Racism in America, an Overview

For almost the first one hundred years of our country, blacks were subjected to slavery. Alex de Tocqueville, a political observer visiting the United States in the 1830’s, noted the racial problems of the nation. He observed, “The most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory.” He went on to say, “Although the law may abolish slavery, God alone can obliterate the traces of its existence.” (Alex de Tocqueville. Democracy in America, translated by Henry Reeve and edited by Phillips Bradley. Vintage Books, 1956.)
The issue of racism is a difficult subject to tackle. Raleigh Washington, pastor of the racially mixed Rock of Our Salvation Church in Chicago and the Promise Keepers vice president for racial reconciliation, says this about addressing racism: “Trying to negotiate your way through these issues is like walking through a racial mine field, with the guarantee that you’re going to step on a bomb at any moment.” (Washington, Raleigh. “Wall Busting 101,” New Man, 1996.) Minorities often feel the results of racism more than others. Many feel anger and resentment for the injustice that they personally or as a people have suffered. On the other hand, some people feel that the issue of racism is a thing of the past and that Civil Rights acts, desegregation, and affirmative action programs have done more than enough to address the problem.
We have come a long way in the United States since the days of slavery. The second half of the twentieth century has seen the passage of much civil rights legislation and advancement of its cause. However, racism still exists in a powerful way in the United States. Segregation, although prohibited by law, still remains a dominant trait in our society. Racial tension often turns into violence. Vast gaps in income and standards of living are evident. Discrimination, although prohibited by law, still takes place as a result of racism. However, all these actions are simply manifestation of our country’s true problem. The real crisis and the cause of these other problems is the sinful attitudes in heart of individuals. The political and social ramification of racism cannot be dealt with without dealing with the moral decay that is the primary cause of the problem. This is one area that our society as a whole has failed to deal with adequately.
Segregation, the division of our society by races, particularly white and black, has been a major issue in our country during the last half of this century. There are two types of racial segregation: de jure segregation and de facto segregation. De jure (by right) segregation is the separation of people through a systematic or established process. Examples of this include: having separate schools for whites and blacks, having separate bathrooms and water fountains, or requiring blacks to sit on the back of the bus. All of these practices were at one time considered a “normal” part of our society. Through recent court decisions and legislation, these practices have been ruled illegal. The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Through a series of Civil Rights acts in the 1960’s, intentional segregation has been prohibited in almost all public places.
The second type of segregation is de facto (in reality) segregation. De facto segregation happens without any established rules. Examples of this include: different races choosing to live in different neighborhoods, shop at different businesses, or worship at different churches. The law can do little to prevent this type of segregation because people are free to live and go where they see fit. The government can only stop this if someone is intentionally denied access because of their skin color. It is this type of segregation that is prevalent today. Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the United States. These walls of racism can only be tackled by dealing with the source of the problem, man’s sinful heart.
Racial Violence
We read about reports of racially motivated violence in the newspapers and watch it on television. Racial tension in various places will build up to the breaking point until eventually an event will set off violence. Perhaps the most widespread incident of this occurred in Los Angeles in 1992 following the verdict in the Rodney King court case, which involved the beating of a black man by several Los Angeles police officers. For almost three days, the city was torn apart by violent riots and looting. The destruction resulted in 40 dead, 1,899 injured, 4,536 businesses burned, and more than $500 million dollars in damage. (Lieberman, Paul. “Bush Ordering Troops to L.A.,” The Los Angeles Times, 2 May 1992.) In 1995, the United States saw another wave of violence as black churches were burned all across the South. From 1995 to 1997, a reported 520 churches were burned according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In spite of noble efforts, it is impossible for law enforcement officials to stop all racial violence. While actions of individulas may be punished, only God can change their hearts.
Racial Income Gap
Despite progress that we have made with equal opportunity efforts, there remains a wide gap between the incomes of white and black families. The mean income in 1992 for white families was $38,909 and for black families was $21,161, almost half that of white families. (Hacker, Andrew. Two Nations. Ballantine Books: New York, 1995, p. 100. Bureau of the Census, 1993.) Although many factors affect this gap, a lot of the problem can be traced back to the history of race relations. For the first half of our country’s history, blacks were property. It is difficult to catagorize black economic conditions during this period because slaves did not legally “own” anything but rather were owned by their masters. Following their emancipation until about the 1960’s, there were very little civil rights guarantees. During this period, many blacks were limited to certain low paying jobs, in some cases by law. Although today we have laws to prohibit discrimination, we are still reaping the result of our past injustices. Finding effective ways to give equal opportunity to everyone is a difficult process.
Fundamental Problem
There have been many theories about the central problem of racism. One school of thought is that the problem is an economic problem. This idea was proposed over one hundred years ago by Booker T. Washington. He stated that the way for blacks to advance themselves was to learn a trade that was considered useful. He said, “Friction between the races will pass away in proportion as the black man, by reason of his skill, intelligence, and character, can produce something that the white man wants or respects in the commercial world.” (Washington, Booker T. “The Awakening of the Negro,” The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1896.) President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930’s saw the introduction of social welfare as the answer to our economic difficulties. This idea has since expanded into the modern day welfare system.
Another popular belief is that lack of education is the source of the problem and better education for everyone is the solution. W.E.B. Du Bois, a contemporary of Washington, contributed greatly to this concept. He proposed that if blacks were given the opportunity to cultivate and educate themselves, then they would learn to respect themselves. This self-respect will lead to a mutual respect between each other. (Du Bois, W.E.B. “Strivings of the Negro People,” The Atlantic Monthly, August, 1897) This idea of education as the solution is a popular concept in modern educational theories. Multicultural education attempts to provide students with sensitivity to people different from themselves by learning about other cultures and beliefs different from their own.
These theories are noble in their goals. Many of these ideas have helped to clean up some of the problems with racism. However, they fail to address to root of the problem of racism. Racism is a result of man’s sinful heart. Dr. Martin Luthur King, Jr. rejected what he called the “humanistic hope” for solving racism. He held that these ideas are only an “illusion” and that they lack the power to bring about change. He insisted that racism was a moral issue that must be confronted by the church. (Hastings, Dwayne. “Real Racial Reconciliation a Matter of the Heart and Not of the State,” Light, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, March/April ,1997.) Only when we acknowledge that racism is more than just statistics or headlines in a newspaper can we deal with the problem. We must look within our own lives and deal with the internal racism in our attitudes that shape the way we view the world.
Racism is an issue the church must face. God has called us to be “salt and light” to our world. (Matthew 5:13-16) However, in too many cases, our churches have come to reflect the problems of our society instead of seeking to change them. Gov. Mike Huckabee observed this when he said, “Far too many leaders today, both in government and the church, are really thermometers when we are in desperate need of thermostats. I’m afraid that there are far too many people in leadership positions who are content with the idea of taking a political poll or feeling the pulse of the people and adjusting one way or the other. That’s thermometer leadership.” (Strode, Tom. “Committed People with Convictions are Hope for Country, Huckabee Says,” Light, March/April 1997, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.) In this secular-domminated age, Christians have a unique responsibility to remind society that racism as well as the other moral problems we face will not be solved without the spiritual dimension. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Bapist Convention, said, “If the racial wounds of America are to heal, it will be the people of God who will apply the salve.”