In Search of Real Progress
“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” –Toni Morrison
Like it or not, the matter of race is fundamental to our understanding of who we are as Americans and who we are as people of God. And though we can readily acknowledge the changing demographics of our nation, we in America continue to frame much of our social, political, and even spiritual experience in black and white.
This binary or oppositional way of conceptualizing race has specific characteristics because of America’s own peculiar history, its mythic self-portrayals, and inherent contradictions. These matters make the subject of race as treacherous today as it was fifty years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
Ironically, many dismiss the “issue of race” as a thing of the past, a figment of the imagination of those who are still so invested in it that they cannot comprehend the present “post-racial” moment. After all, with Oprah Winfrey and her OWN network and President Obama in the White House, isn’t this talk of race and racism old hat?
I believe such simplistic claims serve a more insidious purpose: to give permission to turn our attention away from the fundamental aims of the civil and human rights movement that have still not been met. It is as if to say: If we keep claiming that racism is over, that will make it so. The new “open mic” world of talk radio has become the latest way to privilege the most divisive, uncivil, and dishonest versions of the American story. The “proofs” for such post-racial assertions are as superficial and deceitful as the rationales used by the pro-slavery advocates of the nineteenth century.
The pattern seems clear. At each point in our history that a modicum of “racial progress” was achieved, a counter-insurgency rose with a vengeance. When free labor of the plantation slave system was abolished, sharecropping kept people indentured to the land with controls just as effective as slavery itself. The Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed that the slaves were free, but from the 1870s to the 1960s, Jim Crow laws mandated de jure racial segregation in the South and a de facto segregation in the North. The struggle for integration was hard fought, and significant victories were won in the name of its high ideals. But reaction to such racial progress was swift and systematic. In many northern cities, the response to integration was the creation of the post-World War II suburbs.
This new “white flight” dramatized the tenacity of a country still unwilling to live together “one nation under God.” The racial boundaries of neighborhood, schools, and churches would not be legislated out of existence. Even today, the rise of the charter and private school industry has become a new way to keep us separate and unequal. The “school choice” movement in education is all too often code for the same sort of clamor of those from an earlier era who said “not in my school.”
These truths indeed appear to be self-evident: Many of our core institutions cling as stubbornly to the idea of race as ever. On top of this difficult and still smoldering legacy of black and white, the demographics of America are changing rapidly. External features and complexions aside, how we are identified and how we identify ourselves is becoming more complicated and nuanced than ever. In spite of these intricacies, we use race in specific ways to wield power and authority, establish self-serving values, define boundaries and division. The idea of race in America continues to be shaped and reshaped by those in power.
And what of the institution of the church? As mainline denominations and congregations grapple with their own future and survival, one might ask if race clarifies or clouds our present and future self-understanding. What would real racial progress in the church look like? Can our churches even imagine it?
Religion and Racial Irrelevance
Churches are inherently dynamic social organisms. They are faith communities framed by many factors, including language, shared histories and geographies, common cultural identities and values, and, yes, even race. But not only race. In asking the question of what real racial progress might look like, we might be forced to consider and imagine that true progress, profound progress, would render the idea of race irrelevant.
It is often said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Yet in many pulpits in America, black, white, brown and beige, we preach a beloved community that we trivialize by our own institutional inaction and rhetoric. True progress would require the church to confront its reluctance to become what it says it wants to become – one in the body of Christ.
A de-emphasis on race is no easy prospect for any church to face, regardless of its ethnic character. In the case of the black church in America, its very identity is stamped by its moral witness and fight against racial oppression. From its beginnings the black folk church offered a Christian redemptive witness in the midst of slavery. Its prophetic voice was distilled in songs like Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel? The lyrical response was not a rhetorical question but an exhortation: Then why not every man? The spiritual There is a Balm in Gilead is a defiant affirmation to the scriptural question posed in Jeremiah 8:22, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” These spirituals and sacred songs are theological distillations of a faith community rooted in the soil of slavery, but not defeated by it.
This was the legacy that Dr. King inherited. Yet as his witness evolved, so did his understanding of the “network of mutuality” that he invoked so persuasively. At the time of his death, his vision of justice was moving beyond race toward justice and mercy for all people.
King’s epiphany becomes our question: Can we let race go or is it so internalized in our experience that we cannot imagine a future without it? Perhaps Shakespeare would say “Ay, there’s the rub,” for many of us, perhaps even most of us, black and white and every other hue, find it difficult to imagine ourselves outside of the racial box we live in.
Although the modern concept of race is only a few centuries old, cultural and ethnic identities were central factors in the earliest Christian communities. Who could or should be a Christian? Was it a new faith only for Jewish converts – for the circumcised? The modern notion of race represents a more invidious way of thinking about the world, and its cruel inheritance continues, privileging some, devaluing others. It is internalized by the powerless and powerful alike. As we currently conceive it, race is counterproductive to the beloved community.
What would real progress look like? Real progress would require oppressor and oppressed alike to let go of identities based on our racial and racist history.
Real progress would mean that each of us climb out of the racial box the world has prepared for us and see each other as Jesus sees us – as children of God.
Writing this essay has brought me to an epiphany of my own. Part of my reticence to let go of race is my need for racial reconciliation based on an acknowledgement by others of the injustice, violence, and brutality that is a central feature of America’s story. I don’t want to let go of race without an admission of guilt and responsibility by those who continue to benefit from the oppression of my people and all people. I want to forgive my trespassers but I also want them to ask for forgiveness. And therein lies my epiphany. Real progress would require me to forgive without an admission of guilt by anyone. Waiting for the racists of the world to acknowledge their sin of racism makes me a hostage to their transgressions all over again. Forgiveness freely given is its own liberation act. In loving freedom, I can let it go.
A wise Toni Morrison writes: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Dwight Andrews ’77 M.Div. is a minister, musician, composer, and teacher. He is senior minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Atlanta and associate professor of music theory and African American music at Emory University. He has a Yale Ph.D. in music theory.