Saturday, February 3, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Three)

Is racial injustice really a problem today? Or has the problem been exaggerated?

In my first two posts, I introduced the series and told of my chance meeting with John M. Perkins. A few examples from his book, Let Justice Roll Down, might help to set the stage for understanding racial tensions today.

Mississippi Department of Education
Statistics from the year preceding
Brown vs. Board of Education
-Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down, 86 
In my parents' lifetime, the "separate but equal" school system in Mississippi just prior to the famous Brown vs. Board of Education distributed funds in a way predicated on racial discrimination. Someone somewhere determined that black students "required" less money to educate, so black schools were allocated less than white schools in the same district. Although roughly half of the students in Mississippi were black, only a fifth of the transportation money was spent on getting them to school. Their teachers' salaries were only about 75% of what white teachers made. And almost three times more money was spent on instruction in white schools. (Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down, 86-87).

This is not our distant past. These statistics mean that a black man my Dad's age grew up using inferior textbooks, learning from teachers who were not fairly compensated, and likely walking long distances to school. He grew up hearing the strong message that he was not as valuable, not worth the investment, that he need not have any aspirations beyond manual labor. As a nation we failed these boys and girls and their parents, teachers, and communities. The men and women alive today who were educated in the 50s are still living with the repercussions of their most formative years. They have not forgotten. But have we?

John Perkins himself was unjustly imprisoned in 1969 for trying to help diffuse a tense public situation and again in 1970 for peacefully demonstrating in Mendenhall, Mississippi. He and his friends were beaten bloody and tortured by drunk police officers before being released, though they had done nothing wrong. He explains,
"After I was beaten by white policemen, I began to see things a little more clearly. I was able to see the needs of white people and what racism was doing to them. You see, I had gotten set to the fact that the sickness of racism had affected the black community in a way that kept them from functioning as a healthy community. A lot of our people were sick -- affected by generations of slavery, oppression and exploitation -- psychologically destroyed. But I had never thought much before about how all that had affected whites -- how they had been affected by racism, by attitudes of racial superiority, by unjust lifestyles and behavior." (166)
Most troubling of all was the effect racism had on white churches. Visiting a white church as a black man could get you thrown out by the police. Perkins laments:
"The most systematic haters are ministers and Sunday school teachers. In fact, most of the outstanding killings and murderings of blacks in the South have had white ministers involved in them. This was true even of the killing and secret burying of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964." (164) 
Not all white ministers were racists. Indeed, those who spoke out against racial injustice were themselves mistreated. Rev. James Spencer, a white Presbyterian minister, helped with initial efforts to start Bible classes in Perkins' community, but quit under pressure from the Ku Klux Klan (93-94).

Another white pastor, Dr. Odenwald, slowly started preaching about God's love for everyone, gently questioning whether the attitudes of the white community toward blacks was consistent with biblical teaching. His messages met with great resistance from his congregation. Under the strain, Dr. Odenwald ended his own life (96-97).

Such a legacy of injustice does not evaporate overnight. If we want to understand the tensions in our world today, it helps to know the history.

My aim in this series is modest. I'm writing to people like myself who have grown up in mostly white neighborhoods and who can't readily produce first-hand examples of racial injustice. Reading a few books and citing a few examples will not solve the world's problems. But it will help us to take a longer view on race relations, to become more aware of how the same community can be experienced in such vastly disparate ways. I hope we'll get a sense of what it's like living in someone else's skin. I hope we'll be bothered by these stories, and more aware of ways that "the system" benefits us at the expense of others. Most of all, I hope that blog posts like this one will foster our Christian commitment to living out the gospel in practical ways.