MLK Jr. Day has become a special day for me over the past decade. It was at an MLK celebration over ten years ago that I became painfully aware that the seeds of racism were still buried and growing in the soil of my soul… and my own unawareness of it was hard to accept. It wasn’t just that I was ignorant; for the first time I saw what a luxury it was to be ignorant. Being able to ignore race matters is what you might call a privilege.
As I became more aware of the real and subtle presence of racism today – in this country and also in my heart – it led me to learn more. After all, that was my real offense, wasn’t it, thinking it was all fine because it was all fine in my white world?
The obvious next step was to listen. Stop talking. Hear from the voices of others, in particular how people of color have experienced America. Instead of telling others we’re past all that, I could ask, are we all past that? It turns out the answer was no, and my fear of talking about it was part of that problem.
Robin DiAngelo’s term, “white stamina” refers to white people’s need to build up a stamina for talking about race. Embarrassingly accurate. After that initial MLK service, my friend Reggie confirmed this to me: “White people are always scared to bring up race, as if we’re not thinking about it. Let me tell you, black people are always thinking about race – we’re reminded of it daily.”
Talking about it is scary – it can feel like walking through a mine field. One wrong step and boom! I’ve offended someone. And more to the point — because doesn’t it always come down to how I look — I might be revealed as uneducated, unempathic, unwoke.
So I avoid the mine field — which is one way to characterize my white privilege, because I have other fields I can walk through. I can choose to talk about race or not. I can choose to view American life through a race lens, or I can shrug my shoulders and go surfing.
Aren’t we past this?
In her interview with Claudia Rankine, Krista Tippett (who is white) says, “I think people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s were born into a world in which they were told that yes, sure, it wasn’t perfect yet, but we were inexorably moving past it. That’s an instinct. And now we’re having to unlearn and say, actually, we weren’t anywhere. We just made baby steps.”
I too was taught that we were past it, in schools, in mass media, or wherever we learn things (probably from other white people). It’s just what we were told. And it worked for many years (on many topics) to trust what I was told. But I didn’t pay attention to who was doing the telling.
I believed we were past this problem in America, and we had one person to thank above all: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course there were others involved, but the movie plays better to all audiences if we just boil it down to one character. The story went like this: Long, long ago, America was a bad place for black people, but thank God for MLK, who came and solved all that, and now everything is fine. See, we even named a street after him.
It made sense to me. Problem, Savior, Solution. Happy ending. The story that defined every Disney movie. In fact, it was quite like THE story I grew up with in Sunday School: Long ago, the world had been full of sin, but thank God for Jesus, who came and solved all that, and now everything is fine, now just close your eyes and pray to believe it.
I lived for a time, happily in both stories. And things did seem fine. The mythical story of MLK matched what little I knew. I was born in 1971, just three years after MLK was shot at his motel in Memphis Tennessee. (But at that age, anything that happened before I was born may as well have happened 100 years ago). And anyway, my elementary school was nearly half black, my best friend in 6th grade was a hilarious Jamaican everyone called G.B., and we all got along fine, right?
It turns out, the racial make-up of my grade school was due mostly to our area’s belated efforts to desegregate, by bussing black students into “white” schools. The district had been trying/resisting progress for decades. While Brown v. Brown was settled in 1954, in Florida’s Orange County where I grew up, no substantial ground was made until the bussing began, the year I was born. The timeline that county provides, shows this continued as late as 1997. (The jury may still be out on bussing students, but Malcolm Gladwell makes a very compelling argument that the larger impact would have been achieved by integrating teachers instead of students.)
Maybe it wasn’t all solved, after all.
You’re probably familiar with the Christian notion of sin: which I’ve heard defined as an archer missing the mark. But even if not, most of us can agree that in our world, something is wrong. Anyone reading American politics knows this, even if they’re on opposite sides pointing at each other as the thing that’s wrong. In our most honest moments, we might even agree that something is wrong inside each of us. We don’t always see ourselves on the same continuum as the violent murderer, never mind that his crime started with the same hating heart mine feels when someone cuts me in the grocery store line.
If sin, then, is real, it is a problem which needs a solution. Simple: “Jesus”. And maybe the racism problem was real after all, but MLK had solved it. So can we just move on already?
But something didn’t add up. That simple Civil Rights story may have played well to my whiteness, but the problem of sin continued to dog my Christian-ness. As a youth-group-teenager, sin popped up all over – sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, to oversimplify that story.
To put it another way, I’d rather not talk about sin, but I’m forced to because it is a mine field I walk through every day.
There was no other field I could walk through.
There is no human privilege that lets me ignore it.
But I thought Jesus fixed all this?
And in my naïveté, I thought MLK solved all this too. But then why are African-Americans incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites?¹ Why is the median household income for white Americans 65% higher than that of black people?² Why do mothers of black children teach their sons to keep their head down and look the other way when police show up?³ (Why were there so many other compelling discrepancies that I had trouble narrowing it to three?)
When the problems of our country are discussed, many causes are dug up. Usually they are oversimplified. Blaming a particular group of people, whether by color or immigration status or whatever, is as oversimplified as it gets. (Though if we are willing to blame one group of people, can I just ask: what if our founders had, from the beginning, treated all other people groups with the respect and freedom the founders themselves were seeking?)
In his book Soul Survivor, Phillip Yancey says, “Sometimes I wonder if all those problems are consequences of a deeper, underlying cause: our centuries-old sin of racism.” This, after describing in excruciating detail how the churches of Yancey’s youth used the Bible to reinforce segregation; how the KKK was thought of as an, “invisible army, a last line of defense to preserve the Christian purity of the South.” He witnessed a mob of Klansman beating a dozen black observers of a July 4th rally, recounting the shame and remorse he still feels today:
“It took years for God to break the stranglehold of blatant racism in me – I wonder if any of us gets free of its more subtle forms – and now I see that sin as one of the most poisonous, with perhaps the most toxic societal effects.”
Yancey is saying that even after he repented of racism, it was still there. Indeed, it is still there. He already gave it up; it’s not yet complete.
Where To Start
This felt more like my life. This matched all the more complex stories – the ones I acknowledged in church youth group and the ones I didn’t in my elementary school. Many years later, I heard a wise person say we were living in between “The Already and the Not Yet”. His context was faith – Jesus had already solved the problem, and yet we await the day when it will be ultimate.
And this – living as if we were inside a cardboard box labeled “Peace” that was Already sent but Not Yet arrived – is something nearly every speaker addresses at MLK celebrations. And so I go downtown tomorrow to celebrate Dr. King’s life. Like communion on a Sunday, I go to remember what’s already done. And after remembering communion’s free and flowing gift of grace, I see what I’ve been given, and am reminded of how much is left to change.
And I barely know where to start. I’ve been prompted to listen – and there are so many ways to listen even before in-person conversations: reading, podcasts, film, youtube (check out Michelle Higgins probing, prodding, pushing attendees of an evangelical missions conference (Urbana) to care as much about the lives of young black men as they do for unborn children).
And while listening, I need to start talking. Even if it’s a mine field.
Going down to celebrate Dr. King reminds me that my “mine field” – where I’m a slightly uncomfortable and might say the wrong thing – is a very privileged place indeed:
“Let me say that if you are tired of demonstrations, I am tired of demonstrating. I am tired of the threat of death. I want to live. I Don’t want to be a martyr. And there are moments when I doubt if I am going to make it through. I am tired of getting hit, tired of getting beaten, tired of going to jail. But the important thing is not how tired I am, the important thing is to get rid of the conditions that lead us to march.
Now gentlemen, you know that we don’t have much. We don’t have much money. We don’t really have much education, and we don’t have political power. We have only our bodies and you are asking us to give up the one thing that we have when you say, ‘Don’t march’.”
–MLK Jr. from his with Richard Daley, Chicago Mayor
Resources and Sources:
¹Incarceration Data: https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/
² Wage data (and more) Mothers of the movement story
³ Mothers of Black Sons organization: https://www.mobbunited.org/
Krista Tippett’s Interview with Claudia Rankine: On Being
Phillip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor. Also the source of the ending quote from Dr. King.
Michelle Higgins’ talk at Urbana 2015
Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast on the effects of desegregation on Teachers and Students
MLK Celebrations in Santa Barbara: https://www.mlksb.org/