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.
- Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, by Gwendolyn Hooks. This highlights the accomplishments of Vivien Thomas, a pioneer in the world of surgical technology.
- Look What Brown Can Do! by T. Marie Harris. Called a “modern black history book,” Look What Brown Can Do! teaches readers about inspiring contributions to black history and encourages kids to dream big.
- Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage, by Allan Schroeder. This is the story of Harlem Renaissance figure Florence Mills, who was known for her talents in singing, dancing, and comedy.
- I Have A Dream, by Martin Luther King, Jr. This is Dr. King’s speech about the importance of equality.
- Coretta Scott, by Ntozake Shange. This is a book about Coretta Scott King, the civil rights activist and leader who married Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly and Winifred Conkling. This book introduces the black women whose hard work and perseverance advanced the space race.
- Bippity Bop Barbershop, by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley. The book highlights the role barbershops play in black culture, and what it’s like to conquer your fears as a child.
- Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, by Vashti Harrison. This is a book of a variety of stories of black women who never backed down in the face of adversity.
- The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Coles. This book tells the story of Ruby Bridges, who became the first African-American child to integrate a white southern elementary school.
- I, Too, Am America, Langston Hughes. This is an illustrated version of Langston Hughes’ famous poem “I, Too, Am America.
- Mae Among the Stars, Roda Ahmed. This is the story of the first African American woman in space. This book shares her dreams as a child, her hard work and ultimately, her success in and out of space.
- Rosa, Nikki Giovanni. This book is about the bravery and resilience of Rosa Parks as she refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama, playing an important role in the civil rights movement.
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:
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein. The author details how federal housing policies in the 1940s and ’50s mandated segregation and undermined the ability of black families to own homes and build wealth.
- What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our unfinished Conversation About Race in America, Michael Eric Dyson. An in-depth conversation of race in America and what has shaped it over the years.
- Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Eli Saslow. This is the personal story of a man who grew up in a white nationalist family, who knew no different until he went off to college, and then challenges the beliefs with which he has grown up.
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. The author chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.
- Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi. Some Americans cling desperately to the myth that we are living in a post-racial society, that the election of the first Black president spelled the doom of racism. In fact, racist thought is alive and well in America. It is more sophisticated and more insidious than ever. The author tells the story of anti-Black racist ideas and their staggering power over the course of American history.
- How to Be an AntiRacist by Ibram X. Kendi. The New York Times best-selling book exploring the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged, and how these reactions maintain racial inequality.
- Becoming, Michelle Obama. As the First Lady of the United States, the first African American to serve in that role, Michelle Obama helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and for girls in the United States and around the world.
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarcerations in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. This is an account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status, denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.
- Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, by Marie Gottschalk. This is a major reappraisal of crime and punishment in America.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is written as a letter to the author’s teenage son about the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being black in the United States. Coates reviews American history and explains to his son the “racist violence that has been woven into American culture.” He sees white supremacy as an indestructible force, one that Black Americans will never evade or erase, but will always struggle against.
- Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, by Piper Eressea Kerman. The author writes of her experiences at a minimum-security federal prison. She tells about the ease with which one can be charged with “conspiracy” to sell drugs, the damage done from long sentences that don’t fit the crime, the ever-present threat of solitary confinement at a Correction Officer’s whim, and other specific harmful practices in the prison system.
Here is a list of books I have used in studies to help address racism:
- United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race, Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancy and Karen Chai Kim
- Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Soong-Chan Rah
- The 10 Lenses: Your Guide to Living and Working in a Multicultural World, Mark Williams
- Crossing Cultures: A Beginners Guide to Making Friends in a Multicultural World, Patty Lane
- One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches, George Yancey
- Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers
- The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change, Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson
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?