Events of recent weeks have generated a great deal of discussion about racism in America. Some have opined that racism isn’t really a part of American life anymore, and that claims of racism as a factor in a given circumstance are nothing more than attempts to use an emotionally charged term to cover over something else. A number of (white) pundits were highly critical of President Obama’s statement this past Friday about the George Zimmerman verdict and racial issues in America, complaining that racism had nothing to do with the Zimmerman case, that racism is on the decline in America, or referring to him as “Racist in Chief” and complaining that he was attempting to foment racism and further divide the country with his remarks. Some pointed to the fact that Obama is the President as evidence that racism was no longer a factor in American life.
While I have no doubt that racism continues to cast a shadow across the American landscape, I don’t really have any interest in taking up the arguments about whether racism was a factor in the Zimmerman verdict, or the degree to which racism is a factor in any other circumstance where it may be alleged. But I would like to explore a bit about who should get to say whether racism is a reality or not.
If we who are Christian think about our sacred texts, we find that very often, God appears in those texts as having a special concern with the minority or the marginalized. It is, in fact, a rather powerful theme that runs through the Bible, weaving its way through both the Old and New Testaments. The story that became the foundational story for the Jewish people is, after all, a story about a people who had been enslaved by a more powerful race, and due to their suffering, became the focus of a divinely initiated act of liberation. The Jewish law was careful to make provision for the poor and disadvantaged, even if the people of Israel did not always live up to that ideal. And when they did not, prophets arose to remind them of their obligations to those who were not empowered. In the New Testament, Jesus focuses much of his ministry on those who were marginalized and discriminated against by their society. God appears in much of the biblical tradition as the One who champions the disempowered, and who calls on those who are empowered to look upon the disadvantaged with compassion and to act in ways that transform society so that the disadvantaged might find justice.
What emerges across the biblical literature is an important truth: that God speaks for the disadvantaged, the minority, because those in power are unable or unwilling to do so, and because those in power are unable or unwilling to see the true condition of the marginalized. And that is the way it most often is with those who are privileged, who are empowered and advantaged (which includes me): we do not see the true condition of the disempowered, either because we somehow are unable to do so or because we do not wish to. And so, in today’s America, we come to a place where various (mostly white) pundits, anointed by the media as having some sort of wisdom, parade across our TV and computer screens debating the reality of racism in America.
In my humble opinion, they would do well to be quiet. Because the only people who are really qualified to speak about the continuing reality of racism in America are those who experience it. Those of us who belong to the empowered class, who have never experienced a moment of racial discrimination in our lives, can’t get beyond an abstract and theoretical discussion. We do not know what it is like to be part of a racial minority in this country. We cannot get inside that experience. We cannot know the world from their point of view.
But, we can learn from them. We can listen to their experience, and instead of judging it or reinterpreting it or somehow discounting it, we can receive it as an authentic testimony about what their lives are like. Those of us who seek to be followers of Jesus have a sacred obligation to do just that, as the biblical tradition in general and the Christian tradition in particular makes abundantly clear. If God seeks to give a voice to the disempowered, then we have an obligation to listen to that voice. And it is the voice of the disempowered that will tell us about the realities of racism in America. Not the voices of the empowered class who have never experienced it.