Named as Friend
Juneteenth is officially a national holiday. Good. Great even! It is an annual remembrance of when news of the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery finally reached Texas, 1865. It had taken two and a half years for the news to arrive from 1863. Today, it has taken 156 years for our nation to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Check out the poem by the Rev. James Forbes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aafi3a9-eS8).
Some say the Juneteenth holiday is only symbolic. The challenge of addressing racism requires more than a holiday, or two if you count ML King Jr. Day, every year. Each of us, each of our communities, must determine our responses to persistent racism. As an ole White guy who acknowledges my own struggles, who has worked to address racism and thought much about it, let me offer three suggestions for predominantly White folks to consider: 1) Being a friend; 2) Defining the problem; 3) Acting our way to new ways of thinking.
Friendship. Dr. William Pannell is a friend; a longtime friend with whom I have spent too little time. It was in the late 1960s when we first met. Bill’s book “My Friend, The Enemy” was published in 1972. Over the years while our paths have occasionally crossed; the message of his book has remained as a companion with me. Bill is Emeritus Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary for whom that seminary’s African American Church Studies Center is named. Bill wrote of our “Pigmentocracy” where “whiteness” was automatically, often unconsciously, given a higher status. He said if our national dilemma were given a color, that color would be white. Bill valued the paradoxes of racial engagement in the United States. He was an early teacher of the value of moving past easy dichotomies — one could at the same time be both friend and enemy when ensnared within the dominant culture. He noted that the challenges of racism aren’t going to be solved by simply changing the hearts of individuals, one at a time. Bill, who was a professor of Evangelism, believed in conversion and also noted that an individualistic proscription (changing hearts) was inadequate. Something deeper and more substantial was needed.
The friend might also be an enemy, or at least live and work behind enemy lines. Friendship, based on an honest knowing of the other and an honest awareness of the matrix of systemic brokenness, was critical, if racism was to begin to be addressed. Bill spoke of a gross ignorance of one another exhibited across racial lines — especially the ignorance folks like me have about persons of color in our society. Bill wrote “my White brother taught me to sing, ‘Take the World, But Give Me Jesus.’ I took Jesus. He took the world.”
Racism Defined. “There is not a racist bone in my body.” I heard these words again just last week. Typically, they are spoken by a person who would define racism around the single notion of prejudice or personal bigotry. Can one be racist and still believe that they view all persons equally, no matter the race? Well perhaps, but racism has a larger definition. For now, let’s simply begin by saying understanding racism needs to include both individual prejudice as well as systemic discrimination. There are cultural inequities as well. The person who said “there is not a racist bone in my body” also attended schools that were racially segregated. That person also benefited from national housing policies preventing Blacks from the mortgage support offered to whites, from educational and health advantages and from employment options over the years. Benefits offered to one generation accrue and are passed on to the next. The ways racism shapes our everyday lives, over the years, is wide and profound. If one thinks racism is only about individual attitudes, he or she, is ignoring the benefits accrued to and for them over generations.
Acting our way to new ways of thinking: Last Juneteenth, as our nation was reeling in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor and George Floyd, I watched with some discomfort as well-meaning folks made plans to address the persistent racism in our nation and in my denomination. You see, almost fifty years earlier, I had been involved in research on racism and how it might be best addressed by the church. (My research drew on research of over 1,100 persons in six cities and over forty congregations, and also included studies that went back decades further.) I remember having some blow-back last year when I advised pastors “don’t preach that sermon on racism now.” If they did, it was probably too late; but certainly a sermon alone was inadequate. If you are going to preach it include some action as follow up.
We like clear and simple formulas for success. You know, the “five things that will make your life better” type of things. In the church this has been particularly true. I have often thought that church growth, or solving the dilemmas associated with the broad national move away from Christendom in our time, would better be labeled “the Church’s one fixation.”
So, when I suggested that there were better things to do than preach a sermon or hold a book study, I knew my counsel would not be heard or would be misunderstood. I kept saying it is more important to make friends with people who are of a different race. It is important to work together on some project to address racism than have a book study. At the time, I knew such counsel was futile. After all, a book study is so much easier to organize — and be counted. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good books out there. Read them; even better, read these books in a racially diverse setting where the likelihood of some substantial change is much greater.
Last summer, within a few weeks, I watched as study programs on diversity and efforts to teach cultural competencies were offered. It is all well and good… but these efforts are insufficient and can even be counterproductive as folks think, “We’ll now I have the cure.” Again, this is about more than educating an individual or changing hearts and minds one at a time. Until we walk alongside persons living in a different racial reality, we will have difficulty understanding the breadth of white privilege. Until we establish lasting friendships we will miss the necessary struggle to establish meaningful, structural ways to address generational racial inequity. Go ahead, name your friends… or, make some new ones.