Writing about race and racism in America is always risky and potentially polarizing if you are—like me—a middle-aged white guy from the suburbs. So I am a little hesitant to weigh in with some observations about the current climate in America.
As a minister who leads a congregation composed of people from more than 30 nations (not descendants—first generation here), I have the opportunity to interact with wonderful people from around the world. I have learned much from them over the years about the challenges and hardships they have faced, both back in the old country, and trying to assimilate here and carve out their own niche of the American dream.
Being on the conservative side of all things political—with an emergent streak of libertarianism—I realize that this adds another strike against me when it comes to sharing (or in the view of some—even having) a reasonable and valid opinion on the subject of racism. Because I am a white man and a conservative, therefore I must be a racist.
Strike three is the fact that I did not vote for Barack Obama (though a significant number of my congregants surely did) and my opposition to his presidential policies has been unwavering. That seals the deal. Back to the dugout for me it is—I have no credibility. How dare I talk about this issue?
Yet, I am distressed by what I am seeing and hearing—distressed enough to speak up. As the Apostle Paul’s spirit was stirred in him while visiting Athens (Acts chapter 17) because of what he saw and heard (in that case, pervasive idolatry), my spirit is troubled because of what I see in America these days.
The problem in America is not racism. Sure, there are cases of enmity driven by bigoted ignorance, but the greatest prejudice in this country is the now systemic painting of those who oppose policy as racists—ipso facto. We have a new McCarthyism in the nation—one that paints with a broad brush. “Are you now, or have you ever been, a card-carrying racist?”
We are witnessing the “borking” of America. Robert Bork, of course, was Ronald Reagan’s nominee to the Supreme Court in 1987. He found himself the victim of an insidious smear campaign—that worked—and his name became a verb: "To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media.”
If you’re a white person and you don’t support Obamacare—you must be a bigot. If you think global warming is an overheated issue—it’s surely racially motivated. The same goes with what is happening now in Arizona. It must be racism driving all the “hate.” The 7 out of 10 citizens of Arizona who support the recently signed immigration law must be motivated by “hate.” That whole property, safety and not wanting to overtax an already cash-strapped state with financial burdens—well, that’s just a cover.
To hear some describe it (newspapers, blogs or any hour on MSNBC), racism is all over the place and there is no defense allowed if you are accused. It’s a charge that sticks. It’s also a charge that, to an extent, works. This is why playing the race card tends these days to be the first from the deck. It has a way of stopping further discussion. It’s a tried and true intimidator.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said something about people not being judged by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen! That statement rings so true. But what kind of character is represented when former ACORN president, Bertha Lewis, slanders the Tea Party movement as a “bowel movement” riddled with and motivated by “racism.” She was speaking, by the way to a group called the Young Democratic Socialists (the youth arm of the Democratic Socialists of America). Or for that matter, what kind of character was represented by the now discredited ACORN and their financial and moral bankruptcy?
It is disturbing to me that the historic election of the first black President of the United States has not led to a “post-racial” national experience, but rather it’s polarizing opposite. Are we moving toward a kind of country where speaking out and reasonable—even animated—opposition to policies and those who make them can be dismissed as merely racist and therefore irrelevant?
I do not support President Obama’s policies, but I am not a racist. I pray for the man (and other leaders) every day, by name, following the scriptural directive. I make sure to commend him when I can—for example, I thought his remarks at the memorial service for the West Virginia miners a week ago were excellent. He fulfilled one of his presidential duties—an extraordinarily difficult one (as any clergyman knows)—with grace and obvious compassion.
Mr. Obama loves his wife and children—they are truly a beautiful family. So, when I disagree with what he stands for politically I am not “hating” a man, or his “race,” I am simply exercising my rights as a citizen. But it is now clear that we have entered into a part of our national narrative, one that at first promised to be “post-racial,” that is becoming “most-racial.” The president has recently made a video for the Democratic National Committee appealing directly to (his words) "young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women,” in an effort to mobilize people to vote for his party in 2010.
How is that “post-racial?”
I implore all those on the other side of the political spectrum from today’s conservatives to resist the temptation to throw the racist flag when all that is happening is that some are voicing their disagreements to policies, the very way many of you did when George W. Bush was in office. It’s quintessentially American to disagree and speak out.
I recently heard a clergyman—someone I know and respect but strongly disagree with in this case—suggest that what Christians need to do these days is to “obey the powers that be.” This is, of course, Paul’s admonition from Romans 13 and it means that we are to be law-abiding citizens. However, the minister was using the text as a “proof text”—suggesting that speaking out or criticizing our current national leaders and their policies is a violation of scripture. Interestingly, I am not sure that text and argument were rolled out 5 years ago, but I digress.
What that clergyman—and some Americans—miss is that the “powers that be” in this nation are not merely governmental (though they are, in part), but reside ultimately in “We The People.” And we have a right to criticize and oppose and should be able to do so without heavy-handed “theologies” and broad-brush smears of racism.