I drove slowly and nervously down a narrow street on a sunny, humid morning, hoping the Google Maps lady wasn’t leading me astray. There were crumbling, dilapidated row houses as far as the eye could see. “This might be one of the roughest neighborhoods I’ve been in,” I thought to myself. I stashed away belongings that I normally leave sitting out in my car, and probably pushed the lock button about three times.
I walked up to every door of the church, but they were all locked. I sat down on the steps to avoid being too easily seen. I tried to deny and dismiss my nervous feeling, asking myself, “What’s wrong with you? You’ve done this before.” After a quick text message, a side door opened and he invited me in, his extremely relaxed demeanor making me feel even more foolish and perplexed about my jittery feelings.
I had gone to meet and talk with a pastor who has established some amazing empowerment and development ministries right in the thick of Wilmington, Del.’s, poorest neighborhood. I’ve visited and done research on these types of ministries before, and I jumped at the chance to meet this native of Harlem now serving 15 miles down the road from my new church.
We had a very inspiring conversation, and after he showed me around and introduced me to some of his staff, I went on my way. As I walked back to my car, I walked past a few more neighbors, and that nagging, low-grade nervous feeling returned. Why? On the drive home, I did some thinking.
In Topeka, Kan., the city where I lived previously, there were similar development and empowerment efforts in the poorest neighborhood. The houses there were detached rather than the row house style in Wilmington, but the situation was otherwise the same: highest infant mortality in the state, rampant drug use and violent crime, families living with all their utilities disconnected. I thought back to Topeka and realized something: I don’t ever remember feeling nervous there. I went to that neighborhood literally dozens of times to observe the ministry, talk with the leaders, and meet residents. Whenever I drove through, I felt saddened by the conditions I saw, but I hadn’t been afraid or nervous.
This was despite the fact that the Topeka neighborhood’s residents talked about how often they hear gunshots in the area, and there was even one night when a 5-year-old girl was caught in crossfire and killed. I still went to the neighborhood on a number of occasions (in daylight, mind you), and even after that happened, I don’t remember being nervous in the neighborhood.
But here I was, in a Wilmington neighborhood with all the same characteristics and statistics, and I was nervous.
I thought about the two neighborhoods for days, trying to figure out why Wilmington made me nervous, and Topeka didn’t (even after a high-profile shooting!). I could only come up with one difference.
“No, it can’t be,” I thought. “That’s not me, there’s no way.” I frantically searched my brain for another substantive difference between the two neighborhoods, refusing to believe it was what I thought of. There had to be another reason.
I couldn’t think of one. I still can’t. To my horror, I could only think of one way the two neighborhoods are different. The Topeka neighborhood was majority white. The Wilmington neighborhood is virtually all black.
I also thought about my inner reaction to the neighborhoods. Do you remember the word I used? “Rough” was how the neighborhood struck me. But as far as I can remember, I didn’t refer to the Topeka neighborhood that way. “Poor” or “impoverished” were words I used. “Rough” was the word I apparently reserved for this black neighborhood, and I couldn’t even explain to you why.
Apparently, it’s not just a police officer in a helicopter who somehow deduces that a man walking gingerly to his car with his hands up is a “bad dude.” Apparently, it can even happen to a diversity-loving pastor.
My mother always taught me to value everyone and would talk about how she had many childhood friends of color despite how others felt. I grew up with black friends and teachers. I remember being appalled when I first learned about the overt racism against which Martin Luther King Jr. fought. DC Talk’s “Colored People” was one of my favorite songs. I had a black seminary professor who helped me discover and respect the theological perspectives of minority groups. I would later become involved in social advocacy ministries and work with many black pastors in urban areas. The church I now serve as pastor is one of the most ethnically diverse congregations I’ve ever been a part of. I’m no racist.
But somehow, it has seeped into me. That’s what racism does. It’s somewhere in my subconscious. That’s where bias hides. Slowly, over time, through the way people talk, the way things are reported on the news, and dozens of other minute factors, it happens. The privilege of my race and acceptance of my culture as normative went unnoticed long enough for the racism that is so deeply embedded in the DNA of this country to find its way into my consciousness as well.
To be sure, blatant racists exist. Ferguson police officers were found to have shared racist jokes through their work emails. Twitter lit up with racist comments when Sebastian de la Cruz sang the national anthem at a San Antonio Spurs game in 2013. I was once on a traveling worship team that was told not to visit a church because one of our members was black. Blatant racism is still all over the place. We may assume that it’s the blatant racism that does the most harm. What if it’s not?
What if it’s the racism that’s right under our noses and goes unnoticed even while deeply affecting our response to certain people and situations? I’m talking about the subconscious stuff that makes me more uncomfortable in a black neighborhood than a white one.
It’s this racism that makes it so that white applicants with felonies on their record have better job hunting success than black applicants with clean records. It’s this racism that makes it possible for white ranchers to train their guns on federal agents and walk away, while a black therapist gets shot lying down with his hands out. It’s this racism by which Terence Crutcher is called a thug for his checkered past while the white female police officer who shot him garners no such label or reputation despite previous illegal drug use, vandalism and restraining orders.
I share my confession because I believe that confession is the only way forward. I must be willing to acknowledge that I operate with bias that I don’t even know I have. I must remember how uncomfortable I can feel when I don’t look like everyone else, and realize that, for others, that can be a daily experience.
We must confess because it is by confession that we acknowledge that racism is not a thing of the past. One of our biggest barriers to progress is the assumption that Martin Luther King Jr. was somehow single-handedly able to reverse centuries of racism (and its effects) in his short lifespan.
1 John 1:8-9 says: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” May it be so.