Racism’s Persistent Presence

canstockphoto1074081Note: I wrote this article just before the Charleston shootings but waited to post it until after it was due to be printed in my church’s bulletin this past Sunday. I considered revising it in the wake of the shootings but decided to print it as written. There have always been signs telling us that the problem of racial prejudice is deeply rooted in our culture; it shouldn’t have taken nine people losing their lives for us to notice it—or to stop denying it.

Two unrelated visitors to my office served to remind me of the persistent and insidious effects of slavery and racism in America.

The first visit was from a Liberian national living in Montgomery County. Jimmy is the leader of a group of Liberians living in Maryland, and once a year they get together for a weekend of fellowship. He met with me to ask if those who wanted to could come together to worship with us that weekend.

I told him that no one needed permission to attend our worship services, but, yes, we would welcome them. (If I had my way people would need permission to miss our worship services, but….)

Then he told me their story. He is from a village in Liberia that was formed by former slaves brought to the United States from Africa.

In the 19th Century, whites on both sides of the slavery issue supported the repatriation of freed slaves to Africa. The only thing that united them was the belief that freed slaves would never be able to assimilate into white culture. Thus the country of Liberia was formed.

There were already, however, indigenous people in that area who resisted these immigrants and their new government; remember, most if not all of these former slaves were generations removed from Africa.

Tensions sometimes broke into violence, and violence tends to exacerbate and deepen tensions. In 1980 the government was overthrown, and a number of descendants of former American slaves came back to the U.S.

Jimmy and his group are among them.

The politics of this are largely unfamiliar to me and I’m not trying to involve myself in them. I am struck, however, that the effects of slavery in America continue to have a profound impact still today, both here and in Africa.

The second visitor was a woman who came to talk with me about a local drug rehabilitation center so that I might be aware of this resource when I come across people needing help.

She specifically mentioned the problem of heroin addiction and overdoses that is growing in many counties in Maryland. I’m not unaware of the problem, and I’m told that in many ways it is stemming from the addiction and abuse of oxycodone.

This drug is very expensive on the street, and many addicts turn to heroin, which has a similar effect and is much cheaper.

Growing up in the 60’s I heard a lot about heroin. In 1970 singer Janice Joplin died of a heroin overdose and several months later Jim Morrison of the Doors died of a suspected heroin overdose.

After a while, however, you didn’t hear much about it. Our focus turned to other drugs like cocaine and crystal meth. People are now talking about the return of heroin, which is deceiving.

It never really went away; the literature my visitor gave me showed that it has continued to be a problem in urban areas, where of course there are heavy populations of African Americans. It wasn’t a white problem, so weren’t alarmed.

Now that it’s made its way out to where we live it’s gotten our attention.

It’s a problem “again.”

I realize that for most of us this is simply a matter that for the longest time none of us knew anyone affected by heroin addiction, and now more and more of us do, so this isn’t racist in intent.

Racism, however, isn’t just about intent. Sometimes our actions and attitudes can be racist in effect even when we don’t intend them to be.

Even when we would be appalled to think that they are.

(Some call this racialization as opposed to racism, when something that isn’t intended to be racist still has negative racial effects.)

When something is a problem only when it starts affecting white people, that’s a problem, even when that’s not our intent.

We don’t live in a post-racial society, as these and so many other events in the last few years have shown.

And it’s not restricted to our culture and our nation. This is a problem around the world, and has been for a long time.

The Jew/Gentile divide we see in the New Testament was not primarily a religious divide, although it certainly was that. It was an ethnic divide full of fear, prejudice, and hate.

Both Jesus and Paul struggled against it.

That it still persists today means that Christians must continue to struggle against it as well.

Image by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / pontuse

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