This Sunday morning the Zoom forum at All Souls Episcopal Church was all about racism. Much was made of our own bishop’s remarks following Trump’s St. John’s Church photo op incident, the remarks of our presiding bishop, and a statement by all the Episcopal bishops in the Mid-Atlantic region. The message was that institutional and systemic racism are pervasive and real and will not go away without a change in attitudes and actions. Episcopalians— especially white Episcopalians— must act now, and attitudes regarding race must change. This is significant because at All Souls Church, it is very rare to talk about anything that is potentially controversial or that would make some in the congregation uncomfortable. If these discussions about race are happening like this all over the country, maybe we actually could be entering a new era.
I am mindful of four recent comments on this blog site. One was by Irwin Singer, which I have already written about. A second was yesterday by Jim Killebrew and the third today by John Franklin and a fourth today by Naomi Pena–all long time, dear friends. Both Jim and John post regular comments on the blog, which I welcome and cherish. What the first three comments have in common is the argument that in order for change to be lasting and meaningful, attitudes must change. Jim cautioned about the need for white people to listen to people of color, and John’s were about his own journey out of poverty due in large part to education, friendships and inner drive. In other words it is not just about politics and legislation but about a change in culture and the way each of us thinks and behaves and the values we hold dear. Naomi’s post deals with the systemic issues—that the system must be changed–which I also agree with. I do not see the solution as an either/or but rather a both/and. I encourage you to read all four comments, if you have not already done so.
I am hopeful because I know how much our culture has already changed with regard to the race issue. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1950s when Jim Crow was in full swing. It was illegal in those days for whites and blacks to attend the same schools, drink out of the same water fountains, use the same restrooms, or eat in the same restaurants. Black boys and white boys did not compete against each other in sports. Racist jokes and comments were commonplace along with racial invectives. African Americans did not hold public office or have executive positions in business. And certainly, black people were poor—many dirt poor. And few people–that is, few white people– really thought that much about it. That is just the way the world was. To deny that we have come a long way since the 1950s is to forget how bad things were just over a half century ago. In 1960 when I graduated from high school , did anyone think we would have an African American president in our lifetimes?
Yet, despite the changes that have occurred, racism still exits—at least what I would call the vestiges of racism, which are more subtle and, in some ways, more insidious. The statistics tell the story. The prisons and jails incarcerate more blacks than whites, yet African Americans comprise only 13% of the population. One third of black men in their twenties are in jail, prison or on parole. African American poverty is more than twice the rate of white people, and black people have median incomes which are only 57% of those who are white. Unemployment is consistently higher among the black population. De facto school segregation still persists especially in large urban areas, and relatively few persons of color hold CEO or high level positions at major companies or institutions.
And then there is police abuse, which was laid bare last week when George Floyd was murdered. Add to that the murders of other black men by police and by others who were never prosecuted. This was the spark that ignited the flame.
So, yes, we have made progress, but so much still remains unfinished. And herein lies the challenge. It was pretty obvious in the 1960s that Jim Crow laws had to go, and that equal protection of the law and voting rights had to extend to black people. Embry and I were part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, marching and working with SNCC in Southwest Georgia. It was a hopeful time, a time of belief that “we shall overcome.”
But how do you address causes due to globalism and the economy? To the job market and the way our economy is structured? To structural or systems issues like holes in the health care insurance and delivery systems, under funded public schools, and the jobs lost to Asia or automation, which affect everyone who is poor—both white people and people of color. How do we get our arms around these things?
There are some things that we can and should jump on immediately like reform of the criminal justice system and constraints to police brutality. But the economic issues will take time and the path ahead is fuzzy. Will we have the patience and the determination to stick with this issue until the rage subsidies? Will we have the right leaders to make this happen? These are the unanswered questions. If we can stick with it and have the right leadership, this could be one of those moments where the trajectory of history is changed.