Today’s writer reflects on Session 3 in Now Is The Time: A Study Guide for ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent as the starting point for her writing. Session 3 calls for examining systemic racism, engaging participants in “examining the systems and structures of racism built during 246 years of slavery, 103 years of Jim Crow, and the mass incarceration of the “New Jim Crow” er since 1968.”
“The Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent” is an acknowledgment of the church’s complicity in slavery and the perpetuation of systemic racism. Now Is The Time: A Study Guide for ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent focuses on deepening understanding of that history and engaging white people in conversation on the meaning and impact of slavery and systemic racism. Participant materials are available in addition to the study guide.
by Mikki Coles
Being able to see systems is a gift. That sight comes from a knowledge of (full and accurate) history intertwined with a power analysis of outcomes.
I am a descendant of Norwegian immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1884. I know this because my family “origin” congregation put out a hard-bound commemorative book on its 100th anniversary with pictures and historical accounts of each member from 1885-1985.
Reading these stories and contextualizing the dates brought up questions about how my ancestors could settle in South Dakota in 1885. The answer, I’ve come to know, is that the U.S. government made a decision. The government decided to bring military troops north to “clear” the land by genocide of the Native Americans. The government chose to pull out of the southern states where the troops were protecting previously enslaved peoples of African descent, ending the era known as Reconstruction, to engage in the Great Sioux War of 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
Without this decision, my circumstances today, and those of Black southerners, would be dramatically different.
This is just one of many historical decisions that were made to benefit how and where I live. Where I live, where I raised my kids, is one of the most important factors in determining my and their ability to thrive. This is where history, power, and outcomes intertwine. Who had the power to impact where I would live when I wasn’t even born? From the slaughter of Native Americans to redlining to the GI Bill that benefited, almost exclusively white families like mine, it was the U.S. government. I benefit from decisions the U.S. government made to put in place a system of access and opportunity for whites only.
Even as a young girl, I could not wrap my head around the notion that skin – melanin, pigment, something that is a physical characteristic – could be genetically determinative of things like character or intelligence or ability to thrive. And yet when I look at outcomes – the difference between those who thrive and those who struggle – they can be categorized based on skin color.
As a white person, I have no obvious personal reason to dig any deeper; but, doing the power analysis is essential to our communal humanity. Why are outcomes so easily categorized by skin color? Who has the power to influence these outcomes? What is the historical context that laid the foundation for such outcomes? How are access and opportunity being granted or denied? Asking and answering these questions is like choosing the red pill in the movie The Matrix – the systems come into focus.
When I think back to my own decision about where to raise my family, I meet my culpability in upholding and supporting these systems. The first question I asked was, “Where are the good schools?” I didn’t know at the time that the “good schools” were in the “good (white) neighborhoods” because the system of funding schools is based on property tax values . . . and the property tax base (housing) is based on a system that is mostly segregated still today, due initially to explicit racism in red-lining and decisions about the highway and interstate routes. All of this has a race-neutral appearance today; however, what I’m really asking when I research “Where are the good schools?” is “How can I make sure my kids continue to benefit from the system that was put in place?”
It no longer matters that the system doesn’t exclusively benefit white people. All the other systems – financial, healthcare, education, etc. – with similar, intentionally racist, historical decisions, have given me the foundation and generational wealth that allowed me the choice of where to live. Neither I nor my family could have ever claimed to be wealthy, and yet, I still had a choice while many BIPOC families didn’t and don’t have that same choice.
So why would I call it a gift to see systems? I could blissfully support a system that isn’t broken for me without examining the cost that black and brown bodies paid and are paying along the way. I could honestly believe I am race-neutral in doing so. The answer for me lies in the realization that systems were created and can, therefore, be re-created. Systems are not immovable objects.
Plus, I can no longer say, “Racism is bad, but I don’t know what to do.” Systems are process and policy and decisions. When we are honest about the historical choices and current outcomes that systems are providing, we can become intentional about the change, dismantling, and re-creation needed to support racially just outcomes.
Mikki Coles, of San Marcos, Texas has been a member of Women of the ELCA’s Racial Justice Advocacy Network since 2009 serving the Southwestern Texas Synod and serving as a church-wide trainer since 2011. She currently serves on the board for the Southwestern Texas Synod and is on the task force guiding Project Radical Hospitality.