Race, Conversation, And A Nation Ignorant Of Its History

I grew up in a neighborhood and went to a public school that was about one-third African American, one-third Mexican-American, and one-third Anglo. My first friends were Jacinta, Rudell, Arma, Esperanza, and Tanya, whose parents, Willie and Tommie, worked with mine to build the NAACP on Tucson’s westside. My childhood was as filled with Juneteenth picnics and quinceaneras as it was with Little League and First Communions. That I could order a beer in Spanish by the time I turned four probably isn’t something to brag about, but my English was peppered with Spanish and my accent well secured by the time I entered first grade.

While I was well aware that racism was alive and well all around me — my parents weren’t involved in the civil rights movement for the music — it never occurred to me that truly religious people would ever — proudly, even — call themselves supremacists, separatists, kinists, and neo-Confederates, much less hold to the noxious ideals and follow the odious prophets thereof. I grew up, of course, hearing about the Klan, and I would often find myself startled when one of my Arkansas relatives would make some breezily racist remark, but I didn’t understand the Klan’s claim to Christianity, and I didn’t find my relatives to be drunk most nights on the Holy Spirit.

High school and college opened my eyes, and my first “real” job as a cop reporter in Odessa, Texas, in the early ’80s knocked my hemp-woven socks right off. The overtly racist cops I gathered news from were almost all deacons or elders in their Baptist or Full Gospel churches, and it was head-spinning for me as a believer of only a couple of years to encounter people whose commitment to Jesus Christ appeared to sanctify the most vicious and vile beliefs and utterances I had ever heard. There are racists all over this country, and race bigots who preach Christ from the pulpit, or who follow those who do, can be found on each coast and all throughout the heartland. But there’s something about the South, where devout “Christian” neo- and paleo-conservatives, who find common cause with our Wilsonistas here in Moscow, truly believe that defending from race-mixers and defiant Blacks a hierarchical homeland for Anglo-Celts, and preserving a “Christian” culture of ethnic elitism in the face of liberal feminism, is the calling, perhaps the primary calling, of a Christian man and his family.

That makes me sick.

Racial bigotry of any sort, from any source, for any reason, is the primary calling only of hate-filled people ignorant of God’s Word and hardened to his voice. To equivocate on this point is to equivocate on the testimony of Scripture, the nature of God, and the essence of all that is good, holy, proper and true. But I live among people — educated, affluent, successful people — who cozy up to racists, explain away the vitriolic rhetoric of their spiritual leaders, and insist that while they themselves are not “like that,” they understand some of the points made by “Christian” kinists, separatists, and neo-Confederates. In doing so, they condemn themselves; there is no common cause to be found among the Body of Christ and the body of ignorance, hate, violence, and arrogance of those who believe there can be.

That ours is a racist society is a truth so evident, so undeniable, that it pains me to have to argue the point. The election of a Black president, rather than sounding the death knell, finally, to what Sojourners founder Jim Wallis calls “America’s original sin,” has in reality cranked up the volume of the cacophonous symphony of racism that swells in the hearts, homes, churches and community centers of this nation. The Tea Party needed a Black president just to exist; while it’s true that the Constitutionalists, the Religious Right, the professional anti-elitists and the God, guns, and grain crowd are always with us and gain considerable strength whenever a perceived liberal is in office, Barack Obama’s race has energized an already hate-filled crowd and fanned into flame the sparks of racial bigotry already smoldering. What ought to be opposition to his policies is, instead, opposition to the man himself — his presence as a brilliant, confident Black man with a foreign-sounding name amidst a racist people in a racist, racially divided nation that dares to call itself “Christian” while struggling to forget, rather than repent of, two and a half centuries of sin.

That the statement “racism is a sin” will provoke argument from those who call Christ Jesus their Lord makes my point better than I ever could. And Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor of The Atlantic magazine, says it well when he explains why the lofty, well-intentioned idea of a national “conversation on race” is in itself mistaken. He nails it, I think, when he writes that the idea “rankles” him so because:

“The source is the peculiar notion that we can talk our way out of anything, that talk is some sort of cure-all requiring no context or prep work to be effective. But conversation is not, in and of itself, a demonstrable good. Uninformed conversation is often a demonstrable bad. This is a country where any variant of the phrase ‘slavery caused the Civil War’ is still considered controversial . . . In short, this notion of conversation is premature, and we are not qualified to have it. Expecting an American conversation on race in this country is like expecting financial advice from someone who prefers to not check his or her bank balance. It’s not that the answers themselves are pre-ordained — perhaps affirmative action actually is bad policy — it’s that we are more interested in answers than questions, more interested in verdicts than evidence. Put bluntly, this is a country too ignorant of itself to grapple with race in any serious way. The very nomenclature — conversation on race — betrays the un-seriousness of the thing by communicating the sense that race can be boxed from the broader American
narrative . . . ” (The Progressive Populist, Sept. 1, 2010)

Hard truths, well said and well worth pondering.

4 Responses to “Race, Conversation, And A Nation Ignorant Of Its History”

  1. Ashwin says:

    Sounds like leftwing propaganda to me. We have communists in India. Honey-tongued. Butter and oil.

    Hard truths? Hard-sell, more likely.

    As for being sick, do you know what makes me sick? Political partisans using Christ as a tool to push their agendas. It is sick when the racists do it. It is just as sick when the leftists do it.

    What is also awful however when decent men are wantonly tarred with the racist brush. It makes countering the real racists that much harder. You want people to repent? Start with yourself.

  2. I’m printing your comment, Ashwin, because my hope is that someone out there can figure out what you’re saying. It sounds as if your point is that to decry racism is to cozy up to communists, but I hold out hope that that’s not what you intend to say. On the other hand, your insistence that confronting racism is “using Christ as a tool to push their agendas” is telling. Has it occurred to you that some of us hate racism precisely because it offends the very Word of God?

    Or are you unable to believe that, preferring, instead, to tar decent men and women with the brush of “anti-Christian” accommodation to culture.

    Go figure.

  3. Ashwin says:

    This is in response to: “Has it occurred to you that some of us hate racism precisely because it offends the very Word of God?”

    There might be some for whom the above statement actually holds true. However, I strongly suspect (and I have seen nothing to allay my suspicions) that the dislike for racism happened BEFORE the Word of the Lord was consulted.

    It is a great and wonderful thing when a poor backwoodsman reads the Bible and goes – “I have been wrong about those foreign types. It seems they are my brothers as well.”

    It is a horrible and nasty thing when a well-heeled leftist reads the Bible and goes – “See! I have been telling you poor backwoodsmen all along. Look your own Bible agrees with me! You have been bad Christians. I hope you understand what a favour I am doing you. Now let me tell you how to think …”

    There is the difference between Heaven and Hell right there.

  4. It concerns me that you have so little understanding of the witness our Lord puts in the human heart even before a person finds and reads the Word of God. You can call it “prevenient grace,” conscience, or “eternity in their hearts” — the gracious illumination God gives us both in nature and in the rough, unsown conscience of those yet to reach for him.

    You criticize me for hating racism even before I read the Bible and understood that racism was wrong. Is it so hard for you to understand that some things strike us as innately wrong even before that wrong is confirmed in Scripture? There were some things I believed before I came to Christ, and it turned out that those things were supported by the Word. Other things, such as my belief that capitalism was evil, were found to be wrong and in conflict with the Bible. I once thought, before I came to Christ, that marriage was an optional social contract between adults — nothing particularly significant and certainly not sacred. The Spirit worked in me through my reading the Word, and now I see that marriage is much more than the “simple piece of paper” I thought represented it. And yet, even with a deficient understanding of marriage, or of capitalism, I nonetheless knew in my heart that cheating on your spouse was a sin and that confiscating a poor person’s property was evil. Why that upsets you is utterly beyond me.

    The reality, Ashwin, is that there are Christians who not only embrace racist views, justifying their ugliness through a perverse exegesis of the Word of God, but who also believe that preservation of the “white race” is the primary calling of every man. These people deserve nothing less than direct, immediate, strong rebuke. I intend to do so, and I condemn racism in every form, even the most subtle, because it violates the Word and the very person of our Lord Jesus.

    I’m just sorry you don’t feel you can join me. As for my views on race being “leftwing propaganda,” let me assure you that I don’t share your high view of liberalism as the font from which all right social policy flows. I couldn’t possibly care less if what I believe is “liberal.” I care only that it’s Biblical. That much of what you call “liberalism” is in accord with the Scriptures doesn’t exalt left-wing politics — it simply means that sometimes even the liberals you appear to despise get it right, and get it right by the grace of God.

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