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.

Disaster

(Photo credit: The Sun.)

I will wake up later this morning, but it will not be from the nightmare that began early yesterday evening when election returns began to come in. As the hours passed last night, my initial shock at the tightness of the race turned into a surreal horror.

That’s because an obvious racist, who still has not personally rejected the support of the Klu Klux Klan’s newspaper, and who once wouldn’t rule out imprisoning ethnic and religious minorities – this man has been elected the 45th President of the United States.

It’s because a nearly-20-times-accused sexual predator who didn’t hesitate to boast about his sexually violating proclivities, who said not a single accusation against him was true, whose campaign promised proof of his innocence almost four weeks ago, and who promised to sue each accuser – this man, who so clearly sees women as objects for his enjoyment and personal use, is now president-elect of the United States.

It’s because a paranoid narcissist who does not admit mistakes, either to people or to God, and claims to be smarter than most American generals, even though he has less combined military and governing experience than any other POTUS in history (i.e., none) – this man is about to take command of the world’s largest supply of bombers, missiles, and weapons of mass destruction.

It’s because a so-called business genius who profited off the suffering of workers once employed by his now six bankrupted businesses, who refuses to submit himself to routine forms of financial transparency yet has numerous financial ties to corrupt overseas officials and, in particular, to Russia – this man is about to possess more influence over the world economy than any other elected leader anywhere.  

I could go on, but it’s more than obvious of whom I speak. Indeed, as we all know, Donald Trump has been elected as the next President of the United States.

There are many more reasons why I feel that Trump’s election is a massive disaster for our country. I’d like to just emphasize two more in this post.

The first is this: the American public really got played by Secretary Clinton’s opponents regarding her character. Is she perfect? Of course not. Does she stretch the truth sometimes? Yes, like every other politician. But many Americans, I believe, greatly misjudged her.

Conservatives have despised Secretary Clinton for more than two decades, ever since she was First Lady of the United States. Over those twenty-plus years they have flung one accusation at her after another, particularly through media talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, and quite frequently over Christian radio. None of these scandals has been substantive. So many were based simply on hearsay and innuendo.

This election cycle, Secretary Clinton’s opponents made hay over her use of a private email server, over whether the Clinton Foundation was used as an unethical means of gaining access to her as Secretary of State, and over her role in the deaths of four Americans who came under attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Good people can disagree as to how to interpret the facts in these situations. I am too tired at this late hour to much explain why I strongly believe, after reading quite widely for months on each of these controversies, that Secretary Clinton’s reputation as being an untrustworthy liar, and even worse than Trump, is highly inaccurate. Further, the idea that she primarily was responsible for the tragedy at Benghazi is, to me, dead wrong. (The State Department, Defense Department, and the C.I.A. all shared security responsibilities. Even the late Ambassador Chris Stevens’ mother and sister have said on multiple occasions not to blame Mrs. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and that the Republican Congress should not have underfunded the State Department budget for overseas outposts.) I respect the opinions that are contrary to mine on these. But I strongly disagree with them.

A second reason I am horrified by Trump’s election: what it says to non-white, non-male, non-Christian, and non-straight Americans.

James Carville absolutely nailed it on NBC last night. Speaking not of himself but of others, he said that so many Americans who have been marginalized in some way – people of color, women, Muslims and people of other non-Christian faith traditions, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, etc. – now feel very much rejected by the majority of white America. (The surveys show that white folks overwhelmingly voted for Trump, with the possible exception of college-educated white women.)

Yes, I know that not everyone who voted for Trump is racist, sexist, Islamophobic, or homophobic. And yes, I know there were people of color and many white women who voted for him, too.

But I really don’t think most white Americans get just how personal this election was for so many of us in historically marginalized communities and categories. To many of us, your vote for Trump, despite his repeated attacks on us and threats toward us, says that you really don’t care about us. Further, as hate crimes against us have risen in direct correlation to Trump’s hateful rhetoric (there is research to back this up), and as we are being verbally threatened, physically beaten, and killed for just existing, your vote for Trump says to us that we really don’t matter to you.

You may not feel this way. But make no mistake, that’s very much how your vote for Trump hits many of us.

I’m not exaggerating. Trump has instilled a deep fear in our communities, of both his policies and of his more outwardly aggressive followers. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine were either crying last night or comforting their crying children. It’s not because their candidate lost. It’s because they are tired of being called terrorists at school. They are worried sick that their parents will be deported. They are seriously weighing a move to Canada for their own safety. Their PTSD from their sexual assaults is triggered every time Trump or one of his supporters says that his accusers are liars.

And it doesn’t help us to feel better to hear on NBC News that there were American generals analyzing the Constitution closely last night to see if there would be a way to legally refuse a potential Trump order to round up Muslims.

Do you think we’re really overreacting to Trump’s threats? Do you think it’s just talk on his part, just him “trying to look like he’s macho,” to quote Pat Robertson? (Robertson said that in reference to the Access Hollywood tape.)

Well, did you believe him when he said he’d build a wall or limit Muslim immigration?

How could we not take him at his horrible word?

Again, I know that for some of you who voted for Trump, it was an agonizing decision, and you only did it reluctantly as the “lesser of two evils.” I get that. But you need to know that your vote for him also has these profoundly sad effects on many of the rest of us.

Lord, have mercy.