Sunday, June 21, 2015

Black and White

I have hesitated to write anything about the shooting in the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, for good reason. Others have written and said better than I things that need to be said. At the same time, this is just not something I am comfortable remaining silent about, reposting the thoughts of others. It is not that I need anyone to read this or agree with it, but I need to speak. Silence just doesn’t seem right.

I grew up in Houston, Texas during a time of racial segregation. Until I was thirteen years old I knew the names of only two black people – George (no last name), the custodian at our Southern Baptist church, and Martha (no last name), a woman who came to our home occasionally over a couple of years to do our family’s laundry. That’s it. I did not know any black people and did not think that fact was important in any way.

When I was 13 (1965), desegregation began in Houston ISD. Three young black students were now part of the population of Hamilton Junior High School: Marshall Dill, Marshall Grayson, and Robert Williams. All three of them were my age and we played on the school football teams together for three years. Marshall Grayson was too small to play football, but was the team manager. I do not recall ever having a conversation with any of them. They were not my friends. I remember no sense of hatred, just separation. I do not recall any black female students being part of the student body. All of my teachers were white.

I have confused memories of the turmoil of the 60s. Riots in Watts and Detroit mingle with the peaceful, but violently resisted marches of MLK. Assassinations of the Kennedy's and King troubled me because they were troubling the world around me. I had no adult to interpret and untangle it what was taking place, presumably because they did not know themselves. The war in Vietnam and the protests against it showed up in my living room every evening at 6:00. We didn't talk about these things at church or school. Mostly I felt a fear as a result of it all. But I had no concepts of the issues of civil rights or peace for that matter. I have often wondered, had I been ten years older at the time, whether I might have gotten involved on the side I would now consider right.

In 1968, at Waltrip Senior High School, the black students must have numbered perhaps a hundred or so, out of around 2000 total. I did not know any of them. Not one. Mr. Cheney, my homeroom teacher in 11th grade, was the first African-American teacher I had ever had. As a senior I took Spanish from Mrs. Green and Physiology from Mrs. Christian, both African-Americans. Still no friends.

It was not until I was living in the residence hall at Houston Baptist University as a freshman that I met someone who would become my first black friend. Keith Jefferson lived in the suite next to mine. Over the next three years we became friends. He visited Melinda and me at our apartment in Ft. Worth when we went off to seminary and he eventually attended the seminary as well. Keith is now a missionary in Brazil. I owe him much. I had no black professors in college, seminary, or graduate school.

In the years that followed I would teach in a Baptist university and serve two Baptist churches as pastor in Houston, the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the country these days. It was in the role of pastor in my 30s and 40s that my experience began to deepen in regard to race relations, but honestly, it remained in quite shallow water. I got to know a number of African-America pastors in our city. I served as a kind of mentor of one of the guys. I preached a couple of times in black churches. My own congregation, with the exception of Dr. Bill King’s family, was lily white. I participated in a year-long discussion on racial reconciliation with pastors from many racial and ethnic backgrounds in our association. I made three trips to Uganda and worked with pastors there. This all helped, but it was woefully lame in comparison to what was needed.

Once I served on a jury panel in Harris County that opened my eyes for the first time to the issue of what is known now as “white privilege.” Following a trial in which a young Hispanic man was convicted of assault on a white police officer because he struggled during arrest and reached for the officer’s gun, I spoke with his attorney. The attorney asked me, “How do you feel when you see a police car drive down your street?” “Secure, safer,” I answered. He explained that would be the correct majority answer. Minority members of the community feel threatened. That had never dawned on me, of course, but it became more and more clear.

A friend of mine explained the difference between white and non-white, majority-minority, perspectives this way. When I see a news report about two white men robbing a convenience store, I don’t think, “I hope people don’t think all white guys are like that.” Not so, if you are a minority. Reports of two African-American or two Hispanic suspects simply reinforces racial stereotypes in the minds of the majority.  (A female student of mine made the same point about women preachers – she said that she felt like she represented her entire gender every time she preached. If a man preaches a poor sermon, people think, that guy can’t preach. If a woman does a poor job, the conclusion is women can’t preach.). This is the social reality of privilege. Those who enjoy it don’t notice it. We have a difficult time even acknowledging it. The system is just set up for us.

I saw this again this morning. NBC’s Meet the Press was covering the shooting in Charleston and related issues like the Confederate battle flag and gun violence. They showed a clip of a longer video in which inmates convicted for killing someone with a handgun were telling their stories, expressing their regret. The network editors selected the stories of two black inmates for the segment. When challenged about that by one of the African-American panelists, the moderator, Chuck Todd, explained that this was not a video about race, but about gun violence and that nothing was intended by that choice – this in an episode focused on an event where a white shooter had taken nine black lives. One of the other leading stories of the week concerned two white prison escapees in New York who had been convicted of murder. But the segment featured two black inmates. This is how it works. We just don’t see things. It is not (I suspect) intentional or malicious. We literally just don’t see. (Here’s Todd’slater explanation after catching a lot of flack. It still sounds like an explanation rather than an apology for thoughtlessness, which would have been more appropriate).  This is not about walking on eggshells or being politically correct. It is about loving your neighbor as yourself, the Golden Rule. But it requires our learning to see.

Later, on another news show, reporting on how Republican presidential candidates for the most part refused to take a position on the Confederate battle flag, saying it was an issue of state’s rights and should be left to the South Carolinians to decide, one of the Republican panelists said, “The flag is not a symbol of racial hatred to most white people.” She was probably right. She didn’t think to ask what it symbolized to black citizens. This is how it works. I don’t know how to fix it. Like most things, learning to see it is a good start.

More than anything, my African-American students at Truett over the past six years have been my teachers. To think of any of them facing what they actually do face in this culture, literally sickens me. To know that any of them could have been Rev. Clementa Pinckney is unthinkable. I still have so much to learn.

Racially unjust structures need to be fixed. Whatever laws can change those injustices need to be passed. Whatever symbolic changes can be made, like relegating the Confederate battle flag to the basement of a museum, should be made. Justice is going to be addressed in these ways.

Racism is not cured by justice, but by love. Laws cannot do that. Affection can. Friendship can. These are things government cannot accomplish, but followers of Jesus can. We can choose friendships. We can know each other. We can grow affection. We can speak when our friends are threatened. We can learn to see the privilege some of us live with and some of us don’t.

I have a trip to make to Waco on Wednesday. I’m staying over for a city-wide prayer and praise service at Toliver Chapel Missionary Baptist Church on Wednesday night to stand with other believers in the wake of this evil.

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