Because of the Jeremiah Wright controversy I have been forced to think a lot more about race in America in recent weeks. I have been reading, watching and processing a great deal of information and serious dialog. Over the past month I think I have had more conversations and done more work on this subject than anything I have looked at for a long, long time. I am far from where I want to be but now is a good time to put out a few observations I have made along the way.
First, I am quite convinced that the category of race is variously defined and used and this is still a major problem for good communication. Many good-hearted white people, especially intelligent and thoughtful white Christian people, think of race only in terms of color of skin or some similar physical trait or combination of traits. They want a "just and color-blind society" (a noble and correct goal) and believe that they are pursuing this personally and there the discussion should end. They feel very strongly that much of the black rhetoric that they hear, and the Wright episode only brings this out more powerfully, is a form of reverse racism and thus contributes nothing positive to the present situation in the culture or the church.
But race can also be defined as a social category. A person is part and parcel of a shared experience that they had little or nothing to do with other than being born into a home, a community or a social context. It is this category that I believe Jeremiah Wright is addressing and this is why so many white people are aghast at his word choices and how he sounds via the sound bytes they have heard over-and-over.
Second, very few white people are willing, or able, to see prejudice in a broader social sense because they do not "feel" any resentment toward people who are different them themselves. This again underscores that white people, in general, do not understand that they share a set of social values and experiences about what it means to be a person and an American. We all filter what we know through some shared experience. We are not blank slates who can objectively view race as a simple color or physical quality. The way I would like to put this is rather simple. Most white people in America are "tone deaf" to what they have heard from Jeremiah Wright. They only hear the anger and the outrage and then go from there to make all kinds of assumptions about the man and what he means.
A few weeks ago C-Span did a marvelous 3-hour interview with author and social critic Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson, for those who do not know his name, is a powerful teacher. (He is also a Baptist minister.) He was named by Ebony magazine as one of the 100 most influential black Americans. I watched his three-hour interview with rapt amazement. I have never learned so much from one man in such a short time. Dyson had authored many books, the most recent of which is: April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America (New York: Basic Books, 2008). He made me wince and shout and argue and learn like few black people I have heard. One thing he said about Jeremiah Wright that was powerfully insightful to me was the observation that many black churches talk the way Wright spoke in these famous clips that we have seen precisely because this is the only safe place where they can express their prophetic response to what they see and know. I was struck by how much we, the white church, do not understand the prophetic side of the Old Testament and how such preaching is not done in our churches. If it was the pastor would not survive for long I assure you. But in the black church this preaching speaks for the people and for what they know and share in common.
I will write more in the days ahead but my purpose now is to foster a more meaningful conversation about race in America. My reason is simple: the mission of Christ is at stake in this conversation. I am convinced that racism can be variously understood and thus most of us who are white are convinced that we are not racists at all. But racism is more than personal prejudice. It is social prejudice joined with power. And it is systemic. By it we withhold respect from others, especially groups of people we do not like or do not know well. I am convinced that the white church still holds many black American brothers and sisters with contempt and doesn’t even see how it is done. The only way to find this out is to listen and to then allow black folks to tell us what they know so that we can enter into their shared experience with love and respect. I am trying. I fail for sure but I will keep trying.