The racial dance

It never fails, and always seems to happen in just the same way. There is an instance of racial outrage in a city, a Black teen (Trayvon Martin) is murdered by an overly vigilant white male, a Black young man (Mike Brown, Jonathan Ferrell) is shot to death by an rogue police officer “afraid for his life,” a Black man (Eric Garner) is maliciously suffocated in the streets by a gaggle of overzealous racially blinded police officers… and a city erupts. Protests ensue. Rallies are held. Civil disobedience is practiced. Violence breaks out. Buildings are damaged. People are hurt. Arrests are made. Meetings are had. Negotiations unfold. And new procedures are put in place.

This has become a very familiar pattern in the United States in the past decade or so. Instances that point out the racial disparities that persist in the nation are followed up with a dance that unfolds over time, ending in about the same result. Policing is scrutinized, procedures and practices are (mildly) reformed and the matter is considered addressed by the larger public whose attention soon turns to the next hot topic on social media.

The problem with this familiar racial dance is that the larger system is never really changed! Adjustments are made, policies are tweaked, enhancements are instituted. Police are told to wear body cameras, to employ “de-escalation tactics,” to impanel civilian review boards, to practice “community policing,” and the public seeing this change is appeased. Yet it is only a matter of time before the next instance of racialized police violence begins this dance anew.

In part, I would propose that this happens because we have continued to address the symptoms and never the real problem. We continue to be disturbed by instances of racism. Then, reacting to that most recent instance, we make subtle changes to a wholly broken system and expect that those changes will make a substantial difference. Worse, we sincerely seem to be appalled when those changes don’t stop this dance from recurring.

The rogue rose bush and its root

Several years ago, I planted a rose bush in my front yard beneath my mailbox. My desire was for this to grow into a beautiful bush that would surround the box with a lovely array of colorful blooms. Well the bush grew and surrounded the box, and occasionally it had blooms. What it did have persistently, however, was thorns. These thorns became particularly annoying to the mail carriers who had to confront them each time they delivered the mail and to the kids who rode their bikes around my cul-de-sac. So, mail carriers and kids alike eventually requested that I take the bush down.

Understanding their concern and recognizing that what I hoped would be a beautiful bush had become a community nuisance, I decided to cut it down. After I did, the neighborhood was a happier place for several months. Then the bush grew back. I cut it again at the end of the summer season. By the next spring, the bush grew back again. In fact, every time I cut the bush down, it was only a matter of time before it returned. It was then that I realized that I could not just cut down the bush, I had to eliminate the root!

In our common responses to systematic violence against Black bodies, we tend to address the bush, the visible symptoms of a racist system. Yet far too infrequently do we note the truth: We can try to cut the bush down as many times as we want, but if we don’t address the root, the problems will continue to impact us.

Converging crises

In this instance we have to note that the problem that we are dealing with in America is not just a policing problem, it is a systemic problem. We tend to see the problems about racial disparity most poignantly with policing for they are clear and consequential. Often done in public and caught on tape, these acts of state-sponsored violence become the primary indicator that there is something wrong about the way that we have treated Black and brown peoples in our nation. But these are not at all the only instances of disparity.

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded in our nation, it did not take long for the impact of race to make itself known again as Black and brown people were becoming infected at a higher rate than white people and even succumbing at a rate three and four times their representation in the general population. In response, people began to suggest that the primary problem was the underlying health issues plaguing Black and brown people who are already more likely to have diabetes, asthma, hypertension and heart disease than their white counterparts. But it soon became apparent that this was only the tip of a much larger iceberg.

People began to realize that the real reasons for disparities in infection and death had to do with disparities in economics. Black and brown people are more likely to work in the “necessary” frontline jobs that put them at higher risk for lower wages. They are less likely to be able to work from home. They are less likely to have their own vehicles, so they are more likely to put themselves at risk on public transportation. They are less likely to have had disposable income that would afford them masks and disinfectants, and they often live in much more crowded homes and in more densely populated neighborhoods. Because many states have refused to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act, many working poor Black and brown peoples do not even have access to healthcare in the midst of this pandemic, forcing them to wait until their health concerns are acute before they can seek treatment in an emergency room.

COVID-19 showed us that the problems with race are endemic and pervasive. Race poses not just a problem with policing, but a problem with healthcare and a problem with economics. In fact, the disparities around race exist in every aspect of our society. Structurally and systematically our society disadvantages Black and brown bodies in every way. If we are careful to attend to it, we will note differences in education, employment, housing, income and wealth. Systemic racism has impacted every dimension of our society and it does so without the active interventions of “racists.”

The problem is race

The problem, I want to suggest, is not just with the issue of racism, it is with the notion of “race” itself. The concept of race is in my estimation the root that supports the bush of racism. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates has suggested, the very concept of “race” itself is a “racist” proposition.

The concept of race is not a universal notion. Race in our context developed as a legitimating ideology that came into being as Europeans were going out to colonize the world. It became the way of justifying Europeans’ taking land from people and the taking people from land. It established a hierarchy of humanity that both relegated Black and brown peoples to the lower rungs of the human ladder; and because of that position delimited their access to wealth, power and privilege in relation to white people. Race should be the target of our work, not just instances of racism. Race is the root of the bush that must be excised!

In a very real way, I would suggest that the enemy in the struggle to protect Black lives is not police, not supremacists, not racist institutions. No, it is this idea that NYU professor Kwame Anthony Appiah has called a necessary component for the existence of racism. Without our collective belief in the legitimacy of race and our continued support for a system predicated on its validity, the racist system will change. In fact, we can force it to do so.

So as we stand here today at the convergence of two international crises – the COVID-19 pandemic that has exposed racial disparity in healthcare and economics and the George Floyd uprisings (exposing what some have called “COVID-1619,” relating to the year when the first Africans were imported to these shores in servitude) that have exposed racial disparity in policing – we are at a critical juncture in American history. We now know with an undeniable certainty that the impacts of racialist thinking are real and that they reinforce systems of inequality in our nation.

It is now clearer than ever that America has a race problem. People have protested in cities around the world calling for change in our race problem. Our nation, and in fact the entire world, are awaiting what we will do in response to our race problem. The world has recognized our collective hypocrisy claiming to be the exceptional nation that “holds these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal,” while in reality living out a racialized system that intentionally enshrines inequality.

Race-based cognitive dissonance

We cannot hold these two ideas at the same time without rending our collective psyche. The cognitive dissonance fostered by these wholly incompatible notions is evident as an ever-enlarging tear in our social fabric. At the same time we hold up the Declaration of Independence’s ideals, we uphold a system that fosters unequal housing, schooling, healthcare, employment, policing and jurisprudence. We are a nation that has a day to celebrate the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. as an advocate for equal rights and still condones the flying of Confederate flags and the establishment of Confederate monuments that symbolically support the dehumanization of those with Black skin. We are a country with a bifurcated soul. As Jesus said long ago in Matthew 12:25: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”

It is time for us to do something about this schism! It is time for us to heal the divide caused by our desire to hold on to a corrupt notion of racial division. It is time for us to realize that the genetic variation requisite to justify subspecies variation among human beings does not exist; that there is only one race, the human race!

We are, in our beautiful array of colors, cultures and creeds, just one race! We are from our distinctive global origins just one race! We are in our complex ways of behaving, ways of being, ways of seeing, just one race! We are one human race, all created in the same image of the same God (Genesis 1:26-27). We are one human race confirmed in the Greek translation of Acts 17:26 to be of “one blood.” We are one human race testified by Paul in Galatians 3:28 to be “one in Christ Jesus.” We are one human race and it is time that we as the church led in that proclamation!

So, what shall we do?

I have long thought that it is time for a national conversation about race. This is the conversation that has been promised since Jefferson removed the protections of liberty for enslaved Black people from the original version of the Declaration of Independence; since Lincoln drafted an Emancipation Proclamation that was never fully enforced; since the exception clause of the 13th Amendment provided a loophole to perpetuate slavery and vagrancy laws were enacted to entrap Black people; and since the civil rights movement when race was a regular concern on the evening news. Yet still it has not happened. At this moment in time, we must ensure that it finally does.

This is why I have long proposed a national Reimagining America Project: Truth, Reconciliation and Atonement Commission (RAP: TRAC) to begin to address the way that this lie called race has shaped our lives, giving wealth, power and privilege to some with less melanin in their skin, while taking it from others with more melanin. I suggest that such a commission could feature two basic tracks.

  1. The “Hearings Track” would bring three types of witnesses to testify before the nation, to show us how race has shaped lives. There would be:
    • Historical witnesses: Historians who can shed light on the historic role that race has played regarding a specific topic (e.g., housing, education, employment, healthcare);
    • Testifying witnesses: People who will tell their own stories about how race has impacted their lives related to aforementioned topics; and
    • Confessing witnesses: People who have participated in racialized systems who wish to confess how their system perpetuated harm and who wish to provide a means of atonement for their actions.
  2. The “Modes of Redress Track” would consist of a panel of experts who would digest testimony from the Hearings Track and work to provide system-by-system solutions to root out structural racism and provide systemic atonement to rectify racial disparities. This work would be longer in term and would ultimately present vision of a reimagined America.

It is hoped that in this way, we could finally feature not just a conversation about race, but a way of moving beyond this human-made fictive social construct and providing a better future going forward.

Conclusion: The role of the church

It is important that the church play a role in this work, for this is spiritual, moral, faith-inspired work. It is work that grows out of Scripture’s calling for the confession of truth and the facilitation of reconciliation; this is only possible through the intervention of atonement. This is fundamentally Christian work — work that should be sponsored by the faith community. In fact, given the church’s historic role in the theological justification of the American slavocracy, in the perpetuation of Jim Crow segregationist ideology, and in its complacency in light of gross racial disparities, the church has work to do.

The contemporary church needs to remember that the first controversy that it had to address when still a nascent community was the problem of human division (Acts 10-11; Galatians). Having successfully negotiated the divisions between Jewish and Gentile members, overcoming a theological divide that was considered absolute (not unlike race in our contexts), we have in Christ the power to overcome our racial divisions and racial disparities today as well.

It is time for the church to take a lead in our country and call for a process that will finally overcome what writer Jim Wallis has called America’s original sin. It is time for the church to live up to an inclusive vision of humanity reminiscent of Revelation 7:9-17 where all humanity is gathered before God’s throne as equals. It is time for the church to manifest the reconciling power of Christ and bring about a world commensurate with God’s vision of humanity. Four hundred and one years since the first African was brought to America debased and in chains, it is time for the church to commit once and for all to the full humanity and equality of all of God’s children. For Christ’s sake.

Rodney Sadler is associate professor of Bible and director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.