The Innocent Racist

If I were to ask you if you are a racist, surely you would say “no.”  Who among us would want to even entertain the thought that we have marginalized or discriminated against races other than our own?  We’d like to think that we are more noble, more informed, more aware of the racial inequities in our nation and that we are listed among those who shine light into the darkness of such dehumanizing realities rather than add to them.  But have we been caught in a cycle of self-denial?  Are we contributing to systemic, prejudicial racism without even knowing?

For most of us, our racism was both “taught and caught” in the culture in which we were raised.  I am a child of the 60’s, raised in the deep South.  It is only with the vision that retrospection now affords me that I see some of the systems and influences that were in place.  There are memories that once seemed safe to harbor, that now make me wince a little.  I attended a public elementary school in the heart of my hometown.  My first-grade year was the first year that public schools in Georgia were integrated.  I remember that our class had several black students.  And while I’d like to think that we were progressive and welcoming of black students, and certainly our teachers did their best to teach us to treat all others with respect and dignity, the reality is that it must have been much harder to be black in those days than I would care to admit, for surely racial inequities existed in ways I could have never seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old child.  Even the numbers were skewed.  Out of 30 students, only 3 were black.  That fact alone must have made the goal of acceptability an all but impossible dream.  There were parents who didn’t care for the idea of their child sitting next to one of “those” kids.

In those days, music in the classroom was taught by a traveling music teacher who would teach music in each class for an hour or so before moving to the class next-door to do it all again.  I remember two of the songs we were taught.  One was about the Erie Canal and the horse that pulled the barges.  The other was about picking cotton.  We even had motions to the song…  “You gotta jump down, turn around pick a bale of cotton, jump down, turn around pick a bale a day.  Old Man-ie pick a bale of cotton, old Man-ie pick a bale a day.”  We never once considered that we were singing a song about the days when our ancestors thought it was ok to enslave human beings and make them do back-breaking work against their will.  And we also never considered what it was like, as an African-American child, to be required to sing that song with the baggage of pain and dehumanization it conveyed.  I don’t believe that our teachers were blatantly racist.  I think they probably never even thought about what they were doing.  And maybe that is still the problem.  Most of us don’t even think about the ways others in our world think, or feel, or are victimized by our words, actions, and conversations.

I think about day-laborers or lawncare workers back in that day.  They were always black men… mostly older, and mostly worn down by a long life of working impossible hours for pitiful wages.  Linton was the yard man for our church, which meant he was often brought to our house, (the church parsonage), to work in our yard.  He was kind and patient with my brother and me who probably always got in his way.  We just called him Linton, even though he was a grown man and we were just kids.  (I’m not sure I ever knew his last name.)  Even something about that fact rings of the racism of that earlier day.  I remember once when Linton was at our house at lunchtime.  My mother prepared him a sandwich and a tall glass of ice tea.  He was invited in to join my mother, my brother and me at the kitchen table.  But he politely refused and ate his lunch at the top of the basement stairs, separated from us by a simple wooden door, and by a very complex set of social mores and values.

On Saturday mornings, day-laborers would gather down at the old Train Depot on First Avenue.  They would stand around, shuffling their feet, maybe with a smoke hanging from their lips… talking and waiting to be hired out for the day.  Some would clutch a lunch pail in their hands.  And by and by, a white man would stop, negotiate a wage, and give them a ride to the jobsite.  And then another, and then another.  The scene was repeated throughout the morning.  (When I think back on that image, I am reminded of the Parable of the 11th hour workers told by Christ.  It’s the image of men waiting to be hired out for the day.)  It’s not that there were no poor whites in my hometown that also needed extra work on the weekends.  Many did. It’s just that none of them would have waited with the blacks for work and thus making themselves seem as equals to them.  It’s funny how people would rather go in need than put aside their prejudices.

We lived in South Rome… just over the bridge from downtown.  There was an interesting juxtaposition in that part of town.  The local country club, with a manicured golf course, Olympic pool, and well-maintained tennis courts, was situated just along the river and in a spot where every black family had to drive past the stone gates every day.  Whether it was a written rule or just understood, there were no black members at the club… just black waiters or grounds keepers.  Our house was situated about ½ mile away on a dead-end street.  There was a barrier at the end of the street.  On the other side of the barrier was the “colored section” of town.  It wasn’t just the color of skin that was different on the other side of the barrier, but different living conditions, worn out cars, run-down stores, and fewer opportunities.  I remember once, when my father used a fuel additive in an old car he was restoring, that it smoked up the entire street with a heavy, thick smoke.  One of our neighbors came running down the street with his rifle, assuming some social unrest was taking place caused by people on the other side of the barrier.

In those days we had a black student from South Rome who participated in our Youth Program at church.  Mike was made to feel welcomed and was readily accepted into our group.  He would later serve our nation as a member of the military.  Whenever our youth group went to camp, or on a retreat, we always got a strange look from folks who wondered about the black kid.  I also know that Mike took some grief from some of his neighbors who wondered about his involvement at that “big white church.”  There were signs of racism all around us in those days, but we either never saw it, or never cared enough to consider it.

Our town was prominent in the days of the Civil War.  There was a foundry that made canons for the Confederacy.  When Sherman burned his way through Georgia, First Baptist Church was spared because he stored his horses in the basement.  (Some older members claimed that some of the soldiers even carved their names in the wooden supports under the church but I never saw that personally.)  There are cemeteries, monuments, and flags that are still in place from that era and will be for a while.

That’s just the water we all swam in as kids.  It was the culture of the day.  It was the way things were done.  I don’t say that to condone or excuse it, but simply to explain it.  Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.  (I hope to God that I know better now.)  But the culture didn’t change a whole lot as I grew older.  I once pastored a church in Birmingham.  One Sunday morning, we had three folks to baptize during the service.  One was an African-American, single mother of three.  The Chairman of Deacons stopped by my office and asked in what particular order we would baptize the candidates.  I suggested that we do it alphabetically as we always did.  “I was just wondering,” he said.  And then he added, “Afterall, who would want to get in that water after that black has been in there.”  That was 1993.  In another church I had a church member berate me after a sermon on MLK weekend.  He said, “Call him what you want, but some of us refer to him as Martin Lucifer King.”  That was 2012.

I was interested in thinking back to college and grad school experiences.  Never once did I have an African-American professor.  I never had a class on African-American studies or history specific to that topic.  I may be well-taught, but not well educated all at the same time.  The task for me has been that of learning perspective, learning with a different mindset, and seeing who we are as a nation through a different lens.  I’ve learned a lot in recent years, but not nearly enough.  I read.  I listen.  I host conversations, lectures, and seminars on race.  But still I have such a long way to go.  A couple of years ago I took the Harvard University Implicit Association Test on race.  I discovered to my dismay that I still have a lot of blind spots that need some attention.

If I once had the right to call myself an innocent racist, I no longer possess that right.  It’s far too late in my personal life-story to claim ignorance.  And so I must be intentional about learning, about understanding, and about equipping others to see the realities of racism in America and particularly in the American Christian experience.  Any privilege that I have does not give me the right to remain unaware of the needs, injustices, intolerance, and inequities that others face.  In fact, it must force me to engage the struggle even more deliberately in the hope of building a better culture for all of us.

Jon R Roebuck

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