Why Does America Still Struggle with Racism?

It will not surprise regular readers of this blog that I believe racism is one of the core dysfunctions gutting American society. It also won’t shock the world that I’m convinced American racism is directly tied to the inability of Christians, our nation’s largest religious group by far, to deal with their history of, and their ongoing participation in, forms of racial oppression.

Such forms have sometimes been overt. For example:

  • Forced conversions of indigenous peoples to Christianity by European invaders
  • Enslavement of indigenous peoples and Africans
  • Ethnic cleansing of Native nations from their homelands
  • The founding of the Southern Baptist Convention to preserve slavery
  • Genocides of Native tribes
  • Ban on Chinese travel to the U.S.
  • Native boarding schools
  • Jim Crow laws
  • Japanese American incarceration
  • Government-imposed sterilizations and experiments on people of color
  • Segregation
Boarding Schools
Native American girls pray at the Phoenix Indian School, June 1900. Over 200,000 Native children, many forcibly taken from their families, “attended” Indian boarding schools, which were mostly contracted by the U.S. and Canadian governments to Christian denominations and organizations. Expressions of Native culture, dress, diet, language, and religion were banned; child abuse of all kinds was rampant. An unknown number of children died. The boarding school experience fits the United Nations definition of genocide. (Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior)

At other times, the forms are masked by institutions or by rule-of-law rhetoric. For instance:

  • Racial profiling
  • Excessive force disproportionately used against African American men
  • Excessive minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders
  • Neglect of the health and environmental concerns of people of color
  • Propagation of the “welfare queen” myth
  • Cruel immigration “enforcement” actions
  • Mass deportations of previously protected refugees
  • The admitted Muslim ban
  • A refusal to condemn the alt-right and white nationalism
  • The latest of many attempts to strip away Native sovereignty
Syrian Refugees
In one of the largest refugee movements in recorded history, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country’s civil war, with another 6.1 million internally displaced. Half of these millions are children. So far in 2018, the U.S. has accepted 11 Syrian refugees. (Photo: National Geographic)

Millions of Christians through our nation’s history have been complicit in these horrible deeds, whether by active means or by silent shrugs. And until modern American Christians find a way to resolve the massive racial rifts among themselves, America as a whole will not.

I say this not out of a sense of American Christian exceptionalism. Rather, it’s because of the sheer numbers of American Christians and their influence on American society, both for better and worse. America continues to struggle with its original sin, racism, in large part because American Christians do.

Christian Racism
Some context for the first two photos in this post. American Christians have been complicit in many racist deeds, whether by active means or silent shrugs. (Click here for more details about some of these images.)

Last week, an invitation-only group of fifty evangelical leaders gathered at Wheaton College near Chicago to talk about the negative effects of hard-right political influence on the evangelical movement. Matters of race came up, as Katelyn Beaty reported yesterday for The New Yorker:

“Something of a generational gap seemed to emerge among the attendees over the question of whether the Church should seek to rise above contentious political questions or address them head on. With a few exceptions, the older, white cohort stressed civility and unity. What the movement needed, they said, was a gentler evangelicalism that reached across partisan aisles for the common good. Others, especially the leaders of color, stressed repentance; there could be no real unity without white evangelicals explicitly confronting the ways they had participated in the degradation of persons of color and women. They contended that white evangelical churches and organizations had for decades supported a political agenda that deemed unborn lives more sacred than living black lives.”

American Church
America continues to struggle with its original sin, racism, in large part because American Christians do.

It doesn’t appear that any consensus was forged on race, though it is encouraging that a handful of Christian leaders have begun talking about it across racial, gender, and generational lines. But what happens from here is unclear.

What is clear is that what ails American Christians is much bigger than Donald Trump, though it cannot be fully discussed without addressing his highly influential role in the current situation. He has frequently denigrated people of color, particularly those born in another country, and has bent over backwards to not criticize white supremacists. He often has stoked Americans’ fears of foreigners with weapons of mass destruction and said very little about angry white men who have taken dozens of lives with their own legally purchased weapons of mass destruction. His policies have uplifted the wealthy at the expense of the poor, disproportionately impacting minorities. And few white evangelical leaders have boldly called him out on these.

Complicity abounds.

Would that more American Christian leaders, especially those who are white, spoke truth to power like the prophet Nathan of Old Testament times! When confronting King David for his rape and murderous cover up, he declared, “Thou art the man!”

Nathan and David
Thou Art the Man by Peter F. Rothermel, 1884. (Photo: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

Yet I have to remind myself sometimes, Trump is truly not the enemy. For us American Christians, our true enemy is found deep within our history and our present.

It is our racism, both active and passive.

It is us.

Friends and Fellow Americans, Lend Me Your Ears

Content Warning: Quotations of very strong, abusive language.

That Escalated Quickly

It began with a single phone call this past June to New York City’s famed Public Theater:

Tell that fucking bitch to get out of my country. I think it’s absolutely disgraceful what you guys are doing. You all are fucked up!

More such calls followed, sporadically at first, then with increasing frequency until they became a raging torrent. Within hours, the Public’s ticket office was completely overwhelmed by thousands of abusive calls, all responses to reports that the company’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar showed Donald Trump being stabbed to death. A small group of ticket operators handled the complaints, daily enduring hours of verbal and emotional abuse in the process.

Now, although box office operators have rarely, if ever, been the protagonists of literary opuses, a brand new one-hour play, Behind the Ides, tells the real-life story of those who worked at the Public during its run of Julius Caesar. A dramatic staged reading of Behind the Ides premieres next weekend (September 29, 30, and October 1) in Los Angeles, and I am incredibly excited for audiences to experience it! I’ve been fortunate to read the script in its entirety, and it’s truly powerful and timely.

Behind the Ides Rehearsal
An early rehearsal for Behind the Ides. (Photo: Joan Marie Hurwit)

Part of the play’s impact comes, I think, from the fact that playwright David Armstrong depicts events that happened to real people. But he also uses numerous word-for-word quotations of actual calls to the Public Theater, making the trauma the operators experience more shocking, and their struggle to cope more moving. The play then confronts audiences with essentially the same question I and many other Americans have been wrestling with lately. I’d put it this way:

How do I engage my fellow citizens whose fundamental values seem very different from mine, especially those who feel threatened by people like me, and who also support policies that threaten me and my loved ones?

Much Ado About Something

At the opening of Behind the Ides’ first act, the Public Theater controversy is just beginning. Perhaps you’ve previously heard about the actual uproar this past summer, which truly exploded when Trump-friendly media corporations Fox News and The Blaze, along with white supremacist website Breitbart, devoted major air time and screen space to the story. Though the Public has for years been one of the nation’s leading theater companies, winning over 50 Tony Awards and premiering highly successful musicals like Hair, A Chorus Line, and Hamilton, corporate sponsors Delta Airlines and Bank of America consequently withdrew their financial support. Even the National Endowment for the Arts distanced itself from the Public.

Unquestionably, the Public’s rendition of Julius Caesar intentionally resembles Trump:

Public Theater's Julius Caesar 1
Photos: Sara Krulwich, New York Times

Public Theater's Julius Caesar 2

Yet I think most folks who’ve been to a Shakespeare play know that it’s customary for characters to wear attire that either pre- or post-dates the era in which the story is actually set. For its Julius Caesar, the Public presented characters from first century B.C. Rome in attire from present-day America. In fact, other theaters around the country have long outfitted their Caesars to look like whomever the president was at the time; Caesar has resembled nearly every president since Ronald Reagan, including President Obama in a 2012 Minneapolis production:

Guthrie Theater Julius Caesar 1
Photos: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Guthrie Theater Julius Caesar 2

Behind the Ides shows how the Public Theater and its ticket operators even took pains to clarify that the assassinated character isn’t Trump, but Caesar, and that its version of Caesar resembles Trump to provoke thought, not promote disrespect or violence toward him. In fact, such is the underlying message of Shakespeare’s tragedy. (SPOILER ALERT IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS IN JULIUS CAESAR!) Far from being painted as heroes, Brutus and the other conspirators are condemned for resorting to violence. The fact that they were attempting to keep Rome from slipping into authoritarian rule doesn’t at all justify their murdering Caesar. In short, the ends doesn’t justify the means.

But that’s not how thousands of Trump supporters interpreted it.

Say What?

Perhaps the abusive call in Behind the Ides that disturbs me most is this one, taken verbatim from the Public Theater box office’s voicemail:

You people are sick. You are disgusting. You are glorifying violence. It’s actually really, really sad. Really fucking sad and pathetic. You all think you’re so brave, putting on a show like this, and it’s just some sick, depraved fantasy. And then you hide behind your chickenshit email from the 1980s. Be ashamed. It’s shameful. You are not Christians. You are not good people. You should all burn in Hell for this. I will pray for you, but I don’t think there’s much hope for you, honestly.

As a former minister who pastored evangelical churches for more than a dozen years, I’ve definitely known folks like this. More basically, as someone who still identifies as a Christian after nearly 40 years of faith, I’m embarrassed.

But though I’m embarrassed, I’m glad Behind the Ides includes this voicemail in the script. (Sadly, it’s not the only one that’s piously high and mighty.) It epitomizes for us what not to do when attempting to engage fellow citizens whose values seem quite different from our own. And even though Armstrong’s play portrays just how awful Americans can be to their fellow citizens, it also shows how the box office operators strove to rise above the meanness. The play ends up being a story that is real, yet with hope.

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the dramatic staged reading, and I hope you can make it, too! It features a highly diverse cast, which is always a win; the eight very talented actors and actresses will voice over 80 parts among them! I’m also excited for the production because I have great confidence in director Joan Marie Hurwit, who’s a friend of mine. We first met through her work with Native Voices at the Autry, and I’ve found her to be very thoughtful, incredibly hard-working, and strongly committed to directing and producing art that truly benefits the communities in which they are staged.

David Armstrong Joan Marie Hurwit
Playwright David Armstrong and director Joan Marie Hurwit have collaborated on projects going back to their days as undergrads at San Diego State. During Spring Break of their senior year in 2008, they and a bunch of friends took Manhattan. (Photo: Joan Marie Hurwit)

I asked Joan what she hopes Behind the Ides accomplishes, and she said (and I’ll quote her):

At this moment in time, art is inherently political, and artists are activists. When we choose to tell stories about the social climate, we have the power to implore our audiences to not only engage in a conversation with us, but also to carry that consciousness back out into our communities to effect positive change.

Since Behind the Ides is a new play, and it’s been very exciting to workshop and shape it as we go, I don’t know that I expect it to accomplish anything in particular. Instead, I hope it provides a foundation for people, especially of differing viewpoints, to have a conversation, to start a conversation. When art brings us together, as this play does, well, I think that’s a beautiful place to start.

And if you, kind reader, are wondering if I’ll take my daughters, who are ages ten and eight years old, to the staged reading, the answer is not yet, because of the raw and abusive language in the script. I hope they’ll be ready to see it in a few years. In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to teach and, hopefully, model well for them how to relate to people with whom they don’t see eye to eye in healthy and productive ways.

See you at the Lounge Theatre next weekend! For tickets and additional info, visit the Behind the Ides website.

Behind the Ides Full Info