Thursday, June 4, 2020

Wrestling with Racism

As a pastor I have always been expected to have wisdom to share on any occasion. I must honestly say that when it comes to racism in America I have no wisdom. I feel like I am part of the problem. No, I am not a white supremacist or Christian nationalist. In fact I have always considered myself progressive when it comes to matters of race. But I confess that I have not been part of the solution to the persistent and systemic racism that has survived for four hundred years in our land.

I have had friends of other races and religions throughout my life. When I was a pastor in the Pittsburgh area I used to exchange pulpits with an African-American pastor friend regularly. I preached in his church and he in mine. That was quite an experience for this white guy raised in an all-white New England Congregational Church. On that first Sunday in the pulpit of the Second Baptist Church, I was taken off guard by the congregation talking back to me during the sermon! But I got used to it quickly and came to enjoy it. Now I miss the real-time interjections of encouragement and affirmation.

I have never considered myself racist, and that is exactly the problem. Very few white people do. Most of us adamantly insist that we are not racist. People like us are blind to the fact that we are part of the problem. I am the beneficiary of white privilege. I grew up in a middle class white family in a middle class white neighborhood. I attended a private, all-male, preparatory, boarding school during my high school years. That makes me REALLY privileged. There were a handful of non-white kids there at the time, but they tended to be from wealthy families.

Because of my excellent secondary education I got into a good liberal arts college, and my parents footed the tuition bill. That was before a college education required parents to take out a second mortgage or students to mortgage their future. For graduate school – another predominately white experience – I attended the oldest Southern Baptist seminary in the country, founded by slaveholders. There I learned firsthand about the racism that is an integral part of Southern culture and religion.

In short, as a white middle class male, I am privileged. I don’t know what it means to be female or poor or gay or a racial minority in our country at this time. For that reason I am uncomfortable with the self-righteous rhetoric that I am hearing from my fellow white Americans – on both the right and left – when it comes to the protesters. Throughout my life I have always advocated nonviolence, a la Martin Luther King. But nonviolence is easy for a white male to espouse when I have not been a victim of violence.

Part of me understands why some people resort to violence. People feel frustrated with the lack of progress in racial justice and equality. If I were in their shoes I might do the same thing. If I was an urban black male today I could easily see myself as one of those whom our president calls “thugs” and threatens with shooting and domination. That is the type of white attitude that led to the murder of George Floyd in the first place.

The socially acceptable paths available to black people have not worked, and whites seem content to leave it that way. So what are people to do? What am I to do? As I write this, my wife and I plan to stand with the protesters in Hesky Park in Meredith on Sunday, although I am concerned about the weather. Thunderstorms are forecast. 

Even that caveat betrays my entrenched self-interest. I will stand up for my fellow Americans’ basic human rights … as long as it is convenient and not uncomfortable for me. How hypocritical is that?! I am clearly part of the problem. Until white folk like me see ourselves as the problem, our nation will never find a solution. God help us all.

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