Over the past month, I have been doing research and reading in preparation for a course I will be teaching in the fall on Race and Ethnic Relations. The purpose of the course is to provide an overview from both an historical and sociological perspective on the impact that racism and ethnic discrimination have had on contemporary North American society. In reading the history of racism (at least as it originated in Europe) it seems clear that the rise of racial discrimination coincided with the rise of capitalism and the expansion of Christianity into the “new world.” Racial superiority was used as a justification for many historical atrocities, starting with the persecution of Jews in Europe to the conquest of peoples in North and South America to the enslavement of black Africans. Often these actions were further justified by an appeal to expand the reach of European commerce, and a call to spread the gospel. This mixing of capitalism and mission led to the notion of “Christendom” the idea of a fully Christian society. Yet, by design this Christendom was only good for those who happen to be European and Christian.
Even those groups that escaped to North America because of religious persecution, such as the Puritans, often regarded the peoples they encountered there as “infidels” who needed to be eliminated or removed. As the new nation that became the United States continued to grow, that growth was most often achieved through exploitation of non-“white” groups: Native Americans, black slaves, Chinese railroad workers, Mexican farm workers, Irish refugees, East European coal workers and so on. While the motive might have been industrial expansion and economic greed, Christianity often was invoked to rationalize the exploitation by asserting that whites were genetically and socially superior to other racial and ethnic groups, and therefore they had the right to control and exploit the “others.” In recent decades various civil rights movements and a more critical perspective on history have revealed the immorality and injustice embedded in that rationale; even so the effects of that history are still evident today in the wide socioeconomic disparities between most whites and most people of color.
As a white middle class American, I am a beneficiary of this history. I come from a family of business people and professionals who originally came to this country largely from England, Scotland and Germany. I am also a Christian, having been raised in a Congregational Church that saw its historical connection to the Pilgrims and the Puritans. While I find little evidence that my ancestors owned slaves, we were part of the Western expansion that eliminated the Native Americans. Furthermore, historians widely acknowledge that the industrial expansion of the mid 1800’s in the North was directly tied to the slave trade in the South, and exploitation of immigrant workers in the urban centers. So in part my ancestry and historical identity have been built on this history of exploitation and degradation of the “other.”
At the same time I have come to realize that my history is intricately intertwined with those who have been oppressed. There was an African American news commentator I used to watch who had the last name of Boyd, who I kiddingly referred to as my long lost cousin. Obviously, his ancestors inherited that Scottish surname from a slave master and not from their African ancestors. We bear the same name because our histories are somehow linked.
Even more, our futures are intertwined. Increasingly, I find that in working for racial and economic justice, I must come to grips with the sordid history that has so long been glossed over and ignored. There is no way that history can be “redeemed” or rectified or explained away, but it can be named and acknowledged. The purpose of acknowledging the history is not to stir up guilt, as much as it is to recognize my indebtedness to those who suffered injustice. As I come to greater awareness, I become responsible to do what I can to make things right by redirecting resources, seeking to change laws, and working for policies that level the playing field for all people. On a personal level it also means opening myself to learn from others whose ancestors may have been exploited by mine and to gain a deeper appreciation for the durability of the human spirit and the ability of the power of God to help people overcome even the most oppressive circumstances.
I can not undo what has been done, but I can work to make sure injustice and racism do not continue, and I can learn. Moreover, I see that my future, and the future of my children and our society in general, is tied to our ability to rectify past and current injustices, and build a society built on respect and equity rather than exploitation.
The entry just before this one, “Only the Black Keys,” tells the story behind the melody of “Amazing Grace.” As Wintley Phipps explains in that video, the melody of Amazing Grace was a slave tune that John Newton, the converted slave ship captain, heard the slaves below deck singing as he transported them across the Atlantic Ocean. Just as English words and an African melody combined to create one of the most enduring hymns of our time, so too the histories of people of color and whites are intricately woven together. If people of color play the black keys, and whites play the white keys, perhaps together we can put together a melody that honors both and slights none. That at least is my dream.