Do we have a race problem?

Do we? Why is this so difficult for white people to talk about? We have white people who say that they aren’t racists and yet don’t want to talk about race. Why? What are these folks worried about?

Tell me, in what other part of life – any part of life – does something get better when you ignore it? Does that work well when you don’t have money and can’t pay your bills? How about when you experience some kind of health situation – just ignore it and it will go away? How about when there’s a problem with a relationship – maybe a marriage? Should we just pretend that there’s nothing wrong? How about with your work? How about with mental health? Or abuse? Climate change? Homelessness? Corruption? Lying? Or even car trouble? Give me one example, just one, in which things improve because they get ignored and we pretend there isn’t a problem.

I’m sure someone will be smart enough to name something, but the problem is with the word problem. I’m not talking about a nuisance. Ignoring a phone call and having it go away isn’t a problem. You’re not in danger from a phone call. You might be inconvenienced, but not in danger. Or ignoring the door bell – not really a problem.

So why the hesitation and resistance to talking about race? Maybe because it might expose us, we might have to be vulnerable. We might have to get out of our own world and look through someone else’s eyes for a time. We might come across something painful. We might come across something that we can’t comprehend. We would not be in control – that’s what all of it comes down to. Race is about power. It always has been. Ever since race became a thing. That happened in the Enlightenment period. People started to be classified by races and then philosophers started to make judgements of worth and value about different races. And races became a convenient way to excuse invading “discovered” lands – those who inhabited the land were inferior don’t you know. Race became an excuse for dehumanizing people – enslaving people and genocide. inferior races were less human. Don’t take my word for it, read some of the writing of enlightenment thinkers.

Here’s a brief history of race from a presentation that Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey gave in Indianapolis, IN last year. These are my notes from his presentation.

In 1684, Francois Bernier published the first classification of humans into distinct races followed by a 1735 publication by Carolus Linnaeus which further classified people based on continental differences.  

Linnaeus arbitrarily classified Europaeus as cheerful, Asiaticus as melancholy, Americanus as aggressive, and Afericanus as sluggish.

In 1779, Johann Blumenbach further proposed five major racial divisions including: Caucasiod (white), Mongoloid (Asian), Ethiopian (later Negroid), American Indian, and Malayan (South American).

Classification of people comes about in order to justify the taking away of other people’s things and enslavement.  Steal their land and people, kill and pillage – You need a rationale for that.

By the 1800’s, the term race had become commonplace and for the first time in human history, racial classifications were used to create and maintain discriminatory social hierarchies.

Immanuel Kant was a proponent of race.  “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites.  The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent.  The Negroes are far below…at the lowest point.”

Speaking of National Characteristics, Kant also wrote: “This fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”

Kant: “The Negro can be disciplined and cultivated, but is never genuinely civilized…cannot develop rationality as Europeans can…among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality.” (E. Eze – Race and the Enlightenment, 1997)

(end of notes from the presentation)

Race isn’t just a problem that we have in America, and it is not new.

I have to ask a few questions to those who don’t think we have a race problem. Did we ever have a problem? When did our problem end? What was the circumstance?

Or, here’s a more dangerous question – would the more accurate description be that you don’t think America has a race problem because you don’t encounter it and experience it directly yourself, so therefore your experience is extended onto the entire nation?  If it isn’t happening to you, it isn’t real?  Why dismiss others who experience racism first hand? Why is our own experience superior to others?  Isn’t that a relativistic argument?  

We have a race problem. We always have in this country – the problem just changes as time goes on. First we had slavery. Then it was Jim Crow laws. Then it was segregation. Now it is the criminal justice system. Maybe we should ask some difficult questions. Questions like – why is there a large segment of black men in prison? Do you really want to make the same arguments that Kant made? Do you believe that black men are more oriented towards breaking the law? Could there be more to the situation than “if they just followed the law they wouldn’t be in jail?” Could you open your imagination to the possibility that there is more to this than a simple flippant phrase designed to end the conversation? Might there some other things in play? Are you open to that possibility?

We won’t have racial healing and justice and transformation until we have repentance. Repentance is the radical reorientation toward right relationships both with God and with others. And we won’t have repentance until there is confession – admitting sin as a society. And there won’t be confession until we admit that there is a problem. We have never admitted that we have a race problem in our country – as a society. Until that happens, we will never get over our problem. We should not expect there to be a change. And we should expect people to continue to suffer.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. it starts by recognizing that we have a problem. That there is sin. That we are complacent in that sin and that we are in bondage to it also – all of us. That sin is racism. It exists whether I experience it directly or not. It exists whether my privilege protects me from experiencing it or not. I challenge my fellow white Christian Americans to name the sin. Say the words – “Racism is a sin.” Say the words – “We have a problem.” Let’s start with that. Because ignoring the problem isn’t working and has never worked. It has cost people their lives. It has eaten away at our humanity. And it is time for it to end. It starts to end when we recognize that we have a problem. So let’s start there. And then move forward towards transformation. We can’t do this on our own. And we aren’t supposed to either. This isn’t about blame and guilt and scapegoating. This isn’t about shaming people. This is about saving lives. That’s the cost of allowing this sin to continue.

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