Welcoming Justice - A Review

John Perkins will be remembered as a significant figure in the 20th century, mainly because of his practical work toward racial reconciliation and community development. Perkins is a man who has had every reason to reject the pursuit of reconciliation, and yet has doggedly invested his life in those efforts.

3479.jpg

Charles Marsh is a professor at the University of Virginia, whose book God’s Long Summer offers several biographical accounts of the Civil Rights movement, especially how the faith of its supporters was essential to their motivation and its prosecution.

IVP has recently issued an expanded edition of Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community that combines the practical experience of Perkins with the historiography of Marsh. It is framed in light of ugly rise of white supremacy, especially through the Alt-Right. Marsh’s preface to this new edition specifically frames it in like of the riots and violence at Charlottesville in 2017.

This volume speaks to people in two directions. Marsh, a moderate theological revisionist, speaks to the need of the work of the Civil Rights movement to continue. He notes that faith has been a central part of that movement, and should remain at the center of it. His plea functions most clearly to entice those in the majority—those who are tempted to ignore or minimize to continue pursuing racial justice–to remain engaged and faithful. Perkins, who is theologically evangelical, communicates both the need for patience and continued engagement by the offended, as well as the possibility of work toward racial reconciliation by the theologically orthodox. In other words, Perkins offers a reminder that one does not have to abandon historical doctrines of the faith to pursue justice.

As a textbook for action or a firm theological foundation for a movement toward racial justice, this book falls short. There is evident discontinuity between the theology of Perkins and Marsh, which leads to a somewhat garbled message. However, as an example of the ability to cooperate for a common cause despite theological differences, this is a very helpful book. The succinct volume functions largely as an artifact of collegial co-labor.

Although not earth shattering in its intellectual heft, this brief book fills a distinct need. Given the increasing polarization between racial, political, economic, and religious tribes, the cooperation of these men and the similar message they share is a reminder that a great deal can be done in this world despite our disagreements.

It is certain that there is a great deal left to do with racial reconciliation. I am hopeful that Welcoming Justice falls into the hands of readers that need to hear the message that unity is possible without unanimity, that the pursuit of a just society is a way to honor Christ, and that this issue is altogether too important to be ignored.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Reflections on "The Souls of Black Folk"

The quality of classic books varies based on a number of factors. Some old books stick around and continue to be read because they have historical value—they tell us something about how a particular group thought or lived at a given time. Some old books remain popular because they are foundational—they are so regularly referenced and alluded to by later literature that they are necessary for understanding culture. Some old books deserve to be read because they are fine literature and point effectively toward the good, true, and beautiful.

download.jpg

I recently picked up W.E.B. DuBois’s classic volume, The Souls of Black Folk, because I believed it fell cleanly into the first category. It might one day fall into the second category, but I hope that we don’t need it to. I was pleasantly rewarded while poring through the book to realize it also fell into the third category as well. The Souls of Black Folk is an important piece of history, but it is also a beautiful piece of literature, too. That made this book an enjoyable (if convicting) read.

DuBois is best known to many of us because many cities and towns have an urban renewal center named after him. He was an influential voice for the rights of African-Americans and the pursuit of racial justice.

The Souls of Black Folk was originally published in 1903, nearly 50 years after slavery had officially ended in the U.S. However, this was also decades before the Civil Rights movement really got popular traction. The shame is that in many ways, despite the clear advances in legal rights for African-Americans, the situation has not changed nearly as much as it should in the past century.

The book centers around a major problem in America. The problem is the color-line. Or, more properly, the place of people of color in a land that does not seem to want them. As DuBois writes,

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

That is a simple vision and one that should have come to pass long before this day. In some ways it has come to pass and things are hopeful. In other ways, if we are honest, it is a long way away.

The book as a whole traces out DuBois’s critique of the situation. It is filled with beautiful prose and clear evidence that DuBois had a fine mind and good education. DuBois provides a survey of the progress and sometimes lack of progress of blacks in the South. In some cases, they had advanced and were prospering. In other cases, the intentional roadblocks and legalized (or overlooked) abuses had managed to keep African-Americans back. His book is a short study in the need for careful study and the avoidance of generalizations.

This volume also offers a balanced criticism of whites. He notes,

First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the recent course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, wherein forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is to-day perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded criticism is what the South needs,--needs it for the sake of her own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.
To-day even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others – usually the sons of the masters – wish to help him rise. . . . To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust. . . [but to critique those worthy of it is an imperative duty.]

In DuBois’s approach we see neither toleration of injustice, nor unfair animus toward those who did not create the problem. There is a message for a wide range of readers in DuBois, which should urge us to make things better without blaming those who did not cause the problem in the first place, even if they benefited from it.

One does not need to agree with all that DuBois writes to benefit from this book. This is the sort of book that, even if you disagree, makes you better because you have to explain why. For example, DuBois takes a somewhat dim view of Christianity in the book. There may have been good cause, particularly as Christians did not represent Christ well in many cases. But even though I disagree with his final analysis, his critique is written well and in good faith.

The Souls of Black Folk is the sort of book that is easily read in a few days and much easier to read than to read about. It is a book that should be more regularly included in reading lists, since it is clearly written and balanced in content it could easily be digested by a high schooler. This is a volume that gives insight into our time specifically because things aren’t as much better as they should be. For that reason, it is exactly the sort of critique of our thinking that so many of us need.

The Souls of Black Folk
By W.E.B. Du Bois

Dream with Me - A Review

John Perkins is a hero of the faith. I have little doubt that within a few decades he will be featured in biographies written for children as an example of someone who did a great work for the glory of God.

His is far from a household name in many circles, unfortunately. In fact, it has only been in recent years that I’ve encountered his story which typically isn’t flashy, but exudes the powerful, life-changing reality of the gospel.

For those new to John Perkins’ story, he is an African American man from Mississippi. If that doesn’t tell you enough, know that his brother was killed by police officers decades ago, he himself was severely beaten while in police custody, and his son suffered mightily as one of the forerunners of the school integration efforts in the ‘60s.

This is a man who has every reason to be bitter, angry, and to despise whites. He’s been given reason upon reason to reject the offers of reconciliation and partnership from the ethnic groups who were responsible for so much of his pain.

He has not reacted that way, though. Perkins came to Christ as the result of his son’s invitation to attend Sunday School. Hearing the gospel turned his heart away from the natural bitterness of his experience and led to the changed heart who has influenced many for Christ. It also set in motion the work Perkins has done in making society more just.

His recent book, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, is an autobiography. At 86 years old, Perkins offers this book as a self-conscious reflection on how God has worked in and through him for decades. The volume has fourteen chapters, which move in roughly chronological fashion. The chapters are thematic, telling pieces of Perkins’ story, along with a great deal of thoughtful reflection along the way.

51pj9DbbegL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Like most autobiographies, the best parts of this book are not the histories that he recounts, but his explanation of his perspective. Listening to an aging man explain why he did some things and not others, and what he would have done differently is pure gold. This is distilled, bottled wisdom for those who are fortunate and diligent enough to read it.

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is Perkins’ reflection on some of the sources of the vicious discrimination African Americans faced prior to and during the civil rights movement, when public displays of racism were tolerated and encouraged. Perkins notes that some of the worst racial violence came from poor whites in the South—people who were in much the same economic straits that many blacks were in during that time. However, those poor whites had something that the blacks didn’t—white skin.

Instead of commiserating and cooperating with people in similar economic straits, some poor whites cashed in on the only asset they possessed—the cultural cache of being white—using it to gain positions of relative power, like prison guard, deputy sheriff, etc. They also took opportunities to reinforce their “superiority” over people of color, living out the idea that pushing someone else down could lift them up. The reality, of course, is that such actions simply made everything worse for everyone.

Perkins is able to reflect on this condition retrospectively with grace. He’s a better man than I am, I’m sure. Instead of being angry about how poorly he was treated and how much pain many whites caused his family and friends, Perkins demonstrates a gospel-fueled love.

That’s a big piece of Perkins’ life message and the message of this book. Love, the sort of love that comes from the regeneration of hearts by the love of Christ and the power of the gospel, has the power to change things. It’s easy to forget that. Or, perhaps it’s hard to believe that when crowds are shouting at you, death threats are coming, and you simply want the equal justice the law requires. In Dream with Me, Perkins gives an example of what it looks like.

I’m not always a fan of autobiographies, but this is a book that deserves to be read. It will serve as an encouragement and lodestar for many engaged in the slow moving process of gospel reconciliation.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A Review

Getting into a topic is the hardest part about research. Most people don’t notice this because they stop doing research when their last academic paper is due. However, if you remember trying to get started on the research for your most recent project, you may know what I mean.

Search around on the internet, check the library catalog, or scan the shelves and you may find dozens of sources, but which one is going to be the most helpful to get introduced into the discussion. Recently I began to dig into African American Christian history and was pleased to cut the Gordian knot, as it were, by asking a friend who is an expert in the topic. His recommendation turned out to be so helpful that I am passing it along for you.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity is part of the African American History Series from Rowman and Littlefield. He teaches at University of Colorado and has authored a number of volumes on the topic of race and religion in the U.S. He presents an honest account that avoids revision on both ends of the spectrum.

Summary

This brief volume contains six chapters, with a separate introduction and conclusion. The introduction outlines the major themes in African American Religious History, laying the groundwork for the remainder of the volume. Chapter One offers a sweeping overview of African and African American religious experience from the Middle Passage to the Great Awakening; this experience consisted largely of syncretism with a strong dose of opposition of Christianization of slaves by white owners due to concerns it would cause them to desire freedom.

The second chapter documents the early stages of Christianity among slaves, which originated in the urban centers of the North and in the slave quarters. The revival of religious interest among residents of the colonies led to the evangelization of slaves and freemen, and the founding of the earliest traditionally black denominations. Chapter Three surveys the thirty or so years before the Civil War. This period included a high degree of revivalistic evangelism of slaves in the South, and the evolution of a distinct theology among slaves which emphasized liberation with an eye toward dual fulfillment in the present and the future.

In the fourth chapter, Harvey traces the history of African American Christianity from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the Twentieth Century. It was during this time that blacks began to identify as African Americans as they sought to find their identity amidst their new freedom. This was also a time when whites in the South began to form laws to restrict the freedom of blacks. African Americans also founded a number of new denominations as they sought to live and worship freely. Chapter Five summarizes the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is a period of time when African Americans began to increasingly migrate northward to urban centers and the church became a powerful social center for those displaced communities.

Chapter Six details some of the Civil Rights Movement, shifts toward religious pluralism in some areas, and the continued pursuit of justice in the African American churches. The body of the text concludes with a very brief outline that recaps the volume and makes clear the connection between the prophetic preaching of someone like Jeremiah Wright and the long, dark history of the African American Church. After the epilogue, Harvey provides a number of brief primary source documents that support and illustrate his earlier arguments.

Analysis and Conclusion

Through the Storm, Through the Night is far from an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but it provides an excellent entry point into an interesting and important part of Church History. For those seeking to gain a deeper appreciation for Black History, particularly the history of African American Christianity, this would be an excellent starting point.

Harvey does what is vital for an introductory volume: he tells a good story and makes the reader want to know more. More significantly, he opens up the conversation on a topic that is only becoming increasingly important. The history of the African American portion of the universal church may well, in future, be a model for public engagement, theological fidelity, and social endurance for others.

Enduring Truth - A Review

Aaron Lavender of Carver Baptist Bible College, Institute, and Theological Seminary has recently released a book with B&H Academic that, I believe, provides a much needed word for all Christians of all times. His book is directed toward the particular context of improving the theological quality of African American preaching, but most of the examples and lessons are applicable to any ethnic context.

Summary and Analysis

Enduring Truth: Restoring Sound Theology and Relevance to African American Preaching contains four content chapters bookended by an introduction and conclusion. Lavender begins by addressing the problems he sees with biblical preaching in African American pulpits. He notes that many African American churches have suffered due to the segregation of theological training and social segregation over the previous generations. As a result of many theologically conservative colleges and seminaries excluding or restricting access by African Americans, Lavender argues some bad theological tendencies have developed. He describes a significant mishandling of the Word of God that is widespread and has lead to the propagation of Black Liberation theology and the Prosperity Gospel instead of sound, biblical teaching. In other cases, showmanship and style have replaced substance in African American pulpits. This amounts to a crisis in African American churches.

In Chapter Two, Lavender moves to discuss the goal. Having stated the crisis, he unveils a vision for exegetical preaching, including its importance and its methodology. This chapter is concise and worthy of reading by prospective preachers of any ethnicity. In particular, Lavender tackles the issue of single versus multiple meanings as it pertains to exegesis of Scripture. Progressive evangelicals regularly assault conservatives for believing there is one primary meaning intended by the God-inspired authors of Scripture. Lavender defends the singular intended meaning, but also clearly notes that a given text may have diverse implications and applications in varying context. Lavender handles this issue and other similarly complex issues clearly, carefully, and concisely, which help to make this a good introductory volume.

Lavender builds a brief theology of preaching in the third chapter. Here he moves the reader to understand that preaching is more than simply regurgitating the results of Bible study, but it is a performative act in which the clear content of Scripture is presented clearly as a message of good news to a particular audience. However, Lavender cautions against preaching turning into a performance: “[The preacher] has not been called to entertain or mesmerize his listeners.” Instead, he should seek to reprove, rebuke and exhort. Scripture is to be the center of the preaching, because it is the message of Scripture not the charisma of the messenger that is intended to reshape the lives of the listening congregation. In this chapter, Lavender also considers some elements of preaching that are unique to an African American context. He evaluates both the strengths and pitfalls of “whooping” (“when the preacher’s words begin taking on a musical quality”) and “participatory proclamation” where the congregation is vocal in response to the preacher’s message. The purpose of this chapter is to frame a vision for expository preaching within the particular contours of the African American context.

Chapter Four closes the body of this brief volume by discussing the ever important search for relevance in preaching. In this chapter the author skims the surface of postmodernism, providing a critique that should keep the biblically informed from delving into the allure of epistemology murkiness. Lavender also discusses the importance and dangers of contextualization, which functions as further buttressing against a full-throated Black Liberation theology. Lavender urges his readers to contextual well, but cautiously. Seeking to apply the Scriptures to the lives of the hearers without diminishing the central message and authority of the Word itself is a challenge that every faithful preacher must navigate carefully. Lavender provides sound advice for his audience. This chapter concludes with a question an answer section, with a variety of seasoned African American preachers explaining their approach to the craft of preaching.

Conclusion

At under 100 pages of text, this is the sort of resource that could be useful in mentoring prospective young preachers in any context, but particularly within an African American context.

One of the clear messages that I received from this volume as a white evangelical Christian is that within the African American context, Aaron Lavender has the same concerns about biblical fidelity and faithfulness to the message of Scripture that I have had in a predominately white context. As we continue to work toward racial reconciliation, this makes it clear that conservative Christians of various ethnicities should be able to work together in the common cause of redemption of biblical preaching, even when styles and techniques differ.

Finally, this is an important book that should be read across ethnic lines. Within the African American context, it will provide a focused critique and corrective to possible errors. Within the majority evangelical context, it has the potential to provide an introductory understanding to some of the distinctive aspects of African American preaching (like “whooping” and congregational response), which can seem distracting initially, but which have a historical and theological foundation within that tradition. If you are a white evangelical seeking to be a bridge builder to theologically aligned African Americans in your community, this book will help you understand their context better.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Against White Identity Politics and Religious Registration

For all of the tizzy that some people are in over the election and the counter finger-wagging from others, there are some signals of significant causes for concern. There have been a number of false reports that have come out about the transition team and, since they supported the prior assumptions of many, they have been run with. This is problematic. However, through the noise of exaggeration and misreporting of news, there are some signs that ought to concern people of good conscience.

Against the White Genocide Movement

This election has revealed that there are good people that are becoming attracted to a movement for white ethnic identity, which is often described as opposing “white genocide” or “cultural Marxism.” As a response to the perpetual hammering of identity politics on the left, it is an understandable development. However, as a strategy for unity and justice, it is doomed to failure. Any political system that seeks disunity over unity should be rejected. The United States has already tried separate but equal once. It failed. It was mostly separate, but hellishly unequal. We should not think about going there again.

As Christians, our identity is first in Christ. As Paul tells us clearly, in the church “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col 3:11) The church is a fundamentally political institution. We have “immigration policies” in which we offer membership to believers who have participated in the initiation rite of baptism by immersion. (At least in the Baptist context.) We seek justice in our relationships toward one another. However, the church is doomed to fail in the pursuit of justice if it retains distinctions based on nationality or ethnicity.

Photo: Lighting Strike by Fabio Slongo. Used by CC License:   http://ow.ly/48DR306gJNI

Photo: Lighting Strike by Fabio Slongo. Used by CC License:  http://ow.ly/48DR306gJNI

The future of the church is unity across ethnic barriers. This is the image we see in Revelation 7, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” This is not a vision that should fuel ethnic division or even permit us to countenance such as the body of Christ. While we are unlikely to attain to this vision while on earth, this is what we should pursue today.

Rejecting white nationalism or white genocide does not equal a call for an “open border” immigration policy. (A common accusation against many on the right and left by those supporting white identity politics.) The United States has the right to set immigration policies that take into account the good of its citizens—this is a function of nation-states in our day, and is not inherently unjust (although it may be pursued unjustly). However, the perception of some (and some that I’ve seen who claim to be Christian) is that we must build a movement of white ethnic solidarity and ban all immigration or risk being overcome. The second is implausible, despite ridiculous claims to the contrary. The first should be anathema to Christians given our eschatological hope in a supremely diverse chorus of voices joined in worship.

Against Religious Registries

Recently someone actually went onto national television to argue for a registry of Muslim believers. Or, at least, he argued there was precedent for it. Much news can be made of this person’s relation to the incoming administration. Of greater concern for me is that such a terrible idea should never have seen the light of day outside of a condemnation of our distant past.

The person speaking was correct to note that the U.S. has a precedent for registering people. He was also correct to note that during World War II we registered and interned ethnic Japanese, some of whom were immigrants. There is a precedent for such a registry.

However, the internment of ethnic minorities during World War II is an instance of protectionist government overreach. This is a black mark on our nation’s history, not the sort of historical event we should dust off and try to recreate in the present. We should not even consider it an option, though I will engage in a thought experiment for the sake of discussion.

Let’s assume we create a registry of everyone in religion X. To do so, we have to ask ourselves how we will determine whether someone is part of that religion. Is it attendance at a worship service? Is it being born into a family that has at some point attested to being part of religion X? Is it having grown up in a nation that is perceived to be predominately filled with religion X? What happens if someone converts to another religion? How do we determine whether that conversion is authentic?

All of a sudden, the government is trying to make decisions about things that it is simply not qualified to do. Religion isn’t ethnicity, where a family tree justifies inclusion. Even when dealing with ethnicity, how much is too much? One parent? One grandparent? A brother in law? For religion, the government would have to ask a different, more nebulous set of questions.

The obvious and necessary outcome is that the government steps into the role of religious authority. Person A has demonstrated sufficient effort to be considered Christian even though he grew up in a Muslim home. At the same time, since Person B simply stopped attending the Mosque and hasn’t picked up another active religion, should he be considered to still be Muslim? Unless he eats some bacon and draws a cartoon of Mohammed? Would open sacrilege be sufficient (or necessary) to change a classification?

Suddenly, I’m catching a whiff of the Inquisition. That’s not a high point in human history, much less in Christian history. I’m also hearing echoes of the persecution of the Jews under the Nazi regime. Certainly it wouldn’t start there and it might never get to that extent, but the echoes of that horror of the persecution of the Jews should be enough to steer us clear.

So what happens when the anti-theists get hold of the government? Now we can get parallel registries of Muslims and Christians. No worries, they will just be keeping tabs on people of faith. Why? Just to keep everyone safe and ensure the government knows what is going on. And then to perhaps ensure that we don’t have people of certain faiths in certain government positions. Does this sound like a dystopian fiction? Yes, but it’s only a step or two beyond registering Muslims, which someone felt comfortable bringing up as a possibility in a TV interview.

This is the sort of thing that Christians (and any reasonable people) should speak against. It’s not a good idea. It’s not going to make us safer. It’s not going to end well. If we’re for religious liberty for some (ourselves?), then we need to hold out the same rights for all. That needs to be the principle we stand on.

The government does not have the wherewithal to regulate religion. The common good is not enhanced by the government regulating religion. Making people register their religious affiliation is not simply information gathering, it is regulating. We must keep this power away from the government.

Just a Media Overreaction?

One of the tragedies of contemporary society is the 24-hour news cycle. This creates the problem of the proliferation of interviews of people who might know someone that knows something speaking authoritatively about stuff. There is such a need to fill the airwaves that they bring people that might float the idea of something like a Muslim registry on national television. This, then, fuels dozens of hot takes (like this one), replays, edits, and discussion panels. Sometimes the furor is over nothing.

I’ll be glad to find out that this suggestion is really nothing. Unfortunately, there are some that will hear it and begin to think that such a simple encroachment on civil liberties is really worth it to prevent the explosion of another IED or another religiously driven night-club shooting. Because of the protectionist stance some (particularly whites) are taking, this will begin to sound like a good idea. Reading Twitter and some of the Alt-Right propaganda sites provides evidence that this idea isn’t just nothing.

Sometimes there is an overreaction that deserves to be neglected. The media cries wolf too often, as a rule. However, we can’t let their failures in the past prevent us from seeing problems in the present. These are issues that have the potential to take root in the minds of some in our churches and we should be careful not to let sin get a foothold.

The purpose of this post, therefore, is not to fuel the overreaction, but to offer some consideration for the ideas that are actually being floated as plausible and to encourage Christians to think about how these ideas betray the gospel (as with white nationalism) and put impartial justice in jeopardy (as with the Muslim registry). People are actually talking about some of these things as if they are good ideas. They aren’t, and we should make sure that the church is clear in standing against them.

Speaking of Ethnicity

Race relations in the United States is becoming a third rail topic. Better to discuss politics and religion than to suggest there might be ongoing patterns of systemic racism in some circles.

If social media is any indication, some groups seem to think that by even discussing racial differences, others are fomenting and accentuating racism.

In extreme cases this is true. However, in most cases, the people discussing racial issues are dealing with the real difference between the minority and majority experience in the United States.

The Myth of Color Blindness

One of the arguments against discussing race is the argument that society should be “color blind.” The term means that we should not consider the color of people’s skin when making evaluations of people and their work.

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license,  http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license, http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

I believe that most people engaged in discussions of race relations see “color blindness” as a desirable outcome in the long term. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, part of his dream is that people will not be judged by the color of their skin. Someday a future generation may reach that point.

Despite the desire to have a world in which skin color does not matter, that world does not exist now. We have a world in which ethnicity and skin color still do matter much more than they should.

At this point, there are some who will swoop down onto my argument like a vulture to point out certain statistics. What I’m speaking of here is more than just statistics—whether the statistics support certain percentages of killings by ethnicity or disparate academic outcomes.

I’m speaking of the observed reality that my middle-class, professional, African-American friends have on average been pulled over many more times than I have for no more apparent cause. I’m speaking of the reality of my own observations of minority males of color being treated differently than me by authorities even while we were both in uniform. I’m speaking of the internal impulse in my own mind to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance.

I like statistics (in fact they are a fun part of my job), but they don't always tell the whole story. Sometimes they tell a different story than reality.

To claim that skin color does not influence societal evaluations is foolish. It’s like a person ignoring an infection in a limb.

Our Wounded Reality

Imagine if you get a cut in your finger while working a dirty job. You ignore the pain and keep working. You tell your hand that it is OK and that it is just like your other uninjured hand. Both hands are equally valuable to you, therefore it should stop hurting. Meanwhile it gets infected. However, you don’t clean the wound or treat it. You tell your hand that the cut was inflicted a couple of days ago and that it hasn’t been cut recently, so it should stop aching. Slowly the infection may heal, if conditions are right. Or, quite possibly, ignoring the legitimate needs of your hand could cause the infection to spread and perhaps even blood poisoning to set in.

At best, the neglected hand heals itself but may scar significantly or take longer to fully heal due to the lack of medical care. At worst, the blood poisoning spreads and kills the individual with the injured hand. In both cases consequences could have been avoided by taking timely, appropriate action.

Few people would ignore an injured hand. Instead, most people react to a cut by getting first aid, keeping it clean, and treating the injured hand differently for a time. The common sense understanding is that the wounded hand may have different needs for a time.

There is wisdom in recognizing there is a difference between the hands and taking care of the wound.

Our contemporary reality of race relations is something like this analogy.[1]

The Reality of Injury

To provide just one example, African-Americans were economically and socially harmed by American society by being enslaved and later by unjust laws that were in place in the middle of the last century. There are enough evidences of ongoing negative racial bias that we need to accept that such bias continues to exist in some cases. (See: the alt-right movement)

There has been legitimate injury done that will necessarily take time to heal. It may also take focused attention to promote healing, which includes at least being free to talk about racial differences without being accused of fomenting division.

Until healing occurs, we need to recognize that there are differences in society between the experiences of people of different ethnicities. Stereotypes built on generations of observed behavior, depictions in entertainment media, and self-selected identities all impact the experience of people in the United States. It takes time to change these deeply seated societal ideas, but the first step is to recognize they exist. Someday we may be able to be “color blind,” but we aren’t there yet. In many cases we really aren’t that close.

Moving Toward Change

We should long for the day when ethnicity is a point of interesting difference, like discussing where people grew up and what their favorite home-cooked food is. However, the experience of racial minorities in the United States is often significantly different than that of the majority. If you want to know what sorts of differences exist, talk to a few minorities. Their experiences will be unique, but some common patterns will tend to emerge if the sample size is large enough.

Unless we address the injustice of some of those differences, the healing process will not progress very quickly. Unless people are free to explain what is wrong without being accused of hate and division, we can never have meaningful conversations.

We can certainly have meaningful discussions about the best ways to deal with our differences. There is no simple solution for undoing the intentional harm inflicted in and by previous generations. There is no single, easy method of eliminating the often obscure, but deeply seated biases of contemporary perceptions.

However, until people are allowed to have open, charitable conversations about the existence of differences because of ethnicity, society will be unable to move to the next phase of healing.

[1] The analogy obviously breaks down at some point. I am not inferring that racial minorities are somehow infected limbs that should be removed from society. Quite the reverse. I am hopeful that this analogy will illustrate the interconnectedness of society and the value in promoting social healing for overall health. Just as one does not blame the hand for being wounded, we should not blame minorities for past ills inflicted by society.