How are you doing? Your body is telling you that it is summertime. It is time to relax. But your heart and mind are telling you that there is more work to be done before resting. Over the past several months you have adapted to the changes brought about by a pandemic, balanced work responsibilities at home with family members, and tried to make sense of the recurring evil of racism. You have been leading people into a world that is nothing like the world they are living behind.
On one hand, you want things to go back to “normal” or at least like they were before the pandemic. On the other hand, like no other time in history, you have the opportunity to shape the lives of men, women, and children as they step into the future. God has gifted you to lead at this point and time in history. It is time to seize the moment.
Just as you have navigated and adapted in response to COVID-19, you have the opportunity to identify and address another pandemic. Racism is a disease that threatens the lives and dignity of so many of our sisters and brothers. It’s complicated. It’s woven into the politics of our government, the policies of our schools, the practices of our public safety systems, and the polity of our churches. The truth is racism is woven into everything we hold near and dear. It continues to raise its head and poison all we do. The time has come when doing nothing is no longer an option.
I am grateful that you have joined me on this journey. If you are willing, walk with me a little further. You have been created to lead in the midst of these uncertain times.
Austin Channing Brown in her book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made For Whiteness, tells the story of when she was a student in college, going on a trip called Sankofa. It was a three-day journey exploring Black history in partnership with classmates. There were about twenty pairs of students, mostly comprising one Black and one White student. They left Chicago and traveled all night to arrive at a plantation in Louisiana.
She writes, “We had come prepared to witness the harsh realities of slavery, but the real revelation was how ignorant and self-congratulatory our guides from the plantation could be. For the entire tour, we were told about ‘happy slaves’ who sang in the fields, who worked under better conditions than most other slaves, and whose fingers never bled despite the massive amounts of cotton they picked. The guides’ presentations were filled with misconceptions and inaccuracies, and at the conclusion of the tour, they even gave us the chance to pick some cotton ourselves. Black students. Picking cotton.”
What’s Your Response?
Two groups of students had experienced the same tour, but each group had a different response or reaction. The Black students were angry, but the white students were confused. As they climbed onto the bus to journey to the next destination, the conversation quickly moved beyond superficial niceties.
The students took turns speaking into a microphone at the front of the bus. The Black students were livid at the romanticism displayed at the plantation. The white students listened politely and seemed unmoved at the weight of the information they had received.
Brown writes, “They responded with questions like ‘What about the Holocaust or the potato famine? Don’t most people groups have some trauma in their history?’ We did our best to correct the misconceptions, but the tour had driven a wedge in the group.”
The History of Lynching
The next stop on the journey was a museum with only one exhibit: a history of lynching. Brown tells the story, “Every wall was filled with photographs of dark-skinned human beings swinging by their necks. A mother and son hanging over a bridge. Burned bodies swinging over dying fires. White children staring in wide-eyed wonder while their parents proudly point to the mutilated body behind them.
The cruel smiles of white faces testifying to the joy of the occasion. We came across newspaper stories that advertised lynchings as community events. In another case we saw a postcard. On the front was a photo of a mutilated man still hanging from a rope. On the other side, a handwritten note: “Sorry we missed you at the barbecue.”
Brown says that when they climbed back on the bus all that could be heard were sniffles. She says the emotion was thick. She writes, “It was as if no time had passed between the generation in the pictures and the one sitting on that bus. It was all so real.”
What’s Your Response? – Take 2
The first students to break the silence were white. “I didn’t know this even happened.” “It’s not my fault; I wasn’t there.” They reached for anything that would distance themselves from the pain and anger of the moment; anything to ward off the guilt and shame, the shock and devastation.
The Black students had passed beyond any need to appear polite. They shared personal stories of pain. Stories of lynchings that had happened in their own families.
Brown writes, “A tall Black woman, a senior that year, peered at us all as she spoke evenly, almost disarmingly in the heat of the moment. ‘I just want to say that I’m having a hard time even being mad at you white people anymore. I think I’ve just been convinced that white people are innately evil. You can’t help it. You steal and kill; you enslave and lynch. You are just evil.’
Then she handed the microphone back to the next person and calmly took her seat. The white students didn’t appreciate her words, but the Black students on the bus could have kissed her feet. She had done what social convention and respectability politics said not to do, she had spoken her truth even if it meant hurting the feelings of every white person on that bus.”
Doing Nothing is No Longer An Option
The tension intensified among the students. The White students defended their family histories while the Black students tried to express what it felt like to stare at their history in the photos from the museum.
Just as the bus pulled into the parking lot for lunch, another white student stood to speak. But instead of her variation on “Please don’t make me responsible for this,” she took a deep breath and gave in to the emotion of it all. “I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned,” she said. “I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.”
Brown writes, “And then she said nine words that I’ve never forgotten: ‘Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.’”
The Fabric of Racism
This story illustrates several characteristics of the racism woven into the fabric of our culture. Because of space and time, I want to mention only two in which I know I have been involved.
One way we continue to perpetuate racism is by romanticizing, or “whitewashing” our history. Over the past several weeks I have tried to remember what I was taught in high school regarding racial injustices like slavery, voter suppression, or gerrymandering.
To be fair, I might have had teachers who talked about lynchings, the dignity of human beings, and civil rights for all people. But I don’t remember ever having those conversations. It was not until I was a junior in college, when my history professor said, “You need to know the difference between the truth of history and the “whitewashed” versions we perpetuate.”
One of those “romanticized” versions of history come around Confederate monuments. Most of those moments were built in periods of racial conflict. For example, when Jim Crow laws were being introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries or during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I agree the monuments are part of our history, but let’s be honest. They were not built as memorials but as means of intimidating Black Americans and reaffirming white supremacy.
Jane Elliot says, “Human beings created racism. Anything you create you can destroy. We can destroy racism.” Like no other time in our history, we have the opportunity to address and put an end to the evil of racism. The question is, “Will we?” The time has come when doing nothing is no longer an option.
Denying the Truth of Racism
Another way we continue to perpetuate racism is by denying the truth of racism. Too often we try to distance ourselves from the pain and anger by pleading ignorance. We try to shield ourselves from the guilt, shame, shock and devastation by telling ourselves we would never do such things.
We can say, “I didn’t know this even happened,” or “It’s not my fault; I wasn’t there.” You truly might not know. But not knowing is not an excuse. Jane Elliott says, “People who are racist aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. And the answer to ignorance is education.”
When Did You Learn?
I was in college before I learned of the Tulsa Massacre (known then as the Tulsa Race Riots), the Thibodaux massacre, and the Atlanta Massacre. Three major events in the history of our country that were not in my high school history books.
We are still living in the culture of those events. My college history professor discussed the injustice and devastation created by white supremacy which fed into the civil rights demonstrations in the days of my childhood. What I was learning from the public news media and what I was learning in my history courses did not match.
One of the places we plead ignorance is regarding the public killings of Black men and women. In our history, we have called these killings, lynchings. It is a term for a punishment without a trial.
Did you know that we have no federal laws against lynching? There were 200 anti-lynching bills introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century. Between 1890 and 1952, seven Presidents petitioned Congress to end lynching.
Between 1920 and 1940, the House of Representatives passed three strong anti-lynching measures. Protection against lynching was the minimum and most basic of Federal responsibilities. Despite repeated requests by civil rights groups, Presidents, and House of Representatives, the Senate failed to enact anti-lynching legislation.
Public Lynchings Today
I heard this mentioned in a recent conversation. The response was, “Do we need such laws today? We don’t have public lynchings today?” Yes, we do.
We have watched the twenty-first century lynchings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, LaQuan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, to name only a few.
Black Lives Matter
Their deaths were not by hanging but were public killings of Black human beings. The act of lynching is rooted in the idea that Black people are less important than White people, that Black people are more violent than White people, and that Black people are not as advanced as White people. Pleading ignorance is not a response. Black Lives Matter. The time has come when doing nothing is no longer an option.
Austin Channing Brown writes, “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort. It’s not a comfortable conversation for any of us. It is risky and messy. It is haunting work to recall the sins of our past. But is this not the work we have been called to anyway? Is this not the work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate truth and inspire transformation?”
Step Up and Lead
We are way past the time to educate ourselves and to address the complex, emotional, and significant evil of racism. It is time to step up and lead like you have never had to lead before.
The time is right, the opportunity is now, for open conversation, education, and transformation. As a leader, you have the responsibility to do the hard work of questioning our history of racism and to name the reality and ramifications of our sin.
You can engage people in open conversation. The very conversations that once were held behind closed doors are now public conversations.
Tell the Truth
By God’s grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can survive honest discussions about slavery, discrimination, and mass incarceration.
By the power of the Risen Christ, we can address the harmful politics of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and policies that disproportionately affect people of color.
As courageous leaders, we can make a difference in dismantling the systemic racism that continues to inform the decision making in our governmental institutions as well as our schools and churches. As Christians, we can lament and mourn. You and I can be livid and enraged. We can be honest. We can tell the truth. Only by being truthful about how we got here can we begin to imagine another way out of here.
I am grateful that you have come this far with me on this journey. Because you are still with me means you are ready to put an end to racism. There is more to come in future blogs, but here is what you can do now:
- Pray – Stay connected to God and grounded in who God has created you to be and who has created the people around you to be. We are all God’s beloved children.
- Read – Racists are not stupid. Racists are ignorant. Two resources that have had a powerful impact upon me are, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made For Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown and How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi. There are many good resources for learning about racism and for becoming an antiracist. I have posted a list of resources in two blogs: “Overcoming Racism” and “Putting An End To Racism.
- Commit – Engage in a conversation with a Black man or woman. Develop a relationship of trust. Listen to what is said. Be honest with yourself and with them. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Ask him or her to help you become an antiracist.
- Join a group conversation about racism and antiracism. Here is one way you can participate.
We have come to the time when doing nothing is no longer an option. Let’s take another step toward putting an end to racism.