There will always be men struggling to change, and there will always be those that are controlled by the past.
-Ernest J. Gaines
This has become one of the most commonly talked about and debated issues of our time. What worries me about this is that most of time when people talk about it, there is little reference to history. History is the yesterday that makes sense of today. Any conversation about an inherently historical problem, must begin and end with the past that brought us to where we are today.
So what is this past? For many of us, the past is full of discovery, victory in war, the iconic “American Dream,” justice served, and heroic ancestral ties. For those of us who can identify with that (if you are a white male, that likely means you), it becomes difficult for us to understand how anyone else could have a different look on history. But when we set aside our preconceived notions about America’s “wondrous” past, we come closer to understanding history from an objective base, and just might be able to better understand why we have so many divisive problems in our country today. So let’s dive into a brief outline of American history from a perspective many of us are not familiar with.
When the Atlantic Slave Trade began in the 16th century, it brought to America a slave economy not so foreign to many parts of the world at the time. What it ultimately did was shape the way that America did business. Into the 19th century, America, particularly the south, thrived because of this, and to some extent, only this. But in 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was made which declared slave labor illegal (except under the grounds of criminal punishment), the foundation of the southern economy seemed to go to shambles. Not only this, but now it had to deal with a huge population of newly released slaves who needed to find work to survive (this is more so how the north became affected). Not surprisingly, this was a threatening burden for people living in the United States at this time.
In wake of this threat, whites began to use every available form of terror to ensure that these individuals did not steal their work or threaten their power. They held public lynchings, burned down African American houses and churches, beat, murdered, and raped black individuals. What seems like such an obvious problem to us today was not so obvious back then. The government mostly chose to ignore these issues out of fear of disappointing their followers, and even partook in the action. Police arrested and killed African Americans for minor crimes like loitering or trespassing. They were falsely accused on a variety of different crimes. The Jim Crow Laws were established to enforce racial segregation. When entertainment had started to become popular, movies were made that specifically made African Americans (who were actually whites in blackface) out to look like monsters, murderers, and rapists. One of the earliest and most famous films was Birth of a Nation (1915) by D.W. Griffith. The film makes a continually blatant effort to portray blacks in a negative manner and spends a great deal of time glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. (This can be watched on YouTube). The reality is this was one of the most popular and influential films in American history. Yet this is what was portrayed in the entertainment industry.
Eventually the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s sparked some change. Today, most of us regardless of political affiliation (unless you are a white supremacist) look upon Martin Luther King Jr. with great admiration. But the reality is that he was not well liked during his time, and ultimately stirred about a lot of controversy that many felt uncomfortable with. He was after all assassinated. But that does tend to be what those in power like to do to loving peacemakers (listen to They Killed Him by Bob Dylan).
The history has gone on. Yes, we have come a long way. But racism still exists. We did not treat these people poorly. We treated them like animals. And the beatings and killings are not something that is hundreds of years old that we have moved on from. These were happening 50 years ago. To say that the implications of this 500-plus year-old history don’t exist anymore is to be completely ignorant of our nation’s past. This is a statistical fact. Not only are blacks five times more likely than whites to be represented in prison (check out http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/), but the implicit racial bias exists in each of our minds. No, most cops are not trying to be racist. Most white people are not trying to be racist. But we carry with us an implicit bias that stems from America’s long history of unequal treatment of African Americans. As much as we don’t want to accept it, it is a systemic issue. There are countless studies done that highlight how this still exists today. Here is the abstract from a study done on this by Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Bart Bonikowski (2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2915472).
Decades of racial progress have led some researchers and policymakers to doubt that discrimination remains an important cause of economic inequality. To study contemporary discrimination, we conducted a field experiment in the low-wage labor market of New York City, recruiting white, black, and Latino job applicants who were matched on demographic characteristics and interpersonal skills. These applicants were given equivalent résumés and sent to apply in tandem for hundreds of entry-level jobs. Our results show that black applicants were half as likely as equally qualified whites to receive a callback or job offer. In fact, black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison. Additional qualitative evidence from our applicants’ experiences further illustrates the multiple points at which employment trajectories can be deflected by various forms of racial bias. These results point to the subtle yet systematic forms of discrimination that continue to shape employment opportunities for low-wage workers.
There are other studies that are very similar to this. What this ultimately means is that whether we want to accept it or not, the problem still exists today. Black Lives Matter does not exist because black people just want others to feel sorry for them. They want to be heard. They want to take a stand. They want change. People often respond by saying, “all lives matter.” Yes they do. But that is exactly what Black Lives Matter is trying to say. Our history shows us that we haven’t acted like all lives matter. We probably haven’t ever thought about the fact that maybe it is the white people that need to hear “all lives matter.” We’ve done a really good job at acting like white lives matter. Maybe it’s time to let the rest of them matter, and stop condemning them for trying to take a stand.
The efforts to take a stand (or knee) for racial injustice has been brought to the NFL. Recently, NFL players have been kneeling during the National Anthem. What resulted from this has been an uproar from conservatives claiming how unpatriotic and disrespectful these players are for taking a knee during the National Anthem. Social media feeds became filled with people burning the jerseys of their favorite NFL players in response. Vice President Mike Pence went to a game in Indianapolis and left as soon as the Anthem was played after he saw players kneeling. Immediately after this, he received a big applause from supporters. Trump took to Twitter to claim that it was all his idea.
As I watched this all play out, I became confused as to the anti-military attacks on the players who were kneeling. I have yet to hear any player say that they do not fully support our military. Also, since when did the National Anthem become exclusively about the military? Sure, we have had young women and men willing to sacrifice a great deal for our country in the face of battle. But we also have teachers, doctors, lawyers, pastors, engineers, farmers, and so many other great individuals that are very patriotic and devote a significant amount of their life in service to the country that they live in. The military has played a big part in who we are. And we should be ever-grateful to those who have been willing to sacrifice their lives in service. But our country is not exclusively defined by military. If that was the case, we’d probably be living in a pretty sad country. NFL players exercising their right to have a voice is not an attack on military. It is an effort to improve an aspect of our history that desperately needs improvement. These men have a platform that most Black Americans don’t have. After all we have done to these people, how can we again attack them for trying to be heard? These people have never been heard. Before we dismiss this act of kneeling as merely a divisive move, maybe we should take a look at all the other forms of protest that we would now consider great elements of our past (the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, Worker’s Rights), and know how divisive they were in their time.
As a Christian, I find it difficult to figure out how so many other Christians are so quick to condemn these NFL players for taking a stand. These people are hurting. Even if you refuse to believe that because you don’t see it, would you be kicking yourself ten years from now for at least being open to hearing these people out rather than attacking them? I don’t think you would. As Christians, we do a really good job of seeing the bad things that other people are doing. The simple fact that we are so adept at pointing out “bad” things in other people shows us how much we have strayed away from the message of Christ.
If you are a white person in America, especially if you say that you follow Christ, I beg you to be honest with yourself. There are many aspects of American history that are good, but there are also some really dark moments. Race is one of them. And study after study shows that this has not changed. I know most of us don’t try to be racist. But we are dealing with the consequences of a complicated past. And one of those consequences is that we have an implicit bias against African Americans. Because of this, please do not be another shouting voice in the ear of these people. We have done enough to them. Let’s have compassion, let’s listen, and let’s try and understand these people. We don’t have to sacrifice our patriotism in order to do that. And if you are so concerned about that, I would say that there are a lot of examples of Christ listening, loving, and being compassionate, and very few (I think zero) of him telling us to make sure we are patriotic before anything else. The aggressive condemning acts of the Pharisees were, after all, exactly what Christ was resisting. Yet as Christians, we continually find ourselves doing the same thing, though we say we want to embody Christ.
I hope this gives you a different perspective on some issues that are going on. And maybe something to think and pray about.