“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”
So spoke Alexander H. Stephens in 1861, explaining the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy for which he served as Vice President. It’s as good a summary of our nation’s darkest chapter as any.
That was just longer than 150 years ago, and obviously, it’s been a busy 150 years. But the events of this year, and especially the past week in Charleston, show us that maybe 150 years aren’t as long ago as we’d like to think.
Still, white people such as myself can be hesitant to engage in honest, meaningful dialog about racism. It may feel like dragging up ancient history, re-opening wounds that are just starting to heal.
This denial is only really possible if you ignore the words of black America, who would have the nation know that Alexander H. Stephens’ words have seeped into America’s bones and continue to poison her spirit every day in a myriad of painful ways. You would have to shut your eyes to the news, on which black men are being scrubbed away. You would have to ignore the facts, which state that black men are given harsher prison sentences than white men for the exact same crimes.
Even in the face of all that, some people continue to find reasons to ignore the conversation—to shut their ears politely or tut-tut those attempting to engage in it. There are many reasons for this. None of them are good. Here are four of the worst.
1. “All Lives Matter.”
In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi started tweeting #blacklivesmatter. It became a hashtag with remarkable sticking power—transcending Twitter to sum up an entire movement and ethos.
Wherever it is proclaimed, you can be sure that someone will attempt to counter it with “All lives matter.” On the face of it, this is a very noble thing. The goal, after all, is equality. Why should one race’s inherent worth be elevated in particular?
But, in reality, “All Lives Matter” is missing the point. “Black Lives Matter” is a response to an American epidemic. White lives do matter, but that has never really been in contention. For more than half of this nation’s existence, however, black lives did not matter—and in many very real ways, America continues to send that message. In the face of this, “Black Lives Matter” remains a radical statement.
When someone says “I love my son,” we don’t say, “don’t you mean you love all your children?” When we see people hosting fundraisers for breast cancer, we do not insist that they raise money for all cancers. We understand emphatic language. “Black Lives Matter” is not diminishing the value of white lives. It is insisting on the value of black ones.
2. “There Is Only One Race.”
Christians, in particular, will often insist that discussing racism only exacerbates the issue. They don’t see color. God doesn’t see color. Why should we focus on the things that divide us instead of the things that unite us? There is only one race, after all.
The trouble is, while the Kingdom of God works one way, our current world works another. In our world, ignoring someone’s race means ignoring a huge part of their legacy, their history and their very identity.
As long as racial tension remains a reality in America, we must continue to diagnose and disinfect the wounds it has caused. We do not assume the water crisis will just solve itself if we do not discuss it. We know better than to think human trafficking will disappear if we just live like it doesn’t exist. Racial injustice is certainly no different.
Actually, acknowledging the reality of racism unifies us instead of dividing us, because it allows us to enter into the pain and sorrow of our sisters and brothers—and the community of sorrow is where life’s strongest bonds are formed. In doing so, we are mourning with those who mourn, and affirming the experiences of those who have long been insisting that something is very wrong in our country.
3. “It’s Not Racism. It’s Sin.”
This is another one particular to some Christians: the idea that racism is a misdiagnosis of sin, the real problem. This isn’t wrong, exactly. It’s just lazy. It’s an attempt to deflect the conversation to safer territory.
All people carry the image of God within them, so racism is indeed an assault against God Himself, as well as His children. In that sense, it definitely is a truly abhorrent sin. But that doesn’t mean we can’t deal with it honestly and specifically. Indeed, that is the only way to deal with it.
Until you name something, you can’t properly address it. That’s why doctors don’t just call people sick—they have to diagnose the actual problem. That’s why Jesus didn’t stop at calling the Pharisees sinful—He specifically addressed their legalism.
4. “I Don’t Know How to Talk About Racism.”
Actually, this a terrific first step. A lot of white people don’t know much about racism other than a few facts about the civil rights movement and a handful of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes.
If you don’t know how to discuss racism, you’re getting close to the real heart of the issue, which is a lack of awareness—that is the real root of all the reasons on this list. Once you admit that, you can start educating yourself.
It’s never been easier to do so. Twitter has a rich community of black voices discussing current events through a racial lens—the writings of men and women like Christena Cleveland, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Deray McKesson, Johnetta Elzie and Broderick Greer are elevating better, truer conversations about race in the social media sphere. There is also the book Divided By Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, which provides an excellent, sobering analysis of the role religion has played in promoting racial tension in the U.S.
As Christians of any race, our role is to mourn, to listen, to empathize and above all, to fight for change.