By Rev. Dr. Jason Coker
The American experience is uneven and unfair. Minorities know this—they have always known this. Some white people know this, too—most of the white people who know this live in or have lived in grinding poverty. They know that a strong work ethic will never pull them out of poverty. This is a myth that we keep propitiating in order to keep the dying ideology of the American dream alive—but it’s on life support at this point.
With economic inequality being at an historic high, there is a creeping feeling across America that things may be falling apart.
The truth is, things are falling apart. But this is only a new reality for the white middle class and the white hopefully-upwardly mobile. For African-Americans, things aren’t just falling apart; things have never been built with equality and equity in the first place. That’s why they’ve always known that their American experience is fundamentally different than any other’s American experience.
Slavery is why most African-Americans live in America. That’s their origins on this continent. Slavery lasted in North America from 1619 to 1865—that’s 246 years. After slavery, it was Jim Crow laws in the South, and housing/real estate and miscegenation laws throughout the rest of America that made their American experience so incredibly uneven and unfair.
If you take Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 as the “end of Jim Crow,” which it absolutely was not, then you have 89 years of legal inequality. Laws were passed as late as 1975 that attempted to make America a more equal experience for African-Americans. If we want to use that as a legal line of attempted equality, then we have 110 years of inequality since the abolition of slavery. Now, with that being a historically legal date for “equality” in America, then they have only just begun to live into any form of “equality.” This dawn of “equality” in America is all of 44 years old—that’s roughly my age.
But how has the past 43 years been for African-Americans? In spite of all that African-Americans tell White America about their experience as uneven and unfair and even brutal and inhumane, White Americans, in general, don’t believe African-Americans.
The Starbucks event from 2018 is a good example. In the viral video of two young African-American men being arrested, handcuffed and taken out of a Starbucks, there were white people who questioned the officers—as they should have! They were appalled! They couldn’t believe this was happening! And they couldn’t believe it was happening in front of them because they had never seen anything like that before. But, the African-American community wasn’t surprised at all. All they saw was their experience getting played out on a video.
Videos of unarmed African-American men being shot and killed don’t make similar white people’s blood boil—that may be unfair, but where are all the white people speaking out against this kind of legalized murder? African-Americans have worked so hard to tell their stories and educate white people for so long, but we, in general, still don’t believe them. But, why?
I think one of the biggest reasons white people don’t truly believe African-Americans when African-Americans tell the story of their American experience is because we are still so segregated. From our schools to our neighborhoods to our grocery stores to our churches, we are severely segregated.
When segregation persists, so does ignorance. This ignorance is due to the fact that we don’t know each other well at all and, if we want to know each other, we have to work hard at creating space for relationships to happen.
A couple of years ago I was at a “white” church in Georgia and asked a fairly progressive group of white people if they had ever had an African-American at their dinner table for a meal. Out of the group of 15 or so, three people raised their hands—and they were obviously proud of themselves (maybe they should have been because they have actually tried). I then asked them how many of the three had been invited by an African-American to have dinner at the African-American’s house. None.
Segregation leads to ignorance and ignorance leads to stereotypes. Without real knowledge of each other, we all lean on stereotypes to “understand” the other. This is incredibly dangerous, but happens all the time.
In stereotyping blackness, blackness is criminalized (which is why the young men at Starbucks were arrested—how many white people “loiter” at Starbucks?). Why didn’t the management of that particular Starbucks believe these two young men when they told management that they were waiting to meet someone? Why did management ask these two particular men about why they were there instead of the other people who were there? We may not know the full answers to those questions, but this is how stereotypes function within society. They are based on ignorance, and we are racially ignorant because we are willfully and sometimes unintentionally segregated.
No one racial group has a monopoly on good people or bad people.
In other words, not all white people are evil and not all African-Americans are good—or vice versa. But we won’t ever know the reality of this truth if we don’t work hard to bridge the relational gaps between our own racial identity and others.
This intentional relationship building is a good way to move toward systemic change in our society, and I believe churches have a high capacity to lead the way. It is our sacred theology and traditions that help us be truly human and see the human in the other. Our religious traditions teach us about love for God and neighbor and other. These traditions can provide a common ground, and our churches can provide a common place where we begin to move toward each other with peace and integrity. In that place, maybe we can start believing each other.
Rev. Dr. Jason Coker serves as the coordinator for CBF of Mississippi and national coordinator for Together for Hope, CBF’s rural poverty coalition.