A Conversation About Race and Politics
Recently, over dinner with a group of friends, the topic of race relations came up, as it often should.
“As a white person who advocates on behalf of racial justice,” one sister said, looking in my direction with knowing yet curious eyes, “you must have some interesting conversations with other white people. As a person of color, I’d love to be invisible in the room to overhear the kinds of things they say and the responses you give.”
“That’s a great idea,” I responded. “Maybe I’ll write about it. An article could be the next best thing to you being invisible and in the room.”
So, here are the most common things I hear from white people regarding race relations constructed as a single conversation. And let’s name our semi-fictional man, Bob.
White Table Talk
Ty, you really need to focus on preaching the Gospel and not get distracted with political issues like racism. It’s divisive.
Thanks Bob. I appreciate your concern. You are aware, however, that Jesus not only preached the Gospel, but He was the Gospel in the way He dealt with people. Luke writes in Acts 10:38, “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, [and He] went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.”
In fact, some of His contemporaries – specifically those who were favored by the systems of His day – didn’t like Jesus siding with the oppressed. They became enraged every time Jesus sided with those who were on the outside of social favor and on the downside of political power. So, yeah there was division. But it was the necessary kind of division. Remember, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Bringing Jesus where there is injustice is not a distraction, Bob, nor is it contrary to the Gospel. It is vital if the Gospel is to have any kind of tangible meaning.
But Ty, shouldn’t Christians stay out of politics?
Yes and no. I think you are conflating legit political involvement with illegitimate political involvement. Because we believe in religious liberty we believe in the separation of church and state. So, we do not believe the church should use the state to enforce its theological beliefs and worship practices upon the free human conscience. In fact, that’s what religious liberty is all about. We believe in fighting religious oppression and defending an individual’s right to worship according to his or her own conscience—regardless of that person’s religious affiliation.” In other words, the idea of the state partnering with the church to enforce a particular set of religious beliefs is a kind of politics we want no parts of.
But with regards to human relations – in all matters of equality and justice – Christians should be foremost in political activism. Bob, if Christians had stayed out of politics slavery would not have been abolished and women would still not be able to vote or own property. If Christians had stayed out of politics the Civil Rights Movement and the activism of pastors like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would never have happened and we’d still have segregation. Christians were a formidable force in these crucial movements. And Christians still need to leverage their influence today to advance the cause of racial justice and equality.
But slavery has been over for a long time Ty. Like you just said, it was abolished. So why can’t they just get over it?
Well, Bob, that’s because it’s over and it’s not. It’s over as a legal institution, but the consequences of slavery are still present within our criminal justice and economic systems. “They” can’t get over it because “we’re” not over it. Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow says it like this: “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Truthfully, Bob, there are systems, some overt and some subtle, that are fundamentally oppressive and racist, and these must be challenged and overcome for one simple reason: they are wrong. They are unjust, unfair, and even unconstitutional.
But Ty, it’s not fair that my hard-earned money be taken from me in taxes and used to give people stuff they did not earn.
Okay Bob! Now we’re getting to the real issue. Your concern is not that I’m distracted from the Gospel with politics, but that I don’t share your political views. And if I were to share your political views, you would not be concerned about me being political.
Well no, I just think it’s unfair that I would have to pay for something I had nothing to do with. I mean, Ty, they are demanding reparations – meaning free money – taken from people who had nothing to do with slavery. It’s ridiculous.
First of all, Bob, they are not demanding free money. They are asking for the very things you say are important to you: fairness, justice, the righting of colossal wrong. Your financial thinking, at its core, is right, because you are concerned for fairness. That’s what they are are concerned about too. You believe people should not get free money, which is exactly what they believe. They just believe, as I do, that if stolen money is returned to the person it was stolen from then that person has not received free money. Consider a parable on generational economics:
My uncle Jedediah stole your uncle Gunther’s Toyota Camry and drove it 100,000 miles on a paper route that made him rich. Then he gave it to me. I racked up an additional 50,000 miles on it delivering pizzas to wealthy pizza connoisseurs who gave me big tips, which I used to get a college education. Then I got a great job with my new degree and bought a big house and gave the Camry to my niece, Donatella.
Donatella used the Camry to get a job as a legal aid, which put her in proximity to a fine fella named Rodrick Sebastian Tennyson III. The two of them, Donna and Rod, got married and procreated an adorable baby boy they named, for reasons unknown, Bob. Then little Bob grew up to be big Bob and inherited the Camry, giving him the distinct advantage over all his buddies in becoming an Uber driver.
To whom does the Camry belong?
Okay, Ty. I see what you’re saying. All those people in Jedediah’s family lineage gained an advantage from a car he stole from Gunther. So, if Gunther’s grandkids were to ask Bob for the Camry back, they would not be asking for a free car, but for their car. And if Bob were to discover the truth of the history of the stolen car and return it to Gunther’s grandkids, he would not be giving them a free car, but making a wrong right by returning the property to its rightful owner.
But Ty, I never owned slaves and neither did any other living Americans.
True, you did not personally own slaves. Point taken. And nobody is suggesting that you did. But you are in possession of stolen property, as I am. In this tangled web of privilege, our whiteness affords us protection and advantages that many African Americans in this country do not have. So, the least we can do is equalize the playing field so they can catch up and have a fighting chance.
Okay, I get that. But I’m not racist. I like black people! In fact, I have some black friends!
These black friends of yours, Bob, have you ever been to any of their homes?
Have any of them ever been to your home?
Ok, Bob, they are not your friends. Sure, you may like them, but they are not your friends. But the issue is not about whether or not you like black people. People of color are not asking white people to like them. Many, if not most, don’t care if any white person likes them. What they are asking for is far more basic and substantial: justice and equality. And honestly, both of those have nothing to do with flashing a smile or being nice.
Well, I’m not against them.
I don’t doubt that, Bob. But are you for them? In the American context, to be non-racist isn’t enough. The only acceptable position for a white person is to be anti-racist.
Why is that? What does it even mean to be anti-racist?
That’s a great question, Bob. A scholar by the name of Ibram X. Kendi just recently wrote a book entitled, How to Be an Antiracist. You should check it out. In it he says, “to be an antiracist is a radical choice in the face of this history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.” The fact is, Bob, to be non-racist is to maintain the status quo of disparity and injustice. As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” To be antiracist, then, is to stand against racism and use one’s influence to remove it from every dark nook and cranny of the nation. Only action will bring about the kind of changes that need to be made.
I see what you’re saying, Ty.
Thanks for listening, Bob.
A Call to Conversation
In order to change the consciousness of whites and blacks around the topic of race and politics, we must be willing to talk amongst ourselves and with each other. Whites and Blacks who are committed to racial equality must make it a priority to first converse with their respective friends and family who are not yet converted to this cause of justice. Once we all can commit to having the hard conversations, both amongst ourselves and with each other, once we can commit to reading the materials necessary to broaden our understanding, and ultimately commit to engage to make substantive change then will we begin to see justice and equality in both policy and people’s hearts. Let’s talk!