Community / Culture / Pluralistic World / Spirituality
Race in America: A Conversation
Reading the World—interview of Luke Bobo on Race in America
“To love your neighbor as yourself,” Christopher Wright says in The Mission of God, “is not just the second great commandment in the law; it is the essential implication of our common createdness” (p. 424). There are no exceptions, though our brokenness finds plenty of rationalizations to excuse our wickedness when we see and treat another person bearing God’s image as “other,” or remain silent when others do.
Even if we want to do the right thing this responsibility for righteousness and justice is daunting. We ask the same question the man wanting to “justify himself” asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) Surely, we can ignore some injustice, some expressions of racism because in these cases they aren’t really my neighbor. In response Jesus told a story of a mugging and three individuals who could have done something though only one did, and then turned the man’s question around. Which of them, he asked the man, “proved to be a neighbor?” (10:36) And in Jesus’s story none of the three lived anywhere near or were personally acquainted or were in the same social circles as the man who was mugged.
America has great and noble legacy; it has also been guilty of great and ignoble sins, one of the most horrible of which is slavery. It should not surprise anyone that outlawing slavery does not eradicate racism. The Christian perspective on sin says things are messier than anything the law can solve, that the evil of racism is spawned in our selfish hearts, embedded in unjust social structures, and fomented by spiritual powers. If we pray, as Jesus taught that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” then we will need to think and live Christianly in an America being torn apart by racism.
What does it mean to be a Christian neighbor when racism haunts the fabric of American life and society? What must I come to see, to understand, and ultimately to do?
I can think of few better people to ask than my friend, Dr. Luke Bobo.
Denis Haack: Luke, in Critique 2015:2, you and Greg Pitchford had a conversation on race prompted by the tragedy that unfolded in Ferguson, MO—a place not far from where the two of you lived. Time has passed, sermons have been preached, commentators have commented, investigations have issued reports, trials have been conducted, and politicians have made promises. But have race relations improved in America since that fateful date, August 9, 2014 when Michael Brown was killed?
Luke Bobo: Denis, some days, I want to ask, ‘what do we mean by race relations?’ Some days, I would answer in the affirmative; some days I really wonder and on these days, I really want to curse and holler! Since the turbulent 1960s, race relations have certainly improved—no one can deny that good news; however, ongoing events seem to suggest that bettering race relations have either stalled or regressed.
Consider this evidence. First, think of the horrific and painful events of Charlottesville, VA, August 18-19, 2017. Once upon a time groups like white nationalists and neo-Nazis secretly hid their identity; however, Charlottesville has shown us that some whites can be quite brazenly and unashamedly racist. Second, think about the research of Marianne Betrand and Sendhil Mullainathan. They found a relationship between a person’s name and their employability. For instance, in cities like Chicago and Boston, they found that if an applicant had a Black sounding name, he or she were less likely to be called in for an interview. Ironically, I have taught young people with names such as Lakisha, Devontre, Sharniqua, Jamal and others who were quite bright but sadly their birth names might prevent them the opportunity to showcase their skills and brilliance for an employer.
In general, I think white and black Americans are cordial and civil with each other in public, in our cities and in our workplaces; but if something or someone agitates ‘the pot’ or the status quo, evidences of racism seem to quickly bubble to the surface. For example, in “The Making of Ferguson,” (online at www.epi.org) Richard Rothstein says that Ferguson was 20 years in the making. The killing of Michael Brown was the trigger for what was stirring beneath the surface to erupt like a volcano. Race relations seem to be quite tenuous at best at this moment in history in America.
DH: I hear white Americans in the north (where I live) say, Southern slavery was inexcusable and evil, but enshrined in the Declaration of Independence was a notion of equality informed by the biblical belief that people are made in God’s image. We fought a war over slavery and ended it. Civil rights have been extended to all, and now there are blacks that have risen to the highest reaches of societal power, education, wealth and prestige.
But in Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates dashes that whole way of telling the story: “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.” Is Coates correct? Do we need to tell the story of America differently?
LB: Sure, we need to ‘tell the story of America differently.’ Why? Because the dominant story that is usually told is predominantly a white America story.
I was honored to teach a worldview and ethics class to 90+ Campus Crusade staffers in Fort Collins, CO over a 2-week stretch this summer. We discussed ethical issues such as abortion, surrogacy, selling one’s eggs and sperm, immigration, and of course, racism, white supremacy and our racialized society. The class was predominantly white. When I discussed race, racism and our racialized society, most of these students had not heard of the famous Black and White Doll Test conducted by Drs. Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark in the 1940s, of Emmett Till, of the Tulsa Riot of 1921, of the horrific and inhumane conditions of the Middle Passage, of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, of the forced sterilization of Blacks and other ‘misfits’ to advance the eugenics agenda of making this country the home of a superior race. For more on this see Edwin Black’s voluminous book, War Against the Weak (2003).
I wonder if the readers of Critique have heard of such things?
Perhaps, Coates is getting at this—we must teach a comprehensive and complete story of America and not just White America History. We should demand and require our educators (and this includes parents—a child’s first teacher) to teach Black history, Native American history, Hispanic history as all of these belong to American history and to the story of America.
DH: “Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail,” Coates writes. “This should disgrace the country. But it does not.” I hear whites wondering why they should assume a sense of disgrace over what other people make of their lives. Does not each individual make choices for which they must be alone responsible?
LB: Of course, white, black, Hispanic individuals should bear the burden for their good and ill choices. Absolutely no one is asking anyone to be absolved of the consequences resulting from stupid mistakes. So, whites should not assume a sense of disgrace or personal culpability over such things. Yet, as those called by God to love their neighbors as themselves, we must not stop there—that would be disgraceful! Rather, we must lament this awful phenomenon and ask that most penetrating question, why? Why do a fully 60 percent of all young black men drop out of high school and go to jail?
Specifically, according to Brian Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative, “1 out of 3 African-American men, ages 18 to 30, are in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole.” (Listen to Stevenson’s TED talk given March 2012. It is still one of the most listened to TED talks of all time.) Statistics like this should burden all Christians enough to ask why—isn’t this what it means to be our brother’s or sister’s keeper? John Stott says in Radical Disciple that there should be a “mutual burdensomeness” (p. 110). Who or what forces a young black man to believe that his only option is to forgo getting a high school education? Could it be joblessness or little hope of being employed? I wonder if joblessness or faint hope of finding a job contributes to the high incarceration rates of African-American males. There is a cause and effect dynamic operating here. No one wakes up and says, “I am dropping out of school today.” There are visible and invisible causes at play. LeBron James and his wife, Savannah discovered that the “high school dropout rate was 24 percent” in Akron, OH. What he and his wife discovered was that such issues are not one-sided; rather, there are emotional, educational and even nutritional factors at play. “Food insecurity is common among Akron’s mostly impoverished community.” [Vogue, September 2017, p. 334.]
Many young African-American men are quite hopeless, especially those low on the socio-economic ladder. A young man in our church said to me, “I did not think I would live past 25 years of age” (he is now in his early 30s). There are many young African-Americans who are profoundly hopeless. Knowing such things should burden us. Could there be invisible forces oblivious to the white majority that moves a young man to resort to dropping out of high school?
Why should such things burden all Christians? Because God intended for all human beings to flourish (Genesis 1-2) and we are all human beings, created in God’s image, together. We are implicated in the need to seek the common good of others.
DH: I recently attended a workshop led by a black pastor from Chicago. He told how one day he was pulled over by the police and discovered he did not proof of insurance in his car’s glove box. So he appeared in traffic court on the day appointed. He watched as a succession of young black men stood before the judge when their names were called. Each was asked if they had insurance on the day the police stopped them. No, they said. The judge imposed a fine and called the next name. One name resulted in a young white man standing. “Did you have auto insurance on the day the police pulled you over,” the judge asked, and the young man said No. The judge turned to the district attorney and asked if there wasn’t something they could do for this young man. They dropped the charges. The next succession of names brought a succession of young black men none of whom had insurance, and of fines immediately imposed.
Luke, is this an anomaly, a case of one bad judge in an otherwise decent system, or what?
LB: Denis, I had to laugh to keep from crying after hearing your question! In general, Blacks have a disdain for and distrust of the American criminal justice system and this story you tell gives one of the reasons why.
I remember vividly an event that occurred while I was directing the Francis Schaeffer Institute (FSI) at Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis. We were planning an event involving a white police officer. He was being invited to share how he integrated his faith and his work on a daily basis. One of my interns who is white, whispered to me, “Luke, you might not know this but we consider police officers our friends.” Unbeknownst to me, I was communicating my negative bias against the men and women in blue.
This was partly because historically and experientially, Blacks and white police officers have not been bosom buddies. Think about the Civil Rights movement when white police officers hosed down Blacks and used attack dogs to fend them off; think about the acquittal of the white men who killed Emmett Till, a precocious fourteen-year-old who was visiting family in Mississippi in 1955. It was alleged that he flirted with a white woman and was later found dead at the bottom of a river. (Even more heartbreaking, Timothy B. Tyson writes in his landmark book, The Blood of Emmett Till, that the white woman fabricated the entire story!)
Fast-forward and think about the inhumane treatment of Rodney King and how he was savagely beaten by four white police officers—who were later acquitted. Illinois attorney, Scott Turow in his book, Ultimate Punishment, made this keen and disturbing observation while he was in the Illinois criminal justice system, “a white life is more important than a black life.”
African-Americans know this experientially. I have an African-American colleague in Kansas City, MO who said to a predominantly white audience two years ago that he stopped counting at 48—the number of times he has been pulled over by the police for no apparent reason or cause. Or read about Mr. Cotton, a Black man, who was falsely accused of rape by a white female in Picking Cotton. He was later exonerated and freed based on DNA evidence—after spending ten years in prison. One more story: My pastor hails from Texas. During his early days in Liberty, MO, he was pulled over by the police. When asked why he was pulled over, the police officer said, “Your Texas tags were crooked.” True story, I am not making this up.
I want your white readers to see why psychologists are now mentioning the word ‘trauma’ and the Black experience in the same sentence. Imagine these frequent, and sometimes, daily assaults on a person just because of his or her skin color. And even if it does not happen to me personally, I still feel and sense the experience. Recently I posted this on my Facebook page, “When I talk about race, racism and our ‘racialized society,’ I often mention trauma. Events like #charlottesville (and US Slavery, Jim Crow discrimination, Tulsa Riots (1921), redlining, lynchings, restrictive covenants, racial profiling, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, micro-aggressions, mass incarceration of Blacks, etc., etc.) explain why trauma is cited in the same sentence as race, racism and our racialized society.”
Taking your initial story along with these stories and the countless others I hear from African-Americans makes me cynical of our criminal justice system. I urge Critique readers to read Aaron Layton’s recent book, Dear White Christian: What Every White Christian Needs to Know about how Black Christians See, Think and Experience Racism in America. Please don’t hear what I am not saying: I am not saying all white police officers or judges are rogues; rather, I am saying the criminal justice system—from policing, to court proceedings, to sentencing—has not been fair to African-Americans overall.
DH: How do you as a black evangelical interpret the 2016 election? We learn from polls that white evangelical voters tended to vote overwhelmingly for Trump, as did those who believe in white supremacy—how is it possible that those two blocks of voters ended up supporting the same candidate?
LB: “how is possible?”—Now, that’s a great question! I think about the 2016 election often. I should say here as I start to answer this question that I hold firmly to the biblical and historic Christian faith, but I am not sure I want to be referred to as an ‘evangelical.’ I posted this article, “The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About the Alt-Right,” by Joe Carter on Facebook. In it, Carter answers some frequently asked questions, such as: What is the alt-right? Who is Richard Spencer? What is white identity? And why does the alt-right hate conservative Christians? I commend the article to you. You can find it on the website of The Gospel Coalition (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org).
However, relative to this article, I was struck by a white friend’s brutally honest commentary on white evangelicalism. He wrote, “When you read the comments to [Carter’s] article on TGC’s website, you realize that tons of its subscribers adhere to Alt-Right movements and think it’s unfair to say it’s not the gospel… that’s where the problem lies, deeper than what an article or some leaders can solve. White Evangelicalism in the US is deathly sick if not fundamentally broken and heretical. I say this as an Evangelical, of course.”
Is he perhaps right—is white evangelicalism in the United States deathly sick? Have white evangelicals, as he is suggesting, bowed the knee to a political party/identity and not God? I remember telling a group of college students years ago before a presidential election, “It would be irresponsible to vote following your parents’ voting pattern.” The point I was making was that we must do our homework to be discerning and then vote our conscience. I wonder if these 80% white evangelical Christians did their homework? I wonder if they practiced discernment as Ransom Fellowship teaches us to do so wonderfully. One of the damaging effects of the election is the smearing of the word, ‘evangelical.’ What does it mean today? It is worth mentioning that many of my African-American friends who are Christians do not refer to themselves as evangelicals because of the pre-/post-election results. And they raise their eyebrows of suspicion when a white Christian refers to himself as an evangelical Christian.
DH: In “Facing Our Legacy of Lynching: How a memorial could help lead America—and Christians—to repentance from a dark history,” in Christianity Today (September 2017), D. L. Mayfield points out that, “More than 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and the rise of the civil rights movement in the early 1950s.” How can white Christians be sensitive to such horror without surrendering all sense of pride in being American?
LB: Let me take a page from my training at Covenant Theological Seminary, specifically my apologetics and outreach class taught by Jerram Barrs. Professor Barrs taught us to affirm what is good about American culture; and also unabashedly decry its horrific past. What I find most often is the case with the majority culture is an emphasis on the first and a neglect of the second. In fact, what I find most often is that many whites are oblivious of America’s horrific past—the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Emmett Till, Jim Crow discrimination, the Middle Passage, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, lynching, and so on.
It is fine to be a proud American—I am a proud American—but it is also incumbent upon whites to know Black History as “Black History is American History” as the late and deeply beloved Covenant ethics professor, Dr. David Clyde Jones once said.
DH: I am a white evangelical believer. I am from Minnesota, a northern state that sent soldiers to fight in the Civil War. In fact, the First Minnesota Regiment that fought at Gettysburg suffered the highest rate of casualties in the Union Army. Yet, I obviously benefit from white privilege in our society, and bear responsibility for America’s past as a citizen. What do I do, practically, to be faithful to my Lord’s call to humility, repentance and reconciliation at this point in history?
LB: Like I said earlier, I was honored to teach a worldview and ethics class to 90+ Crusade staffers in Fort Collins, CO. And one of the Crusade directors reached out to me. In the post-Charlottesville reality, he asked what he should share with the students he will work with. This is what I sent him (with a few modifications):
- As believers, let’s celebrate the progress we have made in race relations.
- As believers, we should lament the evil personified in these white nationalists and supremacists. We should mourn for those imago Dei bearers killed—the young lady killed when the neo-Nazi drove into a crowd, the two officers killed in the helicopter crash, and we should pray for their respective families. We should mourn for those injured.
- As believers, God calls us to pray for both sides: the counter-protesters and the white nationalists and supremacists.
- As believers, God calls us to pray for our local, regional, national and international leaders—we should pray for Trump, Pence, police officers, etc. (see 1 Timothy 2). I pray for the US Supreme Court, men and women who sit in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- As believers, we need to ‘understand our times.’ Ignorance is not bliss; ignorance is ignorance and it is not helpful. We need to understand the racial history of this country. We need to know the history of this country—the good, the bad and the ugly. And we need to teach this history to our kids. I was delighted to know that a white Crusade student was reading the book Hidden Figures to her kids. We need to broaden our circle of friends (‘burst that echo chamber’). We need to befriend people who think, vote and look differently than us.
- As believers, we must love our neighbors as ourselves. This means fighting and decrying racial and ethnic injustices. God calls us to love neighbors in close proximity. Look around—who are you loving in your most immediate periphery?
- As believers, we should pray for our pastors who must stand in the pulpit and preach hope and condemn such evil. Our silence communicates too. We have a policy in our office: ‘silence means hearty agreement.’ We must pray that our pastors speak out against evil, injustices, etc. when they occur. Recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
- As believers, we need to live by the moral mandates of Scripture and the gospel. The gospel demands us to cross all types of boundaries as the gospel intrinsically has a cross-cultural impulse/focus. We need to break from our ‘echo chambers’ and really get to know our neighbor. For instance, I told the predominantly white audience in Fort Collins these insights about African-Americans: (a) We are like a tribal people—when something honorable happens to a fellow African-American, vicariously, we are all honored. Similarly, when something dishonorable happens to a fellow African-American, we feel that pain too. This can also backfire: for example, my daughter was criticized for talking white by her urban sisters who were bused out to their suburban white high school. The expectation here is that all African-Americans should talk similarly. (b) We don’t see one event in isolation. Rather, we see and interpret an event like Charlottesville within the entire scope of the racial and historical narrative in America. And (c) most African-Americans know that the white life experience is normative in America. That is to say, if a white person did not experience an event, then that event did not occur and/or it is declared to be incredulous.
- As believers, we need to use social media winsomely, graciously and wisely. We should engage our mind and heart when using social media. We need to be careful that we are not inadvertently adding to the hateful rhetoric or stirring the pot. Social media can be used for good; we need to ask God for discernment to use it redemptively.
- As believers, we should pray for the church to be the church of Jesus Christ. We dare not put our complete trust in the government (although it certainly has a role to play); rather, this is the moment when the spotlight is on the church to be an exhibition of a new redeemed society.
- As believers, once we see and hear something that is amiss, we are implicated; and once implicated we must act for the sake of human flourishing. For more on the notion of being implicated see “Come and See” in Steve Garber’s fine book, Visions of Vocation (2014).
I recently began reading Brian Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. He grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement in Delaware. He recounts his grandmother saying this to him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” I wonder if in our efforts to be safe and distant from the other, the unknown that we have added to the fear mongering, indifference and the stalling of bettering race relations in America. I wonder if retreating to our “echo chambers” or “ghettos” reinforces our implicit and external biases toward the other? [For more on this see Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (2009)] I wonder if intentional proximity to the other will help us? I wonder if our lack of proximity explains why, in Christopher Ingraham’s words, “Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends”? [Washington Post, August 2014]
I wonder if Christians really know the Scriptures? Because to know the Scriptures is to do the Scriptures. I wonder if Christians really love God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind, and with all their strength. Because to love God is to do His commands.
I believe the church, as a redeemed society is God’s major player in bettering race relations in America. I remain hopeful that the church will lead the way in race relations and reconciliation.
DH: What is the single best book or two on the market that you would recommend I read to be better able to think through the crisis of racial inequality in America today? And are there some more you’d say I should go on to read as well? And what about some movies to watch?
LB: I would suggest you read these four first:
Emerson, M., & Smith, C. (2000). Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
King, Jr., Martin Luther (1986). “Letter from the Birmingham Jail (1963).” In James M. Washington (Ed.), The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., pp. 289-302. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Layton, Aaron. (2017). Dear White Christian: What Every White Christian Needs to Know About How Black Christians See, Think and Experience Racism in America. PCA Committee on Discipleship Ministries.
Rankine, Claudia. (2014). Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press.
And then go on to deepen your understanding with these:
Adiche, Chimamanda Ngozi (2013). Americanah. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Alexander, Michelle (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.
Angelou, Maya (1981). The Heart of a Woman. New York, NY: Random House.
Biss, E. (2009). Notes from No Man’s Land. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press
Black, E. (2003). War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York, NY: Four Walls Eight Windows.
Bordewich, Fergus M. (2005). Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. New York, NY: Amistad (HarperCollins).
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1994). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover.
Hirsch, James (2002). Riot and Remembrance: America’s Worst Race Riot and Its Legacy. New York, NY: Houghton.
Jones, James H. (1993). Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. New York: Free.
King, Jr., Martin Luther (1968; renewed 1986). Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
McCall, Nathan (1994). Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America. New York: Random House.
McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School, 49, 31.
McWhorter, John H (2000). Losing the Race: Self-sabotage in Black America. New York: Free.
Skloot, Rebecca (2011). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.
Steele, Shelby (1998). The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. New York: HarperPerennial.
Williams, Juan (1987). Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York, NY: Viking.
And here are a few films that would suggest viewing with a mixed audience in order to deepen the discussion to follow:
Guess Who is Coming to Dinner (1967)
Watermelon Man (1970)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
A Family Thing (1996)
The Grace Card (2010)
The Help (2011)
Red Tails (2012)
The Butler (2013)
Get Out (2017)