Today is Martin Luther King day in the United States. Though this celebration was met with much opposition in its origins some years ago I am persuaded that it reminds us, sometimes most uncomfortably, of our very long struggle regarding race. It also reminds us of the need to remain ever vigilant to address the injustices and racism that still remain.
I personally believe Dr. King was an American icon for social change and that his legacy, though not perfect, is properly honored by us all today. I thank God he helped us to truly pursue the day when his children, and all other children, would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
The sad truth is that such a day has still not yet come. Maybe it never will fully come in America but people of good will and true faith must not stop trying to bring this about.
I believe that most white Americans do not want to be racists in any sense. It is not cool nor is it acceptable in the modern context. But wishing for this not to be so just doesn’t make it so. King’s vision of a color-blind society is perhaps as far away now as ever before. Many injustices, before the law, have been corrected. For these gains I am sincerely thankful. But much more needs to be done. People of justice, mercy and love ought to be at the forefront.
The contentious politics of color and race are also with us now more than ever. As much as Barack Obama has sought to not enter this race minefield others are forcing him to do it in ways that are very questionable, to cite just one contemporary example of how we handle this issue. Whites often think this is true because black leaders cause it when they emphasize "blackness" in some sense.
Many of us think that we whites are, in reality, the truly color blind ones. We think that we can look at a man or woman who is African-American and quite easily ignore their color. I do not think this is the reality of the situation at all. Whether it is a function of residual white racism, or even reverse black racism, or some version of political correctness, thinking that I do not notice that a person is black is ludicrous. This does not mean that I must always be a bigot. It does mean race and ethnicity are so much a part of our American life and this culture that we can never fully avoid it. Each of us has some stereotypes, some prejudices, some residual impact of the influences that shaped our lives in this society. Trying to act like this is not so is neither healthy nor a real solution to the race problem in American culture. And the church is still at the center of much of this problem, not a part of the solution at all.
Cynthia Tucker, in her syndicated column, noted today that University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald, an expert on implicit biases and common stereotypes suggests that we cannot be as "colorblind" as we think. But this is not the end of the story. We can "learn to put aside [our] biases to make rational fact-based judgments about people who may be black or Mexican or Mormon."
This strikes me as obviously right. If this is true then we can begin a process of change. But how? By first acknowledging that we have a problem. By admitting that we employ racial stereotypes and that by them we form opinions that are generalized and often wrong.
Greenwald administers an Implicit Association Test. When people who do not think they are racists in any sense take his test and then find out that they really are prejudiced about race they are often furious. They refuse to admit they have such stereotypes and that this connects them with racism in any sense, implicit or explicit.
As I read Cynthia Tucker’s column, and I often disagree with her deeply on many issues, I found myself saying, "She is clearly quite right about this." It reminded me of a conversation last year with a black brother who is in the process of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He was in my home one evening when we discussed the great movie,
The Last King of Scotland. My friend is a mild and gentle Christian without any desire to make race a dividing point between us. He simply noted that he saw this movie, of course, as a black man. For this reason he saw it very differently than I did. The movie, as you probably know, features the story of the late dictator Idi Amin and the bloody trials he brought upon Uganda. But the movie puts a great deal of emphasis upon a young Scottish physician who served Amin, of course a white man. Even the title is "white." This real story is not about Scotland but rather about Africa. And the people in the movie who are the real heroes are the black people who help the white man escape so that he can give the real story of Uganda to the West.
What can we do about this, as both black and white Christians in America? We can begin by admitting that King’s dream was right. And then we can further admit that we have a long way to go yet. We can also be more honest about our stereotypes and our fears. We can discuss these issues with people who are black, or white as the case may be, and then pursue helping one another to see how we are still bound by our racial experiences in this land. As a white Christian I believe that I should take the lead, since love always leads the way and because my inherited stereotypes help to perpetuate the problem at so many different levels. Denying it only hinders the dream. Facing up to it opens up real possibilities for change.
A Prayer for Today:
"God grant me the grace to be more open in hearing what you are saying to me through my black brothers and sisters. Help me to be quiet much more often, to listen much more attentively and to not assume that I am completely color-blind. Make me an agent of reconciliation in both your church and my culture."