The Persistence of Racism in America
Rev. Dr. James L. McDonald
President and Professor of Faith and Public Life, San Francisco Theological Seminary
July 4, 2015
The cold-blooded massacre of African-American pastor and state senator, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and eight of his parishioners in their house of worship by a deluded, deranged young white man rendered many of us speechless with grief and made our hearts ache with pain and pound with indignation. In the week following, several black churches across the south were set afire in acts of racial hatred, and the Ku Klux Klan stepped up its recruitment efforts with flyers and bags of candy left on lawns in a Los Angeles suburb and elsewhere, and the voices of white racism have already raised four million dollars for the perpetrator’s defense fund. Despite calls from the South Carolina governor to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol, the state legislature and many southerners are pushing back hard.
The massacre in Charleston, SC, comes just months after a white police officer in the same state gunned down Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in the back as he fled. It follows on an out-of-control show of force by a white police officer with young black guests at a swimming pool party in McKinley, TX, the vile chants of segregation and lynching by fraternity boys at the University of Oklahoma, rioting in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, the police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner’s death from a police chokehold while being held in a New York City police station, and the jury acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. A host of other racially fueled incidents seem to be increasing in number and frequency. As Karen Attiah wrote in The Washington Post, “the darkness of racism and fear hangs heavily in our national atmosphere right now.”
Unfortunately, this is nothing new for African Americans, whose lives have been, and continue to be, constantly and relentlessly subjected to dehumanizing, degrading, insulting, and life-threatening interactions, circumstances, systems and structures that comprise racism in the United States. Racism is a disease of the human spirit, but it is not confined to individuals and their personal actions. In this sense, racism is a fear and hate syndrome toward people whose physical characteristics stigmatize them as something wholly other, and as lesser human beings.
But racism is also the damnable legacy of 400 years of slavery, America’s Original Sin. It is a set of social structures and systems that imbed the presumption of White superiority in the dominant culture including its laws, policies, decision-making structures, and institutions. Racism in the United States automatically confers privilege on white people, especially white males, and subjects people of color, especially African Americans and Latinos, to penalties, punishments, loss of dignity, humanity, and life itself simply because of their color. For those of us who are white, the privileges that racism bestows on us are by and large unseen, unnoticed, and unappreciated for what they are. When the privileges of racism are exposed for white people, we are defensive, ashamed, and often in denial about their reality and power.
The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States was a moment of euphoria for many Americans, regardless of their racial/ethnic heritage, because it was an unexpected breakthrough in the American political system that signaled a set of larger changes in the political and social landscape of this country. And for precisely the same reasons, others experienced the election of Barack Obama as an outsized moment of deep loss and dread about the future, especially their own future.
And for almost his entire presidency, Barack Obama has been reluctant not just to talk about race, but to address through policies and laws the issues posed by racism itself. This has been unfortunate, but it was also a politically calculated decision, based on a poll-tested understanding of the volatility of the issue. So, President Obama’s eloquent, moving “Amazing Grace” eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a beautiful and powerful moment of restoring the President’s voice on matters of race and justice as one of America’s unfinished, history-given charges. We can hope and expect that Mr. Obama will continue to use his voice in the months ahead and after he leaves office. In the meantime, his recovery of his voice has given me and perhaps others the courage to recover and reclaim our own.
For many white Americans, especially males, Barack Obama’s election signaled the end of White supremacy and privilege, something they had been experiencing in many other ways and for many other reasons. President Obama’s election has been functioning as a symbol, in fact, of larger social and political changes taking place in the United States. For some white people, this has been a deeply disturbing and distressing change to the culture and values that previously supported their personal identities and self-images.
Sadly, our political system is one of the most egregious fomenters of racism, because it either ignores it or panders to it.
The Republican Party has pandered to racism. The leadership and power structure of the Republican Party bears responsibility and must be held accountable for encouraging racism and ignoring its destructive, violent consequences. Republican leadership not only recognized the racial implications of Barack Obama’s election, they carefully and systematically exploited it for their own party’s gain. This was a continuation of a strategy that began with Richard Nixon in 1968. Following the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws, the Republican Party has sought to capitalize on the fear and hatred of Southern white men by fanning the flames of racism and racial discrimination, using code words and tactics. The virulent voter suppression efforts of the Republican Party right up to the present are designed to reduce the voice of racial minorities and poor people in elections. The use of deliberate voter confusion tactics on the days preceding an election and on Election Day itself has also been aimed at African American communities across the United States.
Historians will recognize and demonstrate that the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009 was initially an overt racist response to Obama’s election that was quickly, carefully and intentionally channeled into the bizarre, code word-laced platform of what came to be called the Tea Party. Senator Mitch McConnell’s publicly proclaimed strategy, announced in the first months of Obama’s first term, to block and thwart any and every legislative initiative proposed by President Obama played the card of racism without ever having to utter the word. Over the years, much of the Republican political and policy platforms have been aimed at mobilizing white males over against people of color.
The Democratic Party also bears a share of responsibility for the persistence of racism. For reasons of political gain and avoiding political loss, the Democratic Party has remained largely silent on the issues of race and racism in American society, speaking out only at the margins of public discussion, policy formation, and political initiative.
This takes me to a more difficult and painful subject: the collusion and complicity of the Church in the persistence of racism. Unfortunately, the Church’s role must be placed in the larger context of the U.S. political system, with which it has become increasingly aligned and intertwined in recent decades. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously noted, “11:00 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.” That is largely as true today as it was 50 years ago, but in the intervening years an additional dimension has made this aspect of segregation more toxic. The political polarization of the United States that has infected and paralyzed our national life can now be seen in our religious life as well. The rise of the Religious Right over the last 40 years has politicized our religious communities as well.
Now, not only the communities in which we live, but the communities of faith where we gather to worship along with our virtual communities through social media have become more homogeneous, more segregated by almost every measure. In short our worshiping communities have become a narrow reflection of our social prejudices and a place that reinforces our limited and limiting worldviews. This inhibits and hurts our ability as Christians to have the kind of deep, life-changing, society-transforming conversations that can occur in the context of Church.
The most bone-chilling and horrifying thing about the massacre at Mother Emanuel in Charleston was that the nine African-Americans who were murdered had welcomed a young, white man into their Bible study and had shown this stranger the love of Jesus before he pulled out his gun and committed his flagitious, reprehensible act. Our worship spaces must be safe spaces. We need churches to be sanctuaries, not just in terms of bricks and mortar but in terms of places of rest, renewal, and redemption for the human spirit.
Christ crossed every boundary and broke down every barrier. In his life, Jesus crossed the boundaries of race and class by eating with outcasts and tax collectors, and talking to a Samaritan woman at the well. He was almost lynched at the beginning of his ministry when he suggested that foreigners were sometimes the recipients of God’s help rather than Israel. He took his ministry to both Jews and Gentiles, which outraged the Jewish authorities and made him suspect among the Gentiles. At every point in his life, he showed us the freedom of God and called us to live in it. He asked us to move beyond our family, nation and even religious affiliations and embrace the world itself, with all its differences. And in his death on the cross, Christ reconciled Jew and Gentile, abolishing the law with its commandments and joining us together as brothers and sisters by faith.
For these reasons, Christians must be in the vanguard of confronting and ending racism. The Church must be a bold, strong, prophetic voice in our society combatting racism, denouncing White Supremacy, dismantling White privilege and its structures and systems, and modeling relationships of respect, equality, dignity, and mutuality. We need to be and become evidence of the New Creation given to us in Jesus Christ.
I believe that the prophetic ministries of the 21st century are ministries that foster conversation, interaction, common action and uncommon community among people and groups that do not know each other, do not understand each other, and do not agree with each other. We need church leaders who are capable of bringing people together across the political, ideological and cultural divides, and of bridging those gaps. The place to start is with the issues of race and racism.
We must study the Bible, we must pray, and we must appropriate the mind of Christ in our daily lives and in our common life. We need to develop the emotional intelligence and practice the spiritual habits of mind and spirit that help us to be the kind of religious leaders our broken and hurting world so desperately needs.
But we must also address the structures and institutions that uphold White privilege. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., an entity resulting from the reunion of two denominations split asunder over the issue of slavery in the 19th century, falsely assumed that the issue of racism had been sufficiently addressed when the reunion occurred in 1983. But in the decades since, the PCUSA has remained a White denomination not only in numbers, but also in culture and in mission. Over the years and into the present, we have had distinguished African American leaders at every level of the PCUSA, but the dominant ethos of the denomination remains White, despite the very best of intentions on the part of denominational leaders and many in both pulpit and pew. The changes we need in the PCUSA will not be easy, but the fruits of our efforts will be pleasing to God.
As president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, one of 10 seminaries affiliated with the PCUSA, I bear my own responsibility to address the issues of race, racism, and White privilege during my tenure here. My heart aches for the family, friends, and fellow parishioners who lost their beloved on June 17. My spirit cries out to the Lord in anguish and deep distress for the end to such hatred and violence. I know that God’s heart was the first to break, as it always is. I can also imagine and feel God’s fury and condemnation at the unaddressed persistence of racism that lies at the root of such despicable acts. God is with us, both to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Each of us knows in our own hearts which of those two we are in the aftermath of the Mother Emanuel massacre.
However far SFTS may have come as a seminary focused on justice, healing and peace, we yet have a long way to go. Racism will not be addressed with a single statement issued or a single action taken. It will take the same kind of persistence and perseverance that has been at the heart of any enduring social change. As President Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others have often remarked, using the words of the 19th-century minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I am personally committed to bending the arc of SFTS’s historical trajectory closer to justice in the matter of racism. I offer the following set of affirmations and aspirations for SFTS, in the hope that they can serve as a starting point for further conversation and transformative action:
- SFTS must continue its strong tradition and commitment to teaching the Bible, using literary, textual, historical, and canonical criticism, as the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ. Anyone who is truly grounded in the Bible and has moved away from proof-texting and literalism will be unable to escape the powerful call of God to practice humility, love kindness, do justice, forgive one another, and serve others, especially the poor and vulnerable.
- SFTS must empower its graduates and the Church to develop and use a voice in public life that is independent of political parties and ideology. The seminary must encourage and strengthen the witness of the Church in the public square. As our mission statement says, we will “promote the Church’s loving, hopeful engagement with the world.”
- SFTS must continue its commitment to critical thinking and social analysis as a context for doing theology. Religious leaders must not only understand their own social location, they must be able to help others, especially their own congregations, to understand their social locations as well. Translated for the work of racism, this approach to doing theology helps remove the blindness of Whites to their privilege.
- SFTS must create a community that is truly inclusive and welcoming to all. This is easier said than done because this means examining our current culture and customs, including our forms of worship, our leadership styles, our teaching methods, and hiring practices, and changing them to reach the goal of a truly inclusive community. We have much to celebrate in terms of SFTS’s diversity, but we have more to do to achieve inclusivity.
- SFTS needs to infuse its curriculum with deeper attention to matters of race and racism. Over the years, the SFTS faculty has been doing this admirably, and our faculty, though relatively small in number, is surprisingly diverse, including those we incorporate as adjunct professors. But we should also utilize more people and resources from the African American Church community throughout our course offerings, so that it becomes impossible for any student—black, white or other—to receive an SFTS education without also being immersed in the ethos of the Black Church.
We live in faith, hope, and love through the saving presence of the risen Christ in our midst. Whatever we do in the days and months ahead, I hope that each of us will find a way to preach a liberating Gospel of justice that forgets neither Jesus’ crucifixion nor his resurrection. In the aftermath of the shameful, needless, and piercing slaughter of innocents at Mother Emanuel, let us pray for and work towards justice and an end to the evil of racism and its persistence in our world. This is the gift of healing we can give to the family, friends, and congregation of
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, age 41
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, age 45
Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, age 49
Cynthia Hurd, age 54
Susie Jackson, age 87
Ethel Lance, age 70
Tywanza Sanders, age 26
Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., age 74
Myra Thompson, age 59