One cold January morning in 1979 or 1980, during a Jan-term at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS), I walked into a classroom and was greeted by a tall, lanky, African-American man in his late 50’s. During that month I was taking a course on racism with Dr. James Tillman and his wife, Mary Norman Tillman. In preparation for the course I had read Dr. Tillman’s book, Why America Needs Racism and Poverty: An Examination of the Exclusivity Compulsion in American Race and Poverty Relations. Two years earlier I came to GCTS after working for three years in a low income, racially-mixed neighborhood of Boston (MA) called Jamaica Plain. Though GCTS was located on the wealthy north shore of Boston, I was still living and working in Jamaica Plain.  I had been intimately involved with poor Black, Puerto Rican, and White kids struggling to make ends meet and make sense of their lives in that under-resourced neighborhood. I thought I had learned a thing or two about racism and poverty. However, it had never occurred to me that the system and institutions of our city and nation were designed to keep poor whites and people of color in a place of marginalization and disenfranchisement. I had not considered that the very stability of the middle class required an impoverished and racially segregated population.

 Dr. Tillman and his book convinced me otherwise.

In the introduction Tillman poses what he calls a “very fundamental question” that formed the basis of the book: Do majority group Americans [read middle and upper middle class Whites], when given an opportunity, reject race and/or economic position as a critical and crucial criteria for differentiation and exclusivity on a group basis?” The answer to that question is a resounding NO, and for the next 275 pages he goes onto show how that is so.  His essential point, made by use of numerous examples from his extensive career as a “diversity consultant,” was that the systems that govern our lives in US society are designed to keep poor people and people of color in a position where they cannot improve their lot, so that middle and upper-class whites can reap the benefits of the society including education, housing, healthcare and much more. Since the 1970’s the depth of research and analysis has gone way beyond Tillman’s work( See note 1), but it was Dr. Tillman that first introduced me to that reality.

Perhaps most compelling for me was what he wrote about my hometown of Minneapolis, MN. I grew up in what I considered to be an open and friendly typical Midwestern community. So I was stunned when he described Minneapolis as the most racist place he had worked. Beneath the veneer of Minnesota “niceness,” he found White people worked deliberately and tirelessly to keep Black folks moving into predominantly white neighborhoods. I grew up in such an all-White community, and learned recently that my suburb had specific exclusions directed at Jews and Blacks. I had no idea such exclusions were in place. I had been totally oblivious and thought we were just all nice, kind white people who accepted everyone. Not so.

Tillman characterizes this compulsion to exclude poor whites and people of color as a mental illness. Essentially his argument goes as follows: Whites need to feel superior to Blacks and thus exclude them from their economic, educational and social circles in order to feel good about themselves. Conversely, some Blacks seek to “act White” so as to become acceptable to Whites, and thus deny their own identity and history. Both dimensions are a sign of what Tillman calls mental illness. If one group needs to keep another down to feel good about themselves, or if a group tries to become something they aren’t, they are suffering from a serious emotional and mental sickness.  As you can imagine, both the Whites and Blacks in the course were challenged by his analysis and caused to look at themselves and the choices they had made.  Dr. Tillman had a deep voice and a long finger, which he would point when he was making an important claim followed by “DO YOU DOUBT IT?” None of us dared to.

Even more compelling than the book was Dr. Tillman and Mrs. Tillman themselves. Mrs. Tillman handled many of the logistical aspects of the course and read all our papers, while Dr. Tillman handled the classroom presentations. They were a team. Dr. Tillman told us his story of growing up in the Black community of Atlanta and being denied admittance to the University of Georgia. Instead, the state of Georgia paid his was to go to Syracuse University in New York. The state government of Georgia both encouraged and facilitated educationally aspiring African Americans to  “go North” and away from the segregated South. He also talked about growing up in a segregated community around Black people of all professions and educational levels. While he had many criticisms of Jim Crow segregation, he noted that it gave him role models of how he, as a young black man, could be to be an educated professional.

Dr.  and Mrs. Tillman returned to GCTS in May of that same year to run the class again. My fiancé, now wife, Cynthia took the course, as did several friends to whom I recommended it. But later that year Dr. Tillman had a heart attack and died. Ours were some of the last racism seminars he taught in his illustrious career. Mary carried on the work for a few years, but she and the world lost an amazing clear thinking prophet when her husband passed away.

I am so thankful I had the opportunity to learn from Dr. James and Mrs. Mary Tillman. They opened my mind to a new way of understanding racism. Up to that point I thought all we needed to do is get people of different races together and teach them how to get along, and all would be well.They helped me see that unless I was committed to actually change the institutions, laws, and policies that guide and direct this nation, we would always live in a racist society. Dr. Tillman helped me see that there is a sickness at the heart of our nation that has yet to be addressed, much less eradicated. As he pointed out, just as a person can’t get well unless they choose to work on changing the habits that led to their illness, so too a nation must be intentional in addressing racism at his many levels if we are ever to overcome the legacy of our racist past. 

Do I doubt it? I used to, but I don’t doubt the truth of that challenge now. It continues to shape my thinking and action to this day.


Note 1 – The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander ( Criminal Justice); The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (Law); Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney Lopez (Politics), Reproduciing Racism by Daria Roithmayr (Housing) and Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol (Education)