Responding to Persistent Racism

June 16th, 2014

Headline News

Mention the name Donald Sterling to just about anyone who follows the news, and it’s likely he or she will express some variation of fatigue upon hearing it. Sterling, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers, has been in the headlines quite a bit over the past several weeks after an audio tape surfaced revealing racist comments he made to a girlfriend. This caused the commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, to issue an unprecedented lifetime ban to Sterling and lead other team owners to exert pressure on Sterling to sell the Clippers. The story is still developing as of this writing.

In April, another story broke along similar lines. Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher, rose to prominence by defying the federal government when he grazed his cattle on protected land, leading some politicians to rally around him as a symbol of the struggle for public land rights, until he made comments at a press conference to the effect that he wondered whether African Americans (he used the word Negro) were “better off as slaves.” These comments caused those politicians who had been rallying around him to backtrack quickly.

Someone who did not backtrack but ultimately resigned his position was Robert Copeland, a New Hampshire police commissioner who was overheard calling President Barack Obama the n word. After the news broke, Copeland not only defiantly refused to issue an apology, he confirmed that he did speak about the President that way and believed that he was right in doing so. Town residents were not sympathetic to Copeland and forced him to resign as police commissioner.

Progress Remembered, but Racism Persists

Stories like the ones described above garner a great deal of attention because of their sensational qualities—high-profile people saying outrageous things and falling from grace. Here’s another news story, though, that might not have trended as high on social media but is even more worthy of the public’s attention: May 17, 2014, marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark court case Brown v. Board of Education. In this case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the idea of “separate but equal,” the linchpin of the segregationist argument, was unconstitutional. Earl Warren, the chief justice at the time, stated that “separate was inherently unequal.” This decision paved the way for desegregation in schools and other public places.

The United States Justice Department issued a statement commemorating the event, saying, “This marked a major victory for the cause of equal justice under law, an inflection point in American history, and a spark that in many ways ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement.”

The 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education is a cause for celebration; but as the stories that opened this article highlight, we still have a long way to go in the area of racial equality. In fact, digging a little deeper into the story of the landmark court case shows that even the great promise of desegregation has yet to be realized. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that school segregation has actually been on the rise since 1990.


Another event that signaled progress in the march toward racial equality occurred in 2008. After the election of President Obama, his status as the first African American president led some people to use the phrase post-racial to describe American society. National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation hosted a discussion of this term, with its many definitions, in January of 2010. Ralph Eubanks, author of the book The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South, says the term essentially implies that “race is not an issue. We are all Americans, and we’re just completely color blind.”

Eubanks believes we are far from being a post-racial society. He believes we are seeing more of what he calls “dog-whistle racism” where “people are talking about something and saying it is not about race, but race is a very thin subtext to the message that’s getting out there.” In a sense, Eubanks, along with the interviewer, Rebecca Roberts, conclude that we have actually “taken a step away from a post-racial society” because we are talking about race but then denying that we are about race. While Eubanks thinks we can never really be post-racial, he believes there are aspects of this ideal that ought to be strived for.

If any group in the United States might be called “post-racial,” perhaps it is the millennial generation. This is the group born after 1980, and it’s “the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation the United States has ever known.” They came out in large numbers to help elect Barack Obama as the first African American president. These factors have led some to wonder if this generation might be the one finally to move beyond defining people by the color of their skin.

According to focus groups conducted by the Applied Research Center, however, the millennial generation believes that “race still matters.” The young people questioned acknowledged that Obama’s election demonstrated that there has been progress in regard to race relations in this country, but they also said they continue to experience racism as something common in their everyday lives. 

Persistent Racism and the Church

It’s clear from all that has been said so far that events like the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the election of the first African American president, and the diversity of the millennial generation provide glimpses of hope in a nation that has known great pain and difficulty in the area of race relations. It’s also clear, however, from the blatantly racist remarks made by Sterling, Bundy, and Copeland, along with the more subtle “dog-whistle racism” that Ralph Eubanks described, that we have a long way to go.

Where, then, is the Christian church in the midst of all of this? If the millennial generation cannot live up to the “post-racial” ideal, can the church founded by Jesus Christ live up to the biblical standard of equality outlined in the “Core Bible Passages” below? The answer, it seems, is that the church is a reflection of the larger society: Progress has been made with more work to be done.

In American churches, our congregations are actually more segregated than the rest of society. It is true that our churches have often been on the forefront of promoting discrimination. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail was addressed to his fellow clergymen who questioned King’s motives for bringing the struggle for civil rights to Alabama. They wanted to argue for the status quo. The United Methodist Church has issued resolutions confessing and repenting of the denomination’s role in slavery and racism, recognizing the role the church has played in perpetuating discrimination.

Great progress has been made in the church toward racial reconciliation, however. In 2008, for example, First United Methodist Church, a historically white congregation in New Orleans, merged with Grace United Methodist Church, a historically black congregation, to form First Grace United Methodist Church. According to Bruce Nolan of The Times-Picayune, “Hurricane Katrina wrecked so many churches in and around New Orleans that... circumstance has forced a few historically black and historically white congregations in several denominations to merge.” Members of First Grace, however, don’t see it as simply a pragmatic necessity; they felt they were being called to do something new. 

Also, the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church approved an agreement to be in full-communion with five other Methodist denominations that had developed over the years in response to discrimination by the majority white Methodist Church at the beginnings of the Wesleyan movement in America.

Even though there is a lot of history to overcome and persistent racism to act against, there is no need to look to a “post-racial” ideal created by the media to find a way forward. Scripture provides a framework for how Christians ought to relate to one another. The parable of the good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37, challenges hearers to consider everyone, even the people most different from them, as their neighbors. Perhaps the best example the church can provide a society that still struggles with racism is to find more stories of racial reconciliation occurring and to “go and do likewise” (verse 37).

Core Bible Passages

Genesis 11:1-9 tells the story of the tower of Babel. The people attempt to build a tower “with its top in the sky” for two reasons: to “make a name” for themselves and to avoid being “dispersed all over the earth” (verse 4). God intervenes, confuses their speech, and, just as they feared, scatters them over the earth. Our divisions, then, and the things that keep us apart are largely a result of sinful pride.

In Acts 2:1-21, we read about a dramatic reversal of the previous story with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It’s interesting to note that each person heard the good news being proclaimed in his or her own language. Diversity, then, was part of the miracle. God was reuniting all the peoples of the earth, with their unique language and cultures, into one family through the power of the Spirit.

Acts 8:26-40 further demonstrates the universal nature of the gospel. Philip the deacon proclaims the good news to an Ethiopian eunuch, who is then promptly baptized. The Spirit breaks down all barriers.

Paul speaks to the new reality of the kingdom of God in Galatians 3:28. There is a radical equality in the Spirit that eliminates all distinctions that had previously divided humanity. This radical equality ought to be a hallmark of the church founded by that Spirit.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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