I remember the pit in my stomach as the elderly lady at the podium recounted the words of her professor at the University of Oklahoma, “You don’t have to try so hard. I won’t give a student of your color anything higher than a ‘C’.” I remember the shock I received when Obama was announced as the winner of the 2008 presidential election. The church was politically conservative, and had even been preaching such in the weeks leading up to the election. But when the room heard that a black man could be elected President of the United States, it visually erupted like a cork bursting from a champagne bottle. I remember the disbelief I felt when my new housemate was pulled over for the third time in our first month of living together. He was never breaking the law, never received a ticket or a warning, he was just a young black man driving a nice car. I lived in that neighborhood for 10 years and never got pulled over unless I was speeding or talking on the phone while driving. I still experience these jolts occasionally, like this week when I read about a National Beareau of Economic Research (NBER) study that sent out 5,000 resumes to American employers. The resumes were the same, but on half they put stereotypically white names, and on half they put stereotypically black names. The white resumes were 50% more likely to get a callback for an interview.
These experiences came to me as an adult, and as such, they were hard to incorporate into my view of the world. I had grown up in a rural, predominantly Anglo corner of California. In my world, everyone seemed to have the same education and the same opportunities, and if someone worked hard enough they had a considerable chance to be financially and vocationally successful. Race wasn’t talked about much; it wasn’t even thought of much. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and was hired on as an associate pastor at a large African-American church that I began to understand, in part, the experience of racism. Over the course of four years I was steeped in the black experience of America. I enjoyed the passion, the deep love, the wonderful music and the meaningful friendships that were formed through this season. But I was also grieved. I was grieved that my new friends were constantly hounded by the question of race. Did I get pulled over because I was doing something wrong, or because I was black? Did my resume get turned down because it wasn’t as good, or because my name is Jamal? Don’t act like a fool in this restaurant, because if you do, they won’t say, ‘there were some silly young people in there,’ they will say, ‘there were some crazy black kids in there,’ and it will reinforce what people in our nation think about us. My black friends had to think about being black all the time, and it was exhausting. It led some to feel angry, and it led most to feel powerless and an outsider in their own country. The country where they were born. The country for whom they served in the military. The country that said all people had an equal God-given right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Racism in America in the 21st century is a phenomenon that can be measured and shown in numbers. But more importantly, it is a subjective experience that is felt daily by millions of citizens. We exist in two different experiences of America. One of us has the choice to think about race. The other has the race question looming over them several times a day. One America, two different worlds.
There is an opportunity in this thundercloud. One of the things that makes America great is the way we have chosen to set the Biblical ideal of the equality of all people as our nations’ standard. This belief, so widely held in the world today, has its origin in Genesis 1:26, in which God makes humanity in the ‘imageo dei,’ the image of God. Each person, the bible says, has God’s likeness imprinted in their being. This means the church is called to be at the forefront of standing against racism, in all its personal and systemic forms. For the Christian, there is more at stake than trying to make an equitable society. We believe when we dehumanize another, or when we stay comfortable in a system that devalues a group, we aren’t just hurting them, we are sinning against God and marring a part of his likeness expressed on earth. When we stand up for a group that is discriminated against, when we reach out to an individual that has a different experience of American than we do, we are embracing and drawing close to part of God’s self-revelation entrusted to us. Stand with me against racism. God is there.
Together in the Journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons