Today (1/18/16) we, as a nation, celebrated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of us probably just had a day off work (or grumbled about going to work on a government holiday). Some African-Americans, and even some Americans of other ethnic groups, may have even had a special meal or gathering, went to a parade, or attended a public event. Besides having the day off work, I read Drew G. I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.
The legacy of MLK and the civil rights movement is unquestionable. Just ask my former manager (who has since been promoted). Just ask the principal of the middle school where I once taught (who has since been promoted to the high school). Just ask the young lady who is drum major of my son's high school marching band. Just ask the policeman who lives around the corner. Ask the many African American neighbors in my racially mixed, middle-class neighborhood. They will attest to the opportunities that abound for African-Americans today that would have been unimaginable a generation or two in the past.
You probably don't want to ask many nationally-known African-American activists. You probably don't want to ask the first African-American President of the United States. And you probably don't want to ask Drew G. I. Hart. From them you would learn that American society is built on an irrevocably racist foundation. That racism persists at every level of government, business, and society.
A fundamental issue is that American culture and economy is built on the theft of land, from Native Americans, and theft of labor, from African slaves. Thus the United States is irretrievably racist. Racism is entrenched in the very structure of our institutions. Even with a black president, black CEOs, black millionaires, black doctors, lawyers, and university professors, white culture prevails. Blacks succeed only to the extent that they embrace white culture. This is Hart's perspective.
Trouble I've Seen is very personal and perceptive. Besides his analysis of the inherent racism of society, much of what he writes is about his own experiences. I appreciate hearing his viewpoint and have been challenged to reflect on my own views of race and my own interactions with African-Americans. He writes that some of the worst racism he encountered was at the Christian college he attended. Even in churches he has seen that intentionally include minorities on staff and in leadership positions, he perceives that white culture remains dominant, essentially drowning out any influence of black culture.
One episode that shaped him and epitomized the white dominant culture was a time he was pulled over by police. He hadn't realized it, but his car's registration was overdue. One policeman stopped him, then called for back up. The two officers then approached his car with guns drawn, pointing them at him. He literally feared for his life. He kept his wits and recalled what he had been taught about how to behave when the police stop him. They wrote him a ticket and left without incident. He said that black youth are taught "to dehumanize ourselves in encounters with police just so we can stay alive." So keeping your hands on the wheel and visible, speaking politely, and following officers' requests constitute "dehumanizing ourselves"? To me that sounds like how anyone should respond when pulled over by police, black or white, guns drawn or not.
Hart refers to several well-publicized episodes in which African-American individuals have been targeted by police and others. I wish Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were still alive. Both may have initially been confronted because of their skin color; that is debatable and deserves to be considered. But in both cases, evidence indicates that they are dead because they violently responded to the confrontation. Both would be alive today if they had chosen differently.
I know Hart would immediately discredit my perspective because I am white. He would talk about the centuries of unjust treatment that lay the foundation for the neighborhood patrolman and the police officer to confront Martin and Brown. But focusing on race (which of course is a sociological construct) rather than the actions of individuals does not help.
Racism is alive and well in the hearts of sinful men and women. I am thankful that, in large part because of the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others I can have black friends, neighbors and coworkers. My black son and I can eat in whatever restaurant we want, and he can go to college anywhere his grades can take him. I won't deny that Hart and many African-Americans encounter racism, maybe every day. I pray that God will continue to change the hearts of men and women, as he has already done for so many, so that he (and my son) will see a day when racism is a dim memory.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!
2016 Reading Challenge: A book written by someone of a different ethnicity than you