The Long Arc of Racism

Dr. Jon R. Roebuck, Executive Director

Let’s be honest, racism is alive and well in our nation.  And I’m not sure that recent events, political decisions, hate speeches, and angry tirades have made it any more so, they have just helped us all see the problem with fresh eyes.  I have to admit that it is not always easy seeing the world through the perspective of someone else’s experience.  What may have seemed like an issue with progressive thought and some semblance of resolve to some, is still a very real and raw and dangerous issue for others.  Those in the majority, with privilege, wealth and access, may have quickly dismissed or even forgotten the plight of the marginalized, the oppressed, or the under-represented.  Ignorance of another’s plight is no excuse.  Neither is turning a blind eye and deaf ear an option.

I grew up in the deep south… in the 60’s… in times that were racially divisive.  And yet, much of the tension and inequality of that day were shielded from me by virtue of a privileged status that back then I’m not sure I fully appreciated nor understood.  My parents were people of authentic faith who taught me to love everyone and to treat others as equals.  The Jesus ethic of loving your neighbor was reinforced by both action and teaching.  I never heard my parents use the “N” word, nor even express a prejudicial attitude and they certainly would not have tolerated it, if such things were found in the heart and mind of my brother and me.  I truly believe that people are taught and conditioned to hate, and by the grace of God I grew up in a household where such teaching was never offered.  That doesn’t make me better nor morally superior to those who grew up differently… it just makes me grateful and maybe even more determined to be intentional about the world we pass on to the next generation.

It was as I grew older that I learned more about hatred and ugly, racial division.  My hometown of Rome, Georgia went through the racial tensions that many southern towns experienced in the mid to late 60’s.  There were some riots, some threats, some broken windows, and some arrests.  It was all a little crazy to me at the time.  I went to a public elementary school that was integrated.  African-American boys and girls in my grade were among my friends.  I still remember Reginald, Alvin, and Sarah nearly half a century later.  It seemed odd that friends with whom I learned to read and write, friends who shared the playground, friends who listened to the same teachers, and ate at the same table with me, were people that according to the racial ethic of the day were people I should avoid.

I went to a private high-school that was mostly white.  Unlike some private schools of that era that were established to avoid “the coloreds,” my school, created in 1903, was focused on academics and Christian values and was open to any who could afford to attend.  And though the cost of admission afforded me a great college-preparatory education, it certainly excluded others.  It robbed me in some ways of the rich experience that diversity offers.  Please don’t misunderstand… I am very grateful for all the sacrifices through both high school and college that provided me with a good education.  All I am saying is that in some ways I was shielded from the pain of racial inequality that plagued many of my generation.  It has taken years, (and the process in my life is not complete), to understand the complexities of racial inequality, injustice, issues of access, and discrimination.  But I have learned the value of intentionality.  Issues that plague our culture are not changed without intentional effort.  Issues that plague our cities are not resolved without dialogue and understanding.  Issues that plague our hearts are not settled until we make conscious choices to both acknowledge the issues and take positive and practical steps to engage them.

I work at a University that takes on diversity as a priority.  Boundaries of race, ethnicity, and gender are being constantly assaulted with each hiring decision and admission acceptance.  It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but at least we, here at Belmont, are moving in the right direction.  No, we can’t change the heart and mind of everyone around us, but at least we are striving to raise the important issues and conduct our actions accordingly.

But let me remind you that our society is only as good as we make it become.  We cannot afford the luxury of time, thinking that in some miraculous way, racism will automatically be erased as the years role by.  No.  Big issues take courageous people to solve them.  It is by our fidelity to the vision of a better, brighter world, that change will come.  Be intentional about the issue of race.  If you are not a striving to be a part of the solution, you may well be part of the lingering problem.