Learning how racism works within our church, society, and world has been the focus of Women of the ELCA’s anti-racism peer educators’ network, Today’s Dream: Tomorrow’s Reality, since 1997. Education about racial context, and exposure to how we have all internalized these contexts, can be challenging and painful. And in the United States today, we are having painful days around race–too many things for one blog entry!
But I will limit myself to one story: Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a distinguished Harvard faculty member, was arrested for disorderly conduct when a neighbor witnessed Gates trying to open his own jammed front door and called the police. Gates identified himself to the officer prior to his arrest. Gates also expressed his feelings.
Whether we “get” why Professor Gates was as upset as he was over having to show that he was not a burglar in his own home, or whether we “get” why Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department arrested Professor Gates even though he later admitted that he knew “it would be seen as controversial and bring unwanted attention,” the aftermath of this incident has caused a riff across our collective psyche. Race matters tend to draw lines.
Racism is not limited to a time in history or a location on the map. After the near annihilation of North American indigenous peoples, the cross-Atlantic slave trade, hundreds of years of slavery, and the emancipation proclamation of 1865, Jim Crow laws and such things as racially skewed immigration laws continued to destroy the freedom and potential of entire races of people. Since the Civil Rights Act (which some actually believe ended racism in the U.S.) race and power (like gender and power) in the United States has been one of our dirty little secrets.
There has been much talk about living in a so-called post-racial United States ever since the Obama family took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Suddenly, everyone wants to talk about race whether or not they know the history of race in the U.S. or the ways race continues to manifest different realities in the lives of U.S. citizens.
Do you think we are willing to learn how to talk about race in ways that have healing potential? Is there a balm in Gilead capable of healing such a thing as a country’s sin-sick soul? Or do you think having an African American President makes racism a thing of the past?
Inez Torres Davis is director for justice, Women of the ELCA.