I am told that all across Germany are plaques memorializing places where Jews lived, worked, or worshipped before being sent to the ovens. Auschwitz draws thousands annually to try to insure we “never forget.” German youth face the atrocities of their grandparents, not to foster guilt but to better guard against repeating the horrific sins of the past.
By contrast, nothing in New Orleans alerts shoppers that they are passing the largest slave auction house in the world. No plaques commemorate the 4,000 sites in our country where African American men were tortured and lynched as late as the 1950s. No southern statues honor the Underground Railway and its heroes. Southern plantations today romanticize the lives of white slave owners and barely mention the half million black people whose lives were brutally stolen.
The North was deeply complicit. In a small gesture, Harvard University recently memorialized Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba, who worked in Wadsworth House while owned by Harvard presidents Edward Holyoke and Benjamin Wadsworth. Some of Harvard’s land and buildings were paid for with wealth derived from slavery (by insuring slave ships, financing plantations, offering credit to purchase slaves). Slavery was not an abstraction, but a vast cruelty that defined and built our American society. It is responsible for much of the wealth and the racial attitudes we all have inherited. In Boston today the average net worth of white families is $256,500 while that of no minority group exceeds $18,000.
I am not immune. I’ve given fifty years trying to combat racism in my part of the church, but I’ve discovered that I too am prejudiced. I can be singing praises to Jesus when out of nowhere an arrogant racist thought will invade my mind. “Oh, no, Lord,” I say, “there it is again. I am sorry. Please take it away.” Racism is not just the Original Sin of America. It is mine too. It is in the air. All of us breathe it in.
Following Emancipation, slavery continued under another name—Jim Crow—until 1877 when federal troops were removed from the slave states and the Confederacy finally won. “Freed” blacks were lynched by hooded Ku Klux Klansmen. It was a terrorist insurgency, yet described by President Woodrow Wilson as: “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” Slavery founded our country on white supremacy and the fear that black males will dominate whites and sexually force themselves on white women.
Unlike Germany, white America has not come to terms with its past. We are repeating the sins of our grandparents. Frightened by the coming non-white majority, America is actively legislating to maintain white supremacy: racial gerrymandering has almost eliminated black political power; mass incarceration disenfranchises non-whites for life (more are in prison now than were slaves in 1850); voter ID laws restrict blacks with “almost surgical precision”, and immigration to this “land of Immigrants” is being shut down. Apparently, too many non-whites are voting. And now, the safety net for the poor—both black and white—is being shredded to benefit the rich.
Racism is not a partisan charge. It is our problem. We talk of disappearing jobs in coal country and the rust belt. But fifty years ago, when jobs disappeared from the black community, the power structures were unconcerned. White churches blamed the “welfare mentality.” In 1997 the New York Times wrote “the issue is not welfare but the disappearance of work in the ghetto. The problem has now reached catastrophic proportions and if it isn’t addressed it will have lasting and harmful consequences for the quality of life in the cities and, eventually, for the lives of all Americans.” That was twenty years ago!
Today, in multiple ways, those with power over black lives reflect the Constitution’s valuation of African Americans as 4/5 human. Fearful partisan minds promote wildly immorally inaccurate views of the “irresponsible poor” while ignoring the irresponsible rich. For a second year President Trump refuses to speak to the NAACP. The organization’s response: “We have lost the will of the current administration to listen” to the concerns of the minority community. This is beyond personal racism. Our country is desperately embracing the legal, structural racism that has plagued us from the beginning.
Most African Americans face this organized rebuke and scorn as nothing new. They’ve been here before—many times. They held on to survive slavery. With faith, they will survive this too.
But on television you can hear the fear—liberals fearful of the future, supporters of Trump fearful of “the other”. Healthy Christianity would give hope, even in the face of disaster. Yet its loudest voices trust instead in structures of power. The religion has forgotten the Jesus who said not to fear. But I believe he is real, and alive today, and offers himself as an “ever-present help in time of trouble.”
The predicted catastrophic days are here. All Americans, rich and poor, left and right, are facing the impact of slavery and our national hangover from slavery. We long to end this civil war of character assassination. And we see the danger of trusting strong leaders who listen only to themselves.
But where are the political leaders committed to helping people who need help? We hear only the tired professional repetition of answers to last century’s questions. We are desperate for a bold vision that responds to genuine needs across the political spectrum. We want to be challenged. Like a bright North Star, we need a vision adequate to inspire action by the millions of us, wherever we find ourselves in all our wild diversity. E Pluribus Unum.
Who knows? Such a vision might even inspire the honest confession of more memorial plaques. And that would be a true miracle.