Some of the earliest conversations I remember about the Civil Rights movement were happening above my head in my grandmother’s beauty shop. But while the shampoo-and-set ladies were still sputtering about the Freedom Riders, my first-grade class was being integrated. As I remember it, none of us six-year-olds had a problem with Beverly or Geneva who braved the trip across our Mississippi town to break down racial barriers. At our life stage, segregation was boys vs. girls, and from my side of the playground, it appeared the girls welcomed our small pioneers.
No one discussed the social advance that our recess detente represented; it just was.
As I consider my first cousins, mostly born within a decade of the 1965 Civil Rights legislation, I can say I think many in my generation earnestly confronted our heritage of racism. When a church I served in ethnically diverse New Orleans voted to repudiate racist connections at the time of its founding 75 years earlier, the action felt personal.
We held a ceremony affirming our sorrow for past prejudices and our present love for all peoples, that coincided with similar statements by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995. We invited our neighboring pastor Fred Luter to celebrate communion with us afterward. And as a pastor, I was especially happy when our friend was elected the first African American president of the SBC.
If you had asked me back then if I were a racist, I would have said no. I would have said no during my decades in Chicago. There I found valuable friendships and partnerships among pastors of many races and ethnicities in my work with the local association and state convention. And when my wife fell ill, I learned we were both on the prayer lists in many African American churches. I felt sure those prayers, frequent and fervent, were heard and answered.
I would have said no, because I felt I had repented of racism on a personal level long ago. Many Christians, including Southern Baptists, would say they have asked to see the world and the church and people as God does: neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.
But in June I was confronted with a new kind of racism—one I could not deny. I watched a murder: Eight minutes and 46 seconds as a white police officer suffocated a black man pinned to the pavement with his knee. It was horrific. Never has any video affected me as that scene did and continues to do so. The resulting marches worldwide served to rip the veneer from claims of colorblind society and equal opportunity. While, like many white Christians, I have sought to end racism on an individual basis and have preached many such sermons through the years, I have not actively challenged systemic racism. Indeed, in that way, I am a racist.
For much of my life, I thought the American dream was available for everyone who really wanted it, who really tried. My mother, divorced, raised me alone. Yet, I had a good education, entry into a good career field, and open doors for ministry when my call came. If I could succeed given our lowly circumstances, I assumed anyone else could as well.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting protests have shown me what I did not fully see. As Dallas pastor Tony Evans has pointed out, the nation’s failure to confront racism is the church’s failure. Yes, believers may have repented individually and denominations with our statements and resolutions. But our repentance has not produced ministry that overcomes the basic inequities in opportunity. There are whole systems to be reformed, and without the commitment of the church, it won’t happen. Government hasn’t fixed it. Legislation hasn’t fixed it. HUD hasn’t fixed it. HHS hasn’t fixed it.
The social and economic forces that create ghettos and food deserts and underperforming schools and inadequate health care for people of color remain unaddressed. And the criminal justice system is weighted against them, especially young black men. Our penal system rarely succeeds at rehabilitation; it’s not designed for that. The recidivism rate is above 80%. Too often we send people to prison and their punishment is that they are trained to become career criminals.
If those factors were defining and limiting and ending the futures of as many white people, they would not be tolerated. Why do we tolerate them for others?
Repentance does not end racism; it is only the beginning of the ending. And yes, I know the term “systemic racism” will be politicized and argued and even resented. And I do not intend a wholesale indictment of law enforcement or American justice. But the reform that begins in the heart of one person who begins to love like Jesus loves must in turn reform every aspect of our culture. Until it does, no one has overcome.
Eric Reed is editor of IBSA media.