People I know, wonderful, godly people who are doing great things in the world, have said these things to me:
“I’m not racist and no one I know is racist.”
“I don’t think racism is a problem in America anymore.”
and multiple variations of
“If people obeyed the law and did the right thing, they wouldn’t have a problem.”
But I believe this:
“Believing the black experience is different than the white experience is the beginning of changing white attitudes.” Jim Wallis
I think so much of my people’s–the white folks’–insistence that racism is 1)over, 2)someone else’s problem, 3)an excuse for self-caused problems, stems precisely from the lack of grasping this point. If we are never on the receiving end of racist behavior, it becomes easy to question whether…just maybe… they’re being too sensitive or misreading someone’s motives. I don’t understand the black experience in the U.S. I simply know that it is not my experience.
When I was 18, I was in our car driving to work, a very unpleasant job at a restaurant/truck stop where I washed dishes. I didn’t like my job and I made $3.35 an hour, but it was spending money and I liked that very much. My parents were generous enough to let me use their car and very rarely expected me to pay for gas. This particular day, I was late (no comments, those who know me). So I sped. I don’t mean I went 5 miles over the speed limit. Our family car was a 1973 Buick Limited, (semi-)affectionately known as “The Tank.” It was a 455, V8 monster, that could go from 0 to 60 in a mere 12-15 seconds, but then would keep right on climbing and top out at xxx.* I turned the corner at the Fairgrounds and from there on I just floored it. I blew around someone–I think a full-size van–while racing down a hill before a stop sign, where I barely paused before puling onto the highway and–saw cherries in my rear-view mirror.
In order, I thought, “That’s going to be this month’s pay,” “My parents are going to kill me,” and “I’ve already got a ticket on my record,” which I’d earned from speeding on this exact same road on my way to celebrating our track team’s conference title victory.
I don’t know how fast I was going, but it was likely around 80 on a 55.
I didn’t recognize the cop who walked up to the car. He verbally ripped into me. He asked me if I could see whether there was anyone coming when I passed that van. Asked me how fast I was going. Asked me what I was in such a hurry to die for. Then he left me to stew and went back to his cruiser.
Only two minutes later, he was back.
“Well, the chief says you’re alright, so I’m going to let you go. Don’t drive like that anymore.”
I looked back, and there was our police chief, Jim Robertson. He raised his hand to me. And then they were gone and I was left in a puddle of cold sweat, trying to make sense of this moment of grace before I understood what grace means.
Now you can deconstruct my story a dozen different ways–and with God as my witness, that moment changed how I drove and I have no idea how many times I’ve slowed down when it comes to mind, hundreds if not thousands–but I will tell you this: it is the diametric opposite of my friend James’s experience. He lived in a poorer, South Side Chicago suburb, but worked in a more well-off suburb. Between his home and his work, he drove through a suburb where the police pulled him over every time he drove through. He said it was literally Every. Single. Time.
They didn’t just talk with him. They pulled him out of the car, made him lie down on the pavement spread eagle, frisked him, grilled him with questions.
James told me eventually one of the policemen said, “You aren’t learning. We don’t want you to drive here.” Of course, James is African-American.
I told my folksy story about my own driving experience not because I need to apologize or feel guilty for having it–my narrative is my own, good, bad, and ugly, given to me by God, and I’m very grateful for the small town in which I grew up–but to emphasize how utterly my experience is not James’s experience. When I lived in Wenatchee, Washington, I got pulled over maybe half a dozen times in 10 years. James told me he got pulled over twelve times in his first six months there. There’s a temptation to conclude, “Well, he’s a bad driver.” But he got pulled over while waiting at stoplights, doing nothing, and he wasn’t told that he had done anything specifically wrong. That is not my experience.
That’s personal anecdote. What I read, and what I hear from friends, is so far outside my experience that I don’t even have grounds to compare. My parents supported my going from our little Midwestern town to attend college in Los Angeles (okay, eastern suburbs, still big city to 18-year-old me), and they talked about how to be safe, but they never tried to warn me that I would be in danger just for being my color. Because I’m not. African-American parents warn their children very differently than mine spoke to me.
I don’t have these experiences while flying. Though I’ve focused on it so far, racism is not just the black experience, of course. And often subtle racism is more prevalent, and even more damaging, than overt racism.
Now, let me say here that I really dislike the category “white.” My heritage is Irish, English, and German. I strongly embrace the Irish part. My mom is Irish. I like that my parents gave me a strong Irish name (though I’m “Mike” to everyone except Mom when she’s unhappy with me: “Michael Alan!“). But I don’t get to correct that lumping together of all Caucasian heritages. And none of us are Crayola white, though thanks to some strong Swedish influence my wife bestowed on her, my eldest daughter makes a good run at it.
But my personal preferences notwithstanding, I have experienced untold advantages by being this Irish-mix-American. I didn’t choose it, I didn’t do anything “wrong” to have it, but that doesn’t change that it is so. I’m never tailed in retail stores. Women don’t clutch their purses tighter when I pass them. There are literally thousands of things that don’t happen to me, or do happen for me, because of my pigmentation or other privileged positions I did not earn. I do not know what blacks experience, but I know my experience and I hear and read about theirs, and they aren’t the same.
As a Christian, my response when another human being made in the image of God and offered grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus describes their abuse or suffering or persecution is to listen. As I read the Gospels, Jesus Christ always sided with the persecuted.
The United States is a country which was formed and founded on some horrific, racist acts. We played “cowboys and indians” when I was in grade school, but the reality is that European settlers and the colonists who believed in Manifest Destiny committed genocide against the Native Americans whose home was that land. The U.S. established our thriving economy largely on the back of slaves from Africa, and on immigrant laborers–Chinese, Mexican, and yes, Irish–who were woefully underpaid and horribly abused. Our constitution still includes this:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. ARTICLE I, SECTION 2, CLAUSE 3
I taught comparative government at our international high school last year. We discussed why this is still found in the US constitution, and how this reflects on the debate of how we should interpret the constitution.
This isn’t ancient history. These actions by our forebears have massive implications for our present. We have a long and ugly history of racism in our country and we are still trying to find our way out–which makes it tempting to deny this history and it’s impact, and to deny the evidence all around us that people who don’t check the “white” box on surveys experience racism on a daily basis.
That brings me to this point: Donald Trump speaks like a racist. His words are rife with racism. I’m not saying his hair is funny or that I dislike him personally. I’m saying he acts like a racist and incites racist behavior in his followers.
Though I like having you read my blog–it makes me feel like a writer and all–I think this post, “Nikabrik’s Candidate” in First Things makes the argument more poignantly than I have:
Tired of waiting for Aslan—who may be nearer than we think—we turn elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if our candidate hates, bullies, and exploits other people, the reasoning goes, just as long as he’s good to us and gives us what we want. Hatred is a perfectly acceptable weapon, as long as it’s “on our side.”
I don’t know what percentage of Donald Trump’s supporters are full-fledged, unashamed racists. Some are, certainly. Though it may sound like it, if you are a Trump supporter, I am not accusing you of this. I am saying that we are blind to our own faults, sometimes blind to our motives, and we seem willing to overlook some pretty awful things in our champions when we think we need them to protect us and our interests.
To cite one clear example, and there are too many, Trump sent a tweet with a graphic claiming statistics of murder rates between blacks and whites. The numbers are laughably inaccurate–except that the humor is ruined when you realize that Trump is claiming blacks murder whites at a rate 5.4 TIMES higher than actually occurs, and that whites murder blacks 4 times less often than they actually do. (Statistically, whites are most often murdered by whites and blacks are most often murdered by blacks.) Trump’s claim makes blacks into murderers of whites while whites rarely kill other whites or blacks. That’s simply a lie.
The Trump campaign never acknowledged the skewed numbers, never apologized, and, when taken with the pattern of racist attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, and African-Americans, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that this was a calculated, strategic decision. Fear-mongering has successfully inflated Trump’s support. Put more personally, a whole lot of people have rallied behind the campaign of the man who tells them racist lies about blacks, who plays on their fears that blacks are thugs and murderers who threaten them directly.
When an African-American man tried to protest at a Trump rally–remember, non-violent protest is still legal and non-violent protesters are still protected by law in the U.S.–he was beaten by Trump supporters. Trump said, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
Okay, I’m speaking as a follower of Jesus here: the candidate for president who explicitly approves illegally assaulting anyone–and we are talking about a citizen acting within the law–is not someone I could vote for as my country’s leader. Trump tells his supporters that blacks are the biggest threats to murder whites and then approves beating up a black man at his rally.
Now let’s talk about my heart.
I live in Nicaragua. I am a minority here, but a very powerful one. I live in a poor barrio and we presumably have a higher income, “poor missionaries” though we are, than any of our neighbors. I will tell you that I am continuously waging a war in my heart against taking on racist attitudes toward Nicaraguans.
Mind you, I love these people and have chosen to live here with my family for the past five years. I love Bismarck and Alfredo and Juan Ramon. These are true friends and brothers. But I also get angry, very, very angry over systems that don’t work, over drivers whose decisions endanger me or my children, over attitudes that seem beyond nonsense, reaching actually malicious. These are all my problems. I am not saying that I’m wrong about dangerous drivers or broken systems, but declaring “I hate how Nicaraguans drive” is racist. It is. Complaining in front of my children how awful “Nicaraguan customer service” is helps instill a racist attitude in them. These show the sickness of my soul, not because I am mistaken and all Nicaraguans are safe and conscientious drivers or customer service here turns out to be first rate. No, these are racist attitudes because 1)I am stereotyping a people and generalizing individuals’ behaviors to reflect on an entire race; in contrast, I don’t respond to a maniac gringo driver here (and there are plenty) with “White people are the worst drivers!”, 2)I am ignoring the systemic, generational poverty and injustice that impact everything that happens here. Here, too, the Nicaraguan experience is different than the white experience.
Teen pregnancy is at epidemic proportions in Managua, especially in the most impoverished communities**. That does not mean Nicaraguan teens are slutty or that Nicaraguans lack moral character. I live in a barrio where a shocking number of children don’t go to school at all. I have neighbor kids, four- and six-years-old, who attend their fathers’ ice cream cart while he gets drunk. I mean, daily. Nine-year-old girls get sold by their families, or sexually abused by their mothers’ boyfriends. If there’s no school and no employment, nor realistic prospects for either, then starting to have children doesn’t seem that bad of an option. It gives a girl identity; it raises her value because now she is a mother. One of the most shocking attitudes I’ve encountered here is that when a 15-year-old girl we know got pregnant, she and (seemingly) her family were thrilled. According to our culture’s values, this made no sense. But we have a daughter attending a highly-ranked college and two more looking ahead to college.
I have to recognize and interpret the actions in the context of extreme poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and hopelessness–all of which contribute to an extremely limited and truncated view of the future. Almost 30% of the Nicaraguan population is zero to fourteen years. Another 24% is fourteen to twenty-four. That’s about half of the population made up largely of what we would consider dependents. Such demographics, coupled with high unemployment (50-70%) and the collapsing of generations (babies of 14-year-old mothers, 28-year-old grandmothers) puts an immense demand on those responsible to support them–with jobs that pay an average of $150-$200 per month. 48% of the population lives on $1 or less per day and 76% on $2 or less per day.
Those are numbers. Here’s how it looks: last week, a friend called my wife six times. We were out and she hadn’t noticed the calls (it’s nice when we can talk without being interrupted). Kim called her back to be told that the woman’s husband had been drunk again and she’d just found out that he’d lied about paying their two children’s school matriculation fees. They owed 2,800 cordobas ($100) and she had only 1,800 cordobas ($64). We have learned that giving people money directly leads to serious problems and breakdown of relationships. She asked if there was any way we could help, and we hired her for a few days, enough to earn that money.
Later, my son asked me, “Dad, was 1,800 cordobas all the money she had to pay for school or all the money she had?” I could only answer, “I don’t know, Son.”
What does this have to do with racism, in my heart or in the U.S.? Everything. Systems that oppress certain people and benefit others frame how we experience and how we relate to one another. If I adapt the opening quote from Jim Wallis for my context:
Believing the impoverished Nicaraguan experience is different than the ex-pat gringo experience is the beginning of changing ex-pat gringo attitudes.
Everything from why immigration office red tape is so maddening to why the police are so arbitrary in pulling drivers over is influenced by their experience, which is vastly different than mine. This doesn’t excuse sin or bad behavior, but it requires me to understand it in context. If I am inclined to deny that Nicaraguans suffer and have difficulties that I never face and do not understand, then I am projecting my experience and cultural view on their lives, which reinforces my stereotypes and racism.
So the answer is, this racism, the racism still present in U.S. culture, in the U.S. race for President, but also the racism that is right here, trying to take root in my own heart. The racism that camouflages itself under my privileges. The racism I’m learning to identify and confront, in myself first, and then in others, as a follower of Jesus.
*[I’m not going to complete that sentence because my mom is reading this].
**The average age of a woman giving birth for the first time is 19.8, with just over a quarter of babies born to mothers who are 14 to 18 years old. About half the women have a child by the time they turn 20. http://passblue.com/2013/03/15/lets-talk-about-sex-in-nicaragua/
Sources and Resources
Doug Schaupp, a friend of mine, co-authors this blog and book by the same name: Being White. This is the strongest discussion on the topic I know from a Christian perspective.
Nikabrik’s Candidate, in First Things
Mark Charles, the friend of a friend, writes very challengingly and insightfully on racial issues from a native, Christian perspective.
White Mom Blog is exactly what it sounds like: a mom who is “white” talking about her experience and perspective on race issues.
Though you may not agree with everything in this article (nor do I), it does a good job of examining how we experience privilege in different ways, even if we have also experienced disadvantages.