My wife, Joy, and I lived in south-central Los Angeles during the early ’80s. We joined an African American church where, on many Sundays, we were the only pink faces. My pastor, my teachers, my friends were black. They remain some of the most godly, loving and gracious people we’ve known, people who reached out and accepted us in our naiveté.
Occasional camping trips to a California beach state park provided an escape from the city for us. While walking from our tent to the surf, I felt my burdens lift with each step. Unless we had brought black friends along. Then, every step felt heavier. That’s because everyone watched us, peeking out of tents or from over raised books. We were a threat.
It wasn’t easy to get my black brothers and sisters to talk about it, but sometimes they would lift the veil and tell their stories of being excluded, accused, passed over, insulted, peered at suspiciously. I heard the advice they gave their children: “Don’t talk back. Be compliant. Use yes, sir and no, sir. Don’t wear those clothes.”
As one sister explained, she had to always be on guard, sizing up people and situations: Is it safe here? Am I going to be seen with respect, included, valued? Or will I be mistrusted, questioned, doubted?
My church family—people I dearly loved—repeatedly experienced prejudice and suspicion, like a dark cloud overhead. Their response—to remain positive and loving—astonished and challenged me. We all talk about loving our enemies. They did so.
Most fellow whites I know do not grasp just how pervasive and real this prejudice remains. Nor do we understand how privileged we are, how our society’s systems work for us while regularly denying opportunity to people not like us. We are blind to this privilege, I’m sure. Yet it’s real. Until we “get it,” we won’t work to change it.
When we know what to look for, we can find examples of this blindness all around us, yet the July 2013 trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin is a good national example. Whites pushed back when people of color charged the jury with racism, didn’t we? Why did African Americans see racism, when whites did not?
It goes back to what African Americans experience of the justice system. The objective facts are that blacks receive harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes1 . Police stop blacks far more frequently2 , and prosecutors file charges far more frequently against blacks3 .
So when a jury without a single black person exonerates a white person who initiates an altercation with a young black man and ends up killing him, it’s hard to dismiss it as simply one incident. Rather, that was one more incident in a lifetime of incidents.
As President Obama pointed out when he commented on the Zimmerman trial, that lifetime of incidents “inform[s] how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
I’m not rehashing Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. My point is that African Americans’ ongoing experience of prejudice leads them to suspect racism. Once again, the system seems stacked against them.
Some insist that the media was responsible for turning the trial into a black/white issue.
This denies the reality of an ongoing, persuasive prejudice against African Americans and many other people who are “different.” When whites get defensive about this prejudice, they dismiss something that is real and difficult.
Sure, as a white person myself, I have been “profiled” and judged simply because of the color of my skin. Yet there are major differences between the kinds of prejudices experienced by whites in this country (and, most importantly, the consequences) and those experienced by minorities.
We whites, for example, rarely are denied a job or turned down for an apartment rental, etc., because of our skin color. When that does happen, it’s usually due to affirmative action and it outrages us. But for minorities, these kinds of experiences are everyday.
We rage at the occasional injustice; they live with injustice.
Following Jesus’ lead
So how do white followers of Jesus navigate this minefield of hurt, injustice and misunderstanding? How can we be peacemakers the next time our conversations turn to racial situations in the news?
I think a good starting point is to humble ourselves and accept that perhaps our perspective on racism might be inaccurate.
This isn’t to suggest that we are guilty of intentional racism. Rather, it’s to acknowledge our ignorance and to suspend our defensiveness and judgment on issues relating to race. Instead, let us become learners—seeking to listen to and understand the painful experiences of people of color and recognize the preferential privileges we whites enjoy.
This goes far beyond simply becoming “friends” with one person of color. Research discussed in the book Divided by Faith confirms it: Not until relationships are deep enough to withstand some painful honesty about our privileges, and until we stand alongside our friends and experience their mistreatment, will we be in a place to love—and to work for equality.
I think all this argues for the importance of making multicultural churches the norm. We need to live life together. Those of us in positions of privilege need to actively become servants. It’s past time for people of color to pastor our churches and populate our boards.
As followers of Jesus who believe in the sanctity of life—that all human beings are of equal worth—we aren’t supposed to mirror our polarized society by being defensive about and denying racism. Instead, let us demonstrate the way of the kingdom, not avoiding Samaria but deliberately going there and being present there. As my wife and I experienced, we’ll see Jesus, in all His breathtaking power.
Follow this blog conversation to explore the complexities of dialog on this topic. And consider two books by Christian sociologists, who researched what it took to build genuine multiracial relationships and churches to bridge the gulfs between us: Divided by Faith and United by Faith.
1 McClatchyDC news bureau, “Racial disparities in sentencing rise after guidelines loosened,” March 12, 2010. 2Do a web search for “Blacks stopped more often by police.” In city after city, you’ll find reports detailing this practice. 3The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, “Justice on Trial: Race and prosecutorial discretion.”
Dennis Hesselbarth is taking a sabbatical after serving for 26 years as pastor of Hilltop Urban Church (EFCA) in Wichita, Kan.