by Pastor Dr. Marty Kuchma
As I write this article, news continues to unfold about the horrible recent weekend in Charlottesville during which things we might reasonably have thought were in the past intruded dramatically, tragically upon the present – public displays of racial hatred, demonstrations of organized bigotry, and murderous, terroristic violence resulting from both. The worst impulses of American social history were indeed on full display, this time unmasked. And, evidently, there is more to come as the nation reckons with a difficult part of our collective story. Sadly, it would seem that in coming to terms with one civil war, we run the risk of becoming embroiled in another, newer one.
I wonder why groups that had for decades lurked only in the shadows now feel emboldened to show themselves in the light of day – and in the fiery glow of torches in the night. Where do we go from here? How can we ensure that we keep working toward racial justice that has, despite signs of progress over the years, remained remarkably elusive? What would Jesus do? And what does being followers of Jesus compel us to do?
Local and state officials all around the country are taking courageous steps to remove various markers honoring individuals whose sole claim to fame was their association with the Confederacy which, we might remember, rose up, as a separate “country,” to defend slavery in opposition to the United States government, which was at first itself quite ambivalent about people owning other people but eventually gained resolve enough to call for emancipation.
As a matter of context, let us note that many of the 700 or so Confederate monuments that still dot the American landscape were erected long after the war as an assertion of white supremacy at times when that could happen largely unchallenged. The construction of such monuments peaked in the early 1900’s as Jim Crow laws perpetuated slavery in other forms and public lynching was rampant, especially in the Old South. A second, smaller wave of monument construction occurred during the 1950’s to protest the Brown v. Board of Education decision that was to end state-sponsored segregation by declaring that “separate but equal” is inherently unequal, insufficient, and illegal. (Let’s not forget that a correlate of this conversation involves deciding what to do with the 900 or so schools, roads and other public spaces that are still named to honor Confederate leaders.)
For the moment, this monument issue feels so important, so urgent. Every toppled statue seems like a victory of sorts for those with passion to bring them down. But what if every single Confederate monument is taken down and every Confederate name is changed on public buildings and roads? And what if, for that matter, everyone in the world stopped saying racist things and Uncle Joe finally kept his racist opinions to himself at the Thanksgiving dinner table? And what if every white person found a “black friend” or two?
Even if all of that happened, structural racism would still be present, pervasive, and fundamentally problematic. Structural Racism is woven into the very fabric of our culture, often overshadowed by the overt racism that so easily distracts us from dealing with issues that really matter.
If we care enough to get all fussed up about Confederate monuments, and if we care enough to put Uncle Joe in his place when he says inappropriate things, and if we have a lot of black friends, we ought to also feel compelled to address racism that literally changes lives by dictating where people of color can live, limiting the educational opportunities people of color can have, influencing the jobs people of color can get and how much they can earn doing them, or shaping how people of color are treated in the electoral process, the criminal justice system, entertainment and the media, and in all walks of life.
Fighting racism is about much, much, much more than taking down monuments. We cannot, for the sake of justice, let ourselves breathe any sigh of relief after simple and relatively ineffectual measures, and we need to measure how much energy we are willing to invest in such endeavors that turn out to be relatively meaningless in the long-run. We must, instead or at least in addition, take on the bigger struggles, have informed and courageous conversations about systemic racism, take bold action to change the way the system works, and actually bring about the justice we say we seek.
In an effort to work toward the kind of understanding of structural racism necessary for real change to happen, St. Paul’s third annual community-wide Racial Justice event on October 22 will focus on the bigger structural issues. At this moment, the program is being called “Busting the Stereotypes about Racism.” I hope you will plan to participate. Pay attention for more information coming shortly. If you want to do some advance reading, might I recommend Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (We’ve done a little with that book in Seekers), and The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein.
There is so much more to do, on the surface in the short-term, and deep down in the long-term. May God bless us to do our part in all facets of this important work…