Nothing seems to be working, does it?
Despite everything that has happened, especially in the last 50 years, it just seems that racism stubbornly persists.
The summer of 2000 was one of the wake-up calls when I encountered open, unabashed racism that I naively thought did not exist anymore. I was part of a traveling creative worship team that traveled around the state of Virginia. One church in a rural, southern part of the state, upon receiving our poster, called our representative at the Baptist General Association of Virginia to inform him that they could not have us visit because one of our members was black.
I didn’t think such blatant racism still existed. As it turns out, despite the civil rights movement and other advances toward equality, racism didn’t lose its foothold. Those of us who grew up white in a world where schools were no longer segregated and all businesses had to serve all people were led to believe that racism has been reduced to negligible levels. People of color have always known differently. They know how it just keeps finding new hiding places in attitudes, language, policies, housing, drug enforcement and many others.
As it turns out, racism, just like the devil himself, hides underground until the perfect time to take hold again. Like mold spores, it has been growing and thriving in the dark, going unnoticed long after it has begun to do damage. These dark places include the relatively new phenomenon of entire online communities that feed the beast over and over, making otherwise decent, law-abiding people see their fellow citizens of different races and religions as hostile invaders.
It has survived at least well enough to make it into the upper echelons of government. Guardians of fringe racism were given a place in the oval office. State representatives have redrawn district lines so as to isolate the votes of people of color. We’re being conveniently distracted by the “he said, she said” of how the president may have worded recent comments about immigrants, forgetting that there is decades worth of practices and statements at our disposal to know there is a problem.
Racism is a deep, systemic evil learned over many years and rooted deep in the human consciousness. Racism is invisible and rarely recognized for what it is. It’s not found only in the explicit rhetoric of Richard Spencer but possibly infected the mind of your grandmother. Some of the most racist things I’ve ever heard someone say came from the mouths of sweet, upstanding church ladies. Racism is embedded in the DNA of this country. The Supreme Court used to make decisions based on it. The railroads were built with it. The cotton fields were harvested with it.
The uncomfortable truth is that racism cannot be legislated away. Its effects can be mitigated, but not racism itself. Racism laughs in the face of being denounced or shamed. When it is mocked, it gains more resolve. When it is repressed, it gathers steam.
Although all branches of our government have a part to play in ensuring and enforcing equal protection, racism and hate have survived all these measures. So is it a lost cause?
In a seldom quoted speech from August 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to be aware of this reality. He began his speech with what is a fascinating inside look into the specific direct action campaigns they had undertaken in the previous 10 years and the progress they had made. But then he concedes, “No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation, no Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom.” King, as he does in other letters and speeches, noted that one of their obstacles was the lack of urgency among their white allies who (like me in 2000) were simply unable to see how pervasive the problem is and didn’t live under its weight.
“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
One can imagine that King, based on his experiences, had every reason to despair and write off his opponents as a lost cause. Instead, in this SCLC speech, after reaffirming his commitment to nonviolence, he reminded his listeners that there is one, and only one, solution to racism itself:
“I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. … God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.”
King knew that the fight for justice and equality must continue, but he also knew that no protest or law or court battle can change a heart.
What can is love, but not just any kind of love. Yes, it’s love by which we come to the defense of the victims of discrimination, but that’s arguably the easier part of a job. Some of us have been seduced by a message of love that is only “strong and demanding” of someone else. King knew that love made demands upon one’s own self, first and foremost.
This is my challenge to myself this year, and perhaps it is relevant for you as well: the challenge to see even the most vicious racism and the most merciless policies as stemming from a tortured human heart. It is a challenge to see hate for what it so often is: the output of a soul plagued by secret injury and brokenness. It’s a challenge to remember what my mother told me: “Bullies are often the most insecure people.”
To be clear, this is not in any way to soften or water down the evil that is committed against vulnerable human beings or the urgency with which we must protect their life and liberty. Neither King nor Jesus ever shied away from calling evil for what it is, and King’s work was rooted in his conviction that there’s no such thing as moderation in the face of oppression. But one thing that has always impressed me about King, John Lewis, and other icons of the civil rights movement is their unwavering commitment to show love and respect even to those who did them harm, never lashing out or countering evil with evil. They all drew from the example of Jesus who saw the darkness in the human heart as something to be redeemed and restored, saying from the cross, “Forgive them.”
One of the most inspiring modern-day examples of this in action is the story of Daryl Davis. He is a musician who spends his free time befriending members of the Klan and other racist groups. In so doing, he says he has seen more than 200 of them “give up their robes.” He tells of how he often finds behind the message of hate a fragile person capable of love but clouded by years of disinformation, perpetuated in isolation. Something tells me he has been more effective at combating racism in one conversation than I have in 100 Facebook posts.
Racism denies the dignity and humanity of its victims, but how often does our response to the perpetrators of racism do the exact same thing? Listen to our rhetoric. Look at our political cartoons. Do we not also harbor contempt and disregard? Racism and other forms of sin often draw out of us a reaction that feeds and empowers the perpetual seesaw of point and counterpoint rather than turning to the real, much more difficult work of repentance and restoration.
To paraphrase Jesus, you’ve heard it said that murderers will be subject to judgment, but I tell you that anyone who shouts, “You racist!”will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matthew 5:21-22).
So, yes: call, march and protest. Work for peace and demand justice. The lives of the vulnerable among us depend on it. But while we do, we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute (Matthew 5:44). We must starve the beast of resentment and pray that all would come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Otherwise, we risk being just another “resounding gong or clanging cymbal.”