Uncovering Our Racial History

Uncovering Our Country’s Racist History

Toward a Theology of Racial Reconciliation (Part 1)

Just last week, as most of you know, the racial tensions in our country boiled over into violent, racist protests and deadly skirmishes in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thankfully, immediately afterwards, many prominent voices throughout the evangelical world condemned the violence and the white supremacist groups and ideology behind it. Even more, we noticed that many Anglo-American pastors throughout the country spoke about racism and calling it what it is, namely, sin. Every time we heard of a pastor or prominent Christian speak against racism, we rejoiced. Yet, at this crucial moment in our country’s consciousness, we also recognize that there is more work to be done when it comes to racism.

It is my contention that the fight against racism and ethnocentrism goes far beyond merely condemning white supremacy.

That is an important step, certainly, but it is only a first step. To truly fight against these evils in a way that makes long-lasting, systematic change, and in a way that achieves true, biblical racial reconciliation, evangelicals need to go deeper – intellectually, verbally and behaviorally.

This article is the first in a series at The Art of Taleh on a “Theology of Racial Reconciliation”.

Here, I will unpack the history of racism in the U.S. post-Emancipation Proclamation as well as the need for evangelical Christians to know this history. In the later articles (parts 2, 3 and 4), I will touch on the issues of racialized systems in our country and the problems of implicit bias and ignorant complicity, respectively.

The point of this first article is this:

If evangelicals want to fight against racism and ethnocentrism, they need to truly know, understand and lament our country’s racist history.

Too often, Americans implicitly believe that the Civil War and, later, the Civil Rights Movement brought an end to racism. We can’t tell you often we hear Anglo-American evangelicals assert that racism is dead and has been dead for many decades and for some, even centuries. Now, it’s not just such evangelicals, much of the Anglo-American populace in this country believe this. But this could not be farther from the truth. The playing field was not made level after the Emancipation Proclamation, and it still isn’t level today for African Americans and other minorities by extension.

After the Civil War, the beliefs about African Americans in the South (and for much of the country) did not change overnight.

While the overt racism against African Americans had been suppressed thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation, the 15th Amendment, and Enforcement Acts, racism morphed and took on another form. Its ugly head arose in the form of unjust laws that essentially re-enslaved African Americans. (These laws were soon called Jim Crow laws.) For example, many states in the South created vagrancy laws, in which African Americans could be arrested and imprisoned for not having proof of employment. This one law re-enslaved thousands of African Americans back to plantations. And since the federal government did not intervene, the rights of African Americans were again trampled upon. So, for many decades following the Civil War, black people were intentionally suppressed by white people (on both individual and government levels), and many Anglos today are ignorant of this history.

Once the twentieth century arrived, the oppression turned into various forms of domestic terrorism.

What we saw last week in Charlottesville is nothing new. In fact, it is part of a long history of racially-fueled domestic terrorism in our country. African Americans used to be lynched just for staring at a white person in the “wrong way”. There were waves of petty crimes or perceived crimes eliciting mob violence for the early decades of the 20th century, and each time, black men were slaughtered in its wake. That is terrorism, y’all. Ever heard of Emmett Till? He was a sweet, little 14-year-old African-American boy who was brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955 at the hands of white men because he supposedly whistled and drew the attention of a white woman in a grocery store. You can look this up; what you find will appall you. His murder was so brutal and so grotesque, yet sadly his killers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. That is an injustice! Sadly, that is but a glimpse of the long history of violent persecution that minorities, especially African Americans have experienced in the United States.

I briefly highlight this to stress how evangelicals must learn their history.

As a result of this recent history, we should not be surprised that blacks and whites view racism and the American-racial past differently. For evangelicals, being more aware of our racist past will better position us for racial reconciliation.

While we are grateful to be living in this country, we will not gloss over the ills and injustices of our country. As James Baldwin remarked in 1955, the same year of Till’s murder, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” We too, as evangelicals, must have the same posture towards our country. We cannot be afraid or silent on criticizing our country. Moreover, since we primarily belong to the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom of justice, we must prophetically call out injustices, both past and present.

For further study on our country’s ugly history, I suggest you read either of the following books:

The Art of Taleh has a special section called “Social Theologies”. For a recent article, entitled, “Toward a Social Theology of Immigration”, click here.

Aaron Reyes, M.Div., is the Lead Pastor of Church of the Violet Crown in Austin, TX. He is passionate about faith and race relations, and his writings and sermons on the subject can be found on Violet Crown’s website: http://churchofthevioletcrown.com/.