In April 1968, Jane Elliott was a third-grade teacher in the small town of Riceville, Iowa. On the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she felt compelled to shift her lesson plans. She decided to teach her young white students about discrimination by telling the children that brown-eyed people were superior to their blue-eyed peers. She watched as the students turned on each other. Then, the next day, she reversed the script. 

The exercise highlighted the arbitrary and irrational basis of prejudice, an issue that we, in the United States, continue to grapple with more than five decades later. 

Race and Racism

In the early 1990’s, I invited Jane to come to Clarksburg, West Virginia where I served as pastor of the Duff Street United Methodist Church. We had invited community leaders, educators, health care administrators, pastors, and congregational leaders to come together for a diversity training workshop.  

There is much to be said about that training experience, but one of the statements Jane made changed my life. She said, “Many people don’t recognize that race is a social concept. Race isn’t biological. Race does not run in our DNA. Race is how somebody somewhere hundreds of years ago decided to categorize the human race.” 

In a recent interview, I heard her say, “There has been a big increase in racism in America over the past five years. We were making progress in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, even in the ’90s, and then a black man in the White House made a whole lot of white folks really angry, because that said plainly to everyone, ‘A black man can get there and do it, and do it well. Now if that’s true, then maybe my white skin doesn’t automatically make me superior.’ And it knocked the socks off everyone who believed in the rightness of whiteness.” 

I have heard her say, as well as, quoted as saying, “People who are racist aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. And the answer to ignorance is education.” If that is true, then maybe education will get us farther than “thoughts and prayers,” or “All lives matter,” or “police brutality,” or “black on black” crime. 

Say Their Names

I have written too many articles in response to the unnecessary deaths of black brothers and sisters who were at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. The list of innocent Black lives needlessly killed grows each day,

  • Eric Garner
  • Terrence Crutcher
  • Alton Sterling
  • Philando Castile
  • Samuel DuBose
  • Trayvon Martin
  • Michael Brown
  • Freddie Gray
  • Tamir Rice
  • LaQuan McDonald
  • Sandra Bland
  • Walter Scott
  • Ahmaud Arbery
  • George Floyd

As you know, there are many more names. And I understand that there are special circumstances with each killing. But justice for crimes committed is dealt with in courtrooms and not on city streets.

Deep Rooted Attitudes

So, maybe a little education will help us get past some of the deep-rooted attitudes and views we hold regarding people who are not white. I don’t intend to quote statistics, but I do intend on presenting a challenge regarding racism.   

What I have to offer is not a quick fix.  In fact, it might take a couple of generations before racism is rooted out and gone. It is obvious that we are late in getting started. But we have to start somewhere.  So, here are 3 ways to start changing our culture regarding racism. 

1. Name Current Reality

Let’s be honest about our history. It’s not pretty, it hurts, but it’s true. We will never be free from our history until we are honest about our history. Denial is our pathology, but the truth will set us free. 

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on the horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia.  It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of this country has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.  

It is time to recognize that in the same way that “slavery is a necessary evil” (Thomas Jefferson) as accepted in 1820, is the same as “separate but equal” as accepted in 1940. Choosing not to admit it and not condemn white nationalism is an overt act of racism in 2020. We have 400 years of history to face as we seek to reshape our future.

2. Focus on Educating Children

When you have a close relationship with a young person of color, make sure he/she knows how much you love them. Love and affirm the child and the relationship. Fredrick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” So, focus on children, adolescents, and young adults. Develop relationships of trust and become a mentor.  Encourage them to go to college where not everyone looks like them and shares their political, sociological, or religious views. Encourage them to study abroad or to participate in mission teams in other countries where they can experience the achievements and beauty of non-white cultures.

Here are books for younger children to read or for you to read to them. These books are inspirational and shape the minds, hearts, and imagination of all of us. These books help design a future without racism.

There are so many more books. Take time to educate your children. Teach them to be the leaders that will shape the future of the United States of America.  

2. Decolonize your bookshelf

Alley Henny offers four things to decolonize your bookshelf:

  • Add books written by black, brown, and indigenous people. For the next year, add at least one book from an author of color for every book written by a white person.
  • Purge books that are racist or written by problematic authors. The goal isn’t to run away from alternative viewpoints or ideas with which we disagree, but these should not be the dominant voices. There are some books that belong in university libraries and not in your personal collection.
  • Don’t pigeonhole authors of color. Black, brown, and indigenous people can do more than talk about race. Pick books from your favorite genre written by authors of color.
  • Don’t hold authors of color to a higher standard. Not every book written by a black, brown, or indigenous author will be great. That’s okay. Since you have mediocre books written by white authors, you can have some mediocre books from people of color too.

Books to read and add to your library:

Here is a list of books I have used in studies to help address racism:

Your Next Step

I know what I have shared is a bit overwhelming, but we have 400 years of history to learn, to face, and to overcome if we are to step into a future without racism. We have the responsibility and the ability to change things.

I have not given up hope, but I have decided writing words on a page or posting them on social media is not the answer.  So, I am asking you to join me in taking one step toward learning about and stopping racism in your community.

What is one thing you can and will do to learn about the racism in which you participate every day? If you say you are not participating in racism, I say you have some learning to do.  If you say you don’t know or have any ideas, I say I have given you more than enough options in the article.  If you say you don’t want to and that you are fine the way you are, I will say I am praying for you and for your soul.

It is past time to get started.  Now, will you join me? What one step will you take toward learning and stopping racism in your community?

Read Tim’s post from this weekend, Let Us Draw Our Breath

1 reply
  1. Steve Rath
    Steve Rath says:

    Tim: Thanks very much for your insights and thoughts in your last couple of posts this week. Events of the past week, have truly rocked me to the core of my being — especially as I think about the whole reality of white privilege. I’ve also come to the stark reality that there is a significant hole in my theology around race, justice, and related issues. I am planning a month’s worth of reading and preaching messages to my congregation here (with more than a bit of trepidation, I might add) But, as has been said often, this is a lead with courage kind of moment. Thanks for the resources; they will be helpful in addition to some others I have purchased as well. Your thoughts are making a difference.


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