or original paintings that appeared to be made by African artists, or at least in an African style. Third, they typically had something in their home that indicated their (at least nominal) Christian faith. Again, this was very similar to many of the white homes I visited. Fourth, the majority of black homes I visited had a photo of one specific person displayed somewhere: President Barack Obama.
Some people might conclude that the presence of Obama’s photo in so many of these homes was troubling. After all, the same thing occurs in countries where the leader has a cult of personality, and it is unusual to see white Americans displaying a photo of any of the many white presidents of the United States on their walls. I suppose many people would conclude that the Obama photos prove how desperately black Americans cling to the Democratic Party.
I believe these assumptions are incorrect. The black families I visited rarely mentioned politics. I think they would have been hard-pressed to explain to me the finer details of the Affordable Care Act or Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia. I am not implying that these people were ignorant or unintelligent, but rather that they had better things to do with their time. (White Americans would have difficulty explaining the same things.) One or two of my respondents seemed to have been involved with Obama’s campaign or attended his inauguration, but this was a definite minority. I concluded that most of them displayed Obama’s photo not as a political statement, but rather as evidence of a collective accomplishment. “We did that,” the photos seemed to say. “After all these years, we finally did it.” It is also possible that the photos represented something more aspirational: the hope that their children and grandchildren could also achieve something of the American dream.
My life at this time was bringing me into contact with black Americans of all kinds. The neighborhood I lived in was decidedly middle class or even upper middle class, and about half of the families on my street were black. This was a segment of American society that some white people forget exists: the black middle class. It was an important reminder that, contrary to the prevailing stereotypes, many African Americans do have healthy marriages, a high level of education, successful jobs, and good records of civic involvement. We’ve all seen the terrible statistics about the less fortunate segments of black America, and I certainly witnessed much of that first-hand while doing my job, but it’s important to remember that much like white America, black America is not a monolith.
I did not know exactly how I would be received when I, a young white woman, first started visiting black neighborhoods. Some such neighborhoods were perfectly pleasant, but I was also sent to some of the worst sections of Dayton, Ohio. One of my jobs as an interviewer was to make observations about the neighborhoods I visited, the better to assist future interviewers. However, even if I had not been specifically looking for signs of socioeconomic status, I would have seen them. One could tell almost immediately what state a neighborhood was in by how well the yards were maintained, if there were any boarded windows, and if there were a lot of working age men sitting around in the middle of the day. These were signs of unemployment and financial distress. Unfortunately, I saw them far too often in the neighborhoods of western Dayton.
One experience stands out in my mind. I was sent to make contact in person with a woman who had not been returning our phone calls. We’ll say her name was Mary. I drove to the address in Mary’s profile and found that it was a complex of apartment homes, which based on various information I collected was most likely subsidized in part by the government. There were no boarded windows, but there were definitely signs of economic distress. I put on my messenger bag with the U of M logo printed on it in bright yellow. We had been told that this would be our insurance policy in troubled neighborhoods, as people would assume we were some kind of social worker or other official.
As I attempted to locate Mary’s apartment, I passed a group of African American men sitting in what I assumed was their usual smoking spot. As the only white person around, I was certain that I must be sticking out like a sore thumb. I admit that I experienced a slight surge of fear. Although it was the middle of the day and I was outside, I was a young woman walking alone, and my employer had forbidden me to carry any form of weapon, including something as simple as pepper spray. However, the men didn’t say anything as I passed by.
I reached a door that was labeled with the correct number. A middle-aged woman and her boyfriend were sitting out on the steps. I asked if this was Mary’s residence. The woman confirmed that it was and that Mary was an older relative of hers. She opened the front door for me, and I entered a small kitchen that was remarkable for its untidiness. However, given the amount of filthy and smelly homes I had entered while performing my work duties, this was not particularly surprising. (I should emphasize that messiness is not limited to one ethnic group. My most unpleasant experiences with stench were in white homes, not black ones.) Here I was greeted by a woman in her 20s who introduced herself as Mary’s granddaughter. I quickly discovered that four generations of women were living in the same small home.
I was instructed to go into the back room, where I found Mary laying on a couch. She was in her 70s or 80s and her health was clearly poor. She was also very hard of hearing—another difficulty that I faced with respondents of all ethnicities. I attempted to raise my voice enough to be heard over the television, and I was eventually able to schedule a time for Mary’s interview. As I was about to leave, the granddaughter asked me when I planned to return. “Don’t come at night,” she said. “It’s not safe.”
When I returned a week or so later, things were in slightly better order, as the family was expecting me. The granddaughter greeted me again. I was impressed by how friendly she was. In my line of work, I was typically greeted by anything from boredom and mild annoyance to outright anger and slammed doors. However, this family was very welcoming. The granddaughter offered to give me some of the food she was making. I politely told her I was not allowed to accept food or drink. (This was true.) Mary and I sat at the small table in the kitchen and spent the next three hours or so attempting to make it through the questionnaire. Although Mary was very good-natured, she had cognitive difficulties due to her advanced age, and as previously mentioned, she struggled to hear the questions.
After we had been at it for an hour or two, a young boy entered the room. This was one of Mary’s great-grandchildren. He went up and asked how his great-grandmother was doing and if she needed any help. This impressed me greatly, as I rarely see a child of that age act with such thoughtfulness. The boy looked me right in the eye, addressed me politely and respectfully, and asked if he could assist his great-grandmother on a few questions. I said this would be ok. Sure enough, as we went on, he was able to explain things to her in a way that I could not. (I was required to stick to the script and could not prompt the respondent.) The boy then left and we finished the interview. I paid Mary the $200 she was owed for completing it, which meant more to her than most of the other people I interviewed. I would have loved to give her the $1,000 that I had handed to the last five cranky people, but alas, I could not.
As I left, a part of me wanted to speak to Mary’s granddaughter and tell her, “Your son is a remarkable boy. He is clearly both intelligent and considerate. In the years to come, he will face numerous pressures that could make it difficult for him to receive a high level of education. However, I am confident that if he is able to overcome those obstacles, this boy will be able to rise out of poverty. He will be the one who breaks the cycle.” I wanted to say that to her, but for a million obvious reasons, I could not. Instead, I simply prayed to God that he would protect this boy and guide him through the difficult years that lay ahead, so that one day he would achieve his dreams. I have no idea what happened to that family, but I still think of them on occasion, and I say a prayer when I do.
Why did I spend so much time telling that story? Because it proves that our expectations are wrong. Not only do many white people assume that all black people live in poverty (unless they are singers, basketball players, or Barack Obama), but they also make many further assumptions about those people. They assume that they are not very intelligent. They assume that the harsh realities of their situation have turned them into harsh and unwelcoming people. They assume that there is nothing good to be found in the ghetto, and that it is only a place of fear.
For those black Americans who do live in continual poverty generation after generation, life is indeed harsh. They are faced with the daily reality of crime, inferior schools for their children, the question of where their next meal will come from, and the pain of being without a father. (While there are many wonderful black fathers in America, it is true that the most impoverished section of black America suffers from a crisis of absentee men, as I saw time and again with the people I interviewed. This is due to several factors, and I am not attempting to make a moral judgment, but simply to state the facts.) However, there is light even in those dark places, and had I never entered them, I would not have seen that light. Visiting Mary’s house might not have seemed safe or comfortable, but it was necessary. If I had never visited, I never would have met her lovely family, and I never would have seen the great potential in a child. I had to take upon myself the tiniest bit of their pain in order to share in their joys.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States of America. This fact is a painful one for many non-white Americans. They paid attention to the words coming out of his mouth: a string of insensitive and inflammatory comments that began with his first speech at Trump Tower and has continued to the present day. They saw how his campaign played on the fears of many white Americans (namely, that their country was being overtaken by people with darker skin) rather than appealing to our common hopes. They watched as overtly racist groups, inspired by Trump, marched through the streets making Nazi salutes. They became very afraid that all the advances for which they had fought and bled over so many years were about to be reversed in the blink of an eye.
What made this particularly terrible for many black brothers and sisters in Christ is that they saw prominent evangelical leaders attempting to excuse all of Trump’s hateful comments and portray a vote for him as a morally good choice. Certainly, there were many Americans who, in their equal disdain for all the candidates on offer, were forced to hold their nose and vote for one. However, due to their long-time support for the Republican Party and their fears of increasing liberalization in this country, many Christian leaders began to paint Donald Trump as a model Christian. If his past sins were brought up, they would say that this illustrated the power of forgiveness. (Never mind that Trump had publicly stated that he had never done anything that required forgiveness.) If his behavior was declared to be in violation of scripture, they would say he was a brand-new Christian and could be expected to behave better in the future. If his policies were called into question, they would say that he was at least pro-life. (This was a position that Trump had adopted rather recently and conveniently.) And when news stations across America began playing a tape in which Trump bragged about groping women’s private parts and kissing them against their will, they joined him in dismissing it as “locker room talk”.
Many black Christians were deeply wounded by all of this. Having fought to gain a place at the table of evangelicalism for so long, they felt that they had suddenly been thrown out the back door. How could their white brothers and sisters not understand the fear they felt when they saw white supremacists emboldened? How could they continue to make excuses for a man who seemed to be the very antithesis of Jesus Christ—a man who had bragged that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing supporters? How could they invite such a vile individual to speak at their institution and give him an honorary degree? How could they forgive those who were willing to throw their lot in with a man who said Africa was full of “s—hole countries” for a single seat on the U.S. Supreme Court?
Perhaps you’re thinking, “That’s an overreaction. Most of the people who voted for Trump did so while disdaining certain aspects of his behavior and without sharing all of his views. They never claimed that it was a morally good choice, but simply the lesser of two evils.” Maybe so, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from the era of “fake news”, it is that perception often trumps reality. Not every white evangelical was behaving in the manner I have just described, but it only takes a certain number doing so rather loudly for a perception to be etched in cement. Moreover, we are kidding ourselves if we deny the reality of racial insensitivity in the Church today. The problem is not just out there: it is among us. Look deep within yourself and ask, “Have I shown real, biblical love to my black brothers and sisters in Christ? Have I been sensitive to their concerns? Have I acknowledged their struggles? Have I listened rather than lecturing? Have I entered into their pain?” Yes, black Christians must act in the same way toward their white brother and sisters, but that does not excuse our inaction.
As a result of the election of Donald Trump, many black Christians have (rightly or wrongly) concluded that evangelicals will never really understand them. Their hurt has caused them in some cases to take drastic action and leave the communities to which they once belonged. Instead of attempting to fit in at a majority white church, they are retreating to that which is safe and familiar: the black church. This is the only place where they feel truly comfortable to be themselves. Other black Christians are staying put for now, but doing so with heavy hearts. Their hopes for racial reconciliation seem dimmer than they once did.
If you are thinking, “That seems kind of ridiculous,” then you still don’t understand. It’s not so much the votes for Trump that concern black Christians as what they seem to represent: a casual indifference toward ethnic minorities and an unwillingness to take on any part of their pain.
So is this the end of the story? Is there nothing that can be done? I think not. I know not. Anyone who thought that reconciliation was going to be easy was kidding themselves. Setbacks were inevitable. Human hearts are still ugly, and not only conservative ones, but also liberal ones. All of us naturally seek our own, and all of us naturally harbor undue pride. Only in putting pride to death and following the Lord’s command to love our neighbors will we begin to make real progress toward reconciliation. Only in the blood of Christ can we be healed.
Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address in the closing days of the Civil War, when a Northern victory and the abolition of slavery seemed all but certain. He stressed the need for reconciliation and healing in a nation where brother had turned against brother. He also spoke in spiritual terms about the evil of slavery.
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
In the more than four centuries since people of African descent were first brought to these shores, their experiences with white Americans have left behind a trail of blood. From the slaver’s whip, to the lynch mobs, to the bullets of police, black Americans have often been made to bleed at the hands of their white brothers and sisters. Beyond that physical toll, there has been an emotional toll to this clash of ethnicities: a hatred that has grown up on either side as relations have deteriorated time and again.
But it is not enough to acknowledge the physical and emotional tolls of black Americans’ persecution at the hands of white Americans. There has also been a spiritual toll to all of this: a bond of fellowship that has long been broken and in need of repair. I am not saying that black Americans have never sinned against white Americans, or that all white Americans are equally guilty of these heinous acts. Nevertheless, we must not be too quick to absolve ourselves of the trail of blood. My ancestors lived in the North and never owned slaves, yet the economy of the North benefited greatly from the proceeds of slave labor in the South. In much the same way, I sometimes benefit from racial privileges that I myself did not put in place, as in my favorable treatment at the courthouse.
Again, this is not to say that all white people are so deeply entrenched in “white privilege” that they are unavoidably evil and willfully ignorant. Many white Americans have worked very hard to facilitate reconciliation with their black brothers and sisters in Christ, and we must acknowledge that there are black Americans who are overly dismissive of white America and make just as few efforts to understand as the other side. There is sin in both camps, for all men are born sinners, yet we are lying to ourselves if we do not acknowledge that the greater historical sin is on the part of white Americans who refused to see their black brothers and sisters as equal before God.
Today, we honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. He was a great man and a great American who did much to further the cause of racial reconciliation. Even so, he was not a perfect man, and attempts to portray him as such are actually harmful to our reconciliation efforts. The myth of perfect heroes descended from on high allows us to believe that we could never achieve such things and should simply sit back and wait for the next perfect individual to come and save us all. No, if you dig far enough into the lives of any “great man” in history, you will find things that are not so admirable. You will find sin, because we are all sinners. The truly great thing about King was that he was, in fact, a normal person. Yes, he had talents and abilities, but he succeeded not because he was sprinkled with magic pixie dust, but because he worked and sacrificed for years on end. He succeeded because on many occasions when others took their ball and went home, he remained committed to the cause. He worked with people whom he must have felt in his heart were racists. He did all of this because he had a dream: a dream of reconciliation.
Unfortunately, not all of King’s dreams have come true. We are not all sitting together at the table of brotherhood. People are still judged by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. Rather than shouting, “Free at last!”, we are still enslaved by prejudices and fears that keep us from having real communion. While some people open their mouths and fill society with racist invective, I have at times been too hesitant to open mine. Afraid of causing offense or being misunderstood, I chose instead to say nothing at all. While it’s true that in remaining silent, you can sometimes protect yourself and others from unintentional offense, you are also failing to have a real relationship. Real relationships are dangerous. Love is dangerous. It takes away our comfort and safety. It forces us to go the extra mile and lay down our lives for one another.
How can we hope to achieve all of this? How can we ever make amends for that trail of blood? If the destruction and death of the Civil War was not enough to repay America’s debt (as Lincoln had mused), then how can we hope to make amends? Well, how can any sin be atoned for? Not by human working…except for the work of one human. Jesus Christ was the only perfect man who ever lived, and His blood does what no other blood can. His wounds heal our wounds. His death gives us life.
When Christ surrendered his back to the whip and his body to unjust execution, He took upon Himself the sorrows of a world full of sorrow. The system of Old Testament sacrifices had sent the message that “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”. (Hebrews 9:22b) God told Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, / By man his blood shall be shed, / For in the image of God / He made man.” (Genesis 9:6) The trail of blood that made the entire world filthy could only be cleansed through another trail of blood.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
Scripture tells us that only the life and death of Christ can bring about reconciliation between God and man and between man and man. The fact is that we are all, in a sense, oppressors. On account of our sin, Christ was “oppressed” and “afflicted”. Yet He willingly placed Himself in that position of suffering in order to reverse the curse of sin and open the way for reconciliation. In this greatest injustice of all time, the justice of God was satisfied. Those who place their faith in the crimson flow of that blood are made white as snow.
Consider that all of us who are Gentiles were once excluded from the people of God. We were spiritual outcasts not subject to the promises. The racial hatred between Jews and Gentiles was one of the most serious problems of the early Church. However, Paul wrote that Christ Jesus offered up His flesh as a sacrifice that would tear down the barrier between the peoples.
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
The Law that had separated Jews and Gentiles was fulfilled in the work of Christ, and in these verses we see a picture of how the blood of Christ is the only way to bring about true and lasting reconciliation. Only the Prince of Peace can be our peace. Only the one who humbled Himself to become incarnate as a man can enable us to put our pride to death. Only the one who loved us to the end can enable us to love beyond the bounds of human reason. Even as the enmity between Jews and Gentiles was put to death, so our own racial strife can come to an end…but only through Jesus Christ.
I do not have any power in myself to bring about lasting reconciliation with my black brothers and sisters. Only by submitting myself to the will of God and relying on the power of the Spirit can I hope to be brought near to those who are far off through the saving blood of Christ. Only by acknowledging by own failings can I hope to receive a hearing. Only by trusting in the promises of God can I hope to persevere.
Those brief moments when I reached out and took the hands of my fellow human beings are a picture of what can happen in our churches by the power of Jesus Christ. I hope that in sharing my story, I will encourage others to share their stories, and in so doing to gain a better understanding of one another. When you hear someone share their story, do not rush to judgment. Listen to what they are saying. Share in their joys and triumphs. Share in their pain and tears. Seek true and lasting communion rather than quick solutions. There are no quick solutions when it comes to this matter, and the path is not safe or comfortable. It will place our pride in danger of being wounded. It will call upon us to sacrifice. Nevertheless, we must walk that path, for it is the way to reconciliation.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.
 Many people believe that Trayvon Martin was murdered. Because George Zimmerman was not convicted of murder in court, I refer to it simply as a “shooting death”. I understand that this is a very sensitive matter and I am not meaning to make a value judgment or assert the guilt and/or innocence of the persons involved.