One of the challenges I have faced in addressing the topic of race issues is in helping my white brothers and sisters understand that what we call systemic racism or institutional racism is quite real and ingrained in our society. We have difficulty understanding it because in our minds, the black person’s world has improved greatly in recent history. Of course, this is true for many African Americans, but not for the majority. And, the improvement is not nearly as significant as we might think when all factors are considered.
Most of us white folks live in an insulated world when it comes to race. Our black brothers and sisters are well aware of this fact, but they attribute it to ignorance on our parts and not racism. The difficulty lies in understanding that while we are not racist personally, we still live in a systemic racist society without realizing it. We cannot understand and support our brothers and sisters of a different color until we grasp this fact more fully, and God knows we need help in really understanding it. I believe this blog article will do much to promote that needed comprehension.
Let Tony Chukes Speak!
This article was written by one of my blog advisers and longtime friend, Tony Chukes, whose comments were included in the “Coming to Terms with Terms” article recently. As I explained then, Tony served on the ministry staff of three different congregations for a total of 17 years. He is a member of the Denver church and also a member of their racial diversity group. I love Tony for many reasons, one of which is that he is built like me in that he is going to say what he thinks and not let fear stop him. I am posting this article because it explains through a unique analogy how a systemic racism has left such a strong influence in our society even though slavery days are long past. I think Tony’s article can help us all. What follows is his writing. Read, contemplate and learn!
We Do Need to Talk
Should disciples talk about slavery in America? Does it still have an impact on what goes on in the church today? I think we should and it does. If we are going to be the unified and diverse family that God wants us to be, we need to talk about the things of the past that Satan can still use to affect us and divide us today. I am not a prophet or a great writer. I wouldn’t consider myself a historian, although I do love history and study it nearly as intently as I study the Scriptures.
What I am, is a man with a vision. I believe with all my heart that the International Churches of Christ can be a shining light to the nations for all to emulate. I’ve seen great hearts grow and change by white ministry leaders, staff members, and average members throughout our church family. These are difficult times and they demand much communication and introspection. Blacks are not off the hook in this situation. As a black man, I have my areas in which I need growth and help. I will return to that at the end of this article.
Only in Christ is there hope for reconciling the race issue. Too many churches in the world are sadly filled with one predominant racial group. They have disqualified themselves from this opportunity to bring glory to God. We have the opportunity and the template because most of our churches in the United States have a good, healthy racial mix, but that is not enough. We must have the tough conversations. We need to get out of our comfort zones and become the body that Paul calls us to be and the one Jesus died to set free.
How Early US History Still Affects Us
My goal in writing this article is to educate black and white people alike about the devastating effects slavery has had, and continues to have, on black people. Slavery continues to be taught from a linear perspective, meaning it happened, we fixed it, and let’s move on. The problem with this way of thinking is it dismisses the systemic effects of slavery. Many of us are not willing to talk about slavery because it ended over 150 years ago.
If I have knee replacement surgery today, that will affect me for the rest of my life. I will have to constantly work around that new reality. The effects of slavery and subsequent history doesn’t just go away because the institution itself is long gone. America’s racist history sends many of us scurrying like mice when you turn on the lights. But let’s focus on a sub-topic we should all be able to acknowledge and discuss: The ramifications of American slavery continue to be felt by both blacks and whites today. This article will explore those effects in what I believe is both a unique and helpful way.
A Game of Monopoly and Racism
Most of us have played the game of Monopoly. The starting premise is that each player has an equal share of money and can obtain property to produce wealth. Let’s examine the 150-year period from the Emancipation Proclamation (1865) to the present and compare it to a Monopoly game. Since the average monopoly game is about 3 hours, we’ll use that time frame as a proxy to proportionately plot black history. Each period of fifty years will represent one hour of the game. Thus, 1865-1915 is Hour 1, 1915-1965 is Hour 2, and the Final Hour is 1965-2015.
Hour One: Not a Level Playing Field
At the beginning of Hour One, it appears black people are going to be given a level playing field. Optimistic people of all races will point to Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the dream of American liberty for all, which downplays 200 years of slavery in the Americas. The level playing field that some might imagine existed in 1865 following the Civil War never existed.
The Slave Codes of 1705 called for treating blacks as property, disallowed them from reading and writing, made it illegal to defend themselves, and other measures all combined to dehumanize black Americans and separate them from the freedoms enjoyed by others, even other non-white groups. Blacks often faced grave danger for simply looking a white person in the eye. This all codified a human pecking order with whites on top, blacks on bottom, producing a struggle to free ourselves from this to this very day. The mindset of those codes and that pecking order did not disappear simply because the last rifle was laid down at the end of the Civil War.
The institutions of slavery even caused fierce division between darker-skinned blacks and their lighter-skinned brothers and sisters. That division spread to pit House Negro against Field Negro, young against old, male against female, and even slave against free blacks.
Still Not in the Game
In Hour One, on the eve of the Civil War, there were 4.5 million black people in America, but only 275,000 were free. Blacks owned ½ of one percent of this country’s wealth and represented 51% of the prisoners in jail, statistics that have remained much the same as recently as 2010. What does this all mean? It means that for Hour One of our game, blacks were not even allowed on the board.
Anybody who has played Monopoly knows how important the start of the game is in establishing the foundation of wealth. Buying that first property, interacting with and learning strategy from other players, and generally understanding what the game has to offer – all of these opportunities were denied the black man in Hour One. Could you, in good conscience, start a game of Monopoly, bar one player from participating in the first hour, and then claim that he or she had a fair chance to win the game as they began to play at the onset of hour two? Would that hour of inactivity continue to have an impact for the rest of the game? An obvious answer, right?
Continuing the First Hour
Following emancipation, the U.S. government occupied the South for twelve years. We call this period Reconstruction. Early in the period, General William T. Sherman issued Field Order #15, which allowed 40,000 blacks to receive 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Georgia? What irony! This state of Georgia was created to stop blacks from escaping to Florida, which at the time was Spanish-owned and offered freedom to blacks who made it there. Sherman’s order represented a new beginning. After hundreds of years of slavery, it looked like redemption had come for the black man. The South appeared to be a place where former slaves would now own the very land they once worked for free.
However, within eight months, Andrew Johnson succeeded in reversing the order and those 400,000 acres reverted to the same men who previously owned the land. The blood, sweat, and tears that had fertilized a Southern aristocracy now turned from the sweet smell of victory to the stench of death. It would be like allowing a player to start the Monopoly game one half hour in, giving them “St. Charles Place” as a starting property, but then taking it away before their first roll of the dice and telling them that wouldn’t be able to leave “Go” just yet. Despite this devastating blow, there were some gains for blacks. They amassed some 2,600 political leaders in roles, with some ascending to the U.S. Senate during the years of Reconstruction. However, those political leaders were removed over a short course of time and not seen again in those numbers for another 100 years.
Ironically, in the recent Academy Awards ceremony, “La La Land” was initially announced as receiving the award for best movie, only to be quickly replaced by “Moonlight” when the mistake was discovered. Since La La Land had white stars and Moonlight had black ones, it represented a type of reversal of fortune compared to the racial history we are discussing. While the mix-up in the movie award presentation was certainly embarrassing, the reversal of real fortune produced by Andrew Johnson was devastating.
Thirteenth Amendment and Illusion
Reconstruction ended in 1877, and things reverted to the way they were. Well, not exactly the way they were because now we had the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Slavery was now illegal. Or was it? The 13th Amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Let me elucidate the meaning of the few seemingly innocuous words “except as a punishment for crime.” This allowed states, counties, cities, and towns to make up whatever vagrancy laws they desired to enact in order to arrest any black person that could not prove he had a job. Once arrested, a black person had no rights, and was simply convicted and incarcerated. When in jail, he became free labor for the highest bidders.
It’s easy to see that neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the 13th Amendment completely freed the slaves anywhere the people had a mind to maintain the effects of slavery. Even in the game of Monopoly, it’s possible to obtain a “Get Out of Jail Free” card or pay a fine to go free. No such loophole existed for the black man, who was called free by law but provided with no tools to earn a living. In addition to that, a mindset spread around the country that equated being black with being a criminal. This is a mindset that is about as difficult to root out as it is to pull a California Redwood out with your bare hands.
Another Form of Captivity
The only choices for many blacks in the South during this post-war era were to work for menial wages, beg, or steal from white men who resented their freedom and looked for opportunities to limit or revoke it. The latter choice of theft could cost one his life, and often did. Faced with these meager choices, many blacks became a part of a new economic system called sharecropping. This meant that whites still owned the land but blacks worked the land. The whites maintained their wealth and power from the profits, while blacks continued to do much of the hard work and received very little for their efforts. While some obtained small farms of their own, the majority of blacks were entombed in a prison of debt that buried their hopes and aspirations of freedom.
We have just completed Hour One of our hypothetical game. Black people were exploited by some to create the American dream for others, but were they denied that same dream. Slaves were the capital in capitalism. They were the coal that fueled the Wall Street engine. But while they were on the Monopoly board, they were stuck on “Go.” All the other groups were making their way around the board at different speeds accumulating wealth, and establishing a legacy for their future families and relatives. May it never be said that blacks were the only hardworking people whose sweat formed this country. Many immigrant peoples worked hard for little wages in terrible conditions as well. However, blacks were the only ones who toiled for generations with no choice and no earnings. The only friend he had on the board was Chance or Community Chest.
Hour Two of our Game Begins
Hour Two begins with WWI. Under the leadership of W.E.B Dubois, black men were taught that whites would accept them and grant them full citizenship if they fought in the war. They believed that and returned from the war holding on to those expectations. Well, that strategy brought about riots and the KKK expressing the vile sentiment shared by many at the time, that “You may have fought for America but you’re still N……s.” As we approach the halfway point of our hypothetical game, we hit the Great Depression. Our country created great programs to help 15 million people return to work, but only a small percentage of those were blacks.
To placate the South, which was still bitter about the ending of its economic engine after the Civil War, unemployment insurance was not extended to domestic workers and farm workers. These jobs were mostly held by blacks and most black households relied on these sources of income in the 1930’s. In addition to the lack of income security, lynchings were rampant during this decade. So called “festival lynchings” were scheduled for communities to observe and celebrate, with body parts being offered for sale after the event. These tragic acts of violence became so commonplace that songstress Billie Holiday hauntingly sang about the “strange fruit” hanging from southern trees.
As we move into the 1940’s, WWII brought another harsh reality. Blacks fought for the country as patriotically as any other Americans but were allowed to only fraternize with and fight alongside other blacks. After proving loyalty to a country by volunteering their lives, blacks still were not trusted to fight alongside their white brothers and were treated as second-class citizens. The growing frustration with this treatment and the ongoing inferior treatment by whites in general led to the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s.
The Civil Rights Movement and Integration
We tend to venerate this period of history, but I would like to offer a different perspective. Almost ninety years after the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks were still fighting for the fundamental rights that white immigrants got as soon as they crossed Ellis Island. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education was supposed to provide equality through integration. But more than 60 years after this landmark decision, much of the South remains segregated as many white people have simply moved away from blacks and send their children to private schools to avoid integrating. Poor whites were left behind to integrate, while most whites with money avoided it altogether.
Even today, the state of Mississippi often buries blacks and whites in separate cemeteries. College football fans should pay close attention to the next Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, or Florida game. You’ll notice the stands are filled with white people with perhaps a few blacks sprinkled through the crowd. And what about the coaches? Blacks play and bring in millions for these educational institutions, but blacks remain far under-represented at the highest levels. These football games don’t necessarily demonstrate overt racism, but they are microcosms of the continuing effect of past inequities. From the black perspective, this all seems to parallel the same old situation of blacks laboring to create white wealth and power.
This may surprise you, but some blacks believe integration was the worst thing for the American Negro. “As a black person integration makes you a guest, devoids you of wealth, and destroys your community,” says Dr. Claude Anderson, founder of the Harvest Institute and award winning writer. From the black perspective, integration was never something most whites entertained for the sake of social harmony. It was only tolerated to placate social pressure or as a means of making money.
I’m not saying that integration has no positive effect, but we are speaking of its genesis. Plantations were always integrated, but there was a pecking order with white skin on top and dark skin on the bottom. History does not tell us that many blacks owned grocery store chains, movie theaters, bus lines, cab companies, sports franchises, banks, and many other community institutions. In the few occasions where blacks were able to build up their own thriving economic communities, angry whites often burned them to the ground, with one such example in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.
The Issue of Property Ownership
Black neighborhoods that had not yet been touched by the effects of integration as late as the 1950’s were some of the safest places in the country. People did not lock their doors and crime was almost nonexistent. I’m not arguing that integration is a bad idea, but it didn’t play out well for many black people. Today, blacks are portrayed in the media as almost having a crime gene. There are only four ways to make a living in any society: own a business, be an employee, a welfare recipient, or from crime.
Only 2 percent of blacks own their businesses and blacks still own less than 1 percent of this country’s wealth. Forty-two percent of all black men are either in jail, on probation, or on parole. Slavery has left its legacy in all of these situations. As we approach the Final Hour of our hypothetical Monopoly game, blacks are just getting their full voting rights. The period after slavery continued to keep the black man largely locked out of any wealth-building opportunities this country had to offer. Non-blacks have their communities; blacks have their neighborhoods. The difference? Ownership of homes and businesses.
The Third Hour of the Game
The Third and Final Hour of our “game” begins in the middle of the most tumultuous decade since the 1930’s. Medgar Evers was gunned down as he walked from his car to his porch. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in a motorcade, Malcolm X was shot in a theater with his family watching from the front row, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on a balcony in Tennessee, and Bobby Kennedy was shot point blank as he finished a campaign speech. The message is clear: If you fight for anything black you will die.
From 1965 to 1975, black people saw a few gains. More blacks were able to join unions, legislation created full voting rights and fair housing legislation, and large corporations were forced to hire blacks into management positions. These were significant steps for blacks as they broke the mold of slavery that prohibited them from having any workplace authority over whites. Ronald Reagan’s policies are often looked back on fondly, but from Black American’s perspective, they were no friend to the average black man.
Black and White Perceptions of Racism
The 1990’s marked the beginning of the end of affirmative action for blacks. Thirty-five years of affirmative action to counteract 400 years of slavery and another hundred years of segregation and subjugation proved too controversial for many whites. Public spectacles like the Rodney King case, the OJ Simpson trial, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina all continued to drive a wedge between black and white perceptions of how blacks are treated in the country.
Then, the impossible happened. Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. Before the number of electoral votes reached 270, white conservatives were preaching the end of racism. “We should no longer have to talk about race,” they opined. The problem is that they failed to ask needed questions of black people and they failed to consider the lasting effects of racism. You can take the nail out of the board, but the hole is still there.
The Conclusion of the Game
Three hours are up and we have now completed our hypothetical Monopoly game. For the first two hours, one of the players was not allowed to move around the board. All the other players accumulated the wealth that was available. By the time blacks could advance beyond “Go,” all of the Railroads were gone, as were Park Place, Boardwalk, the Utility Companies, and all the other property had been bought. Many blacks never advanced far enough to reach Go and collect their $200.
Not enough progress was made in the Final Hour to truly level the playing field for blacks in 2015. I doubt you will ever find a Monopoly game where several people play for two solid hours and then, in the third hour, add a new player who joins and wins. Would that even be a reasonable possibility? In Monopoly, there is an equal probability for every participant at the start of the game. For the black man, no such equal probability existed. Slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation stacked the deck against him.
A Simple Request for Understanding
Blacks are not asking for a handout or anybody’s sympathy, but for people to know the truth, for the truth can set men free. As a disciple, I am not asking for white disciples to fix all that ails society. I am simply asking that you understand the wounds that black disciples often bring with them into the body of Christ. These are the struggles that we face.
I have completed my case. For some, perhaps it may seem harsh; for others, too blunt, and still others may think that I am full of venom. I can accept all of those critiques. I humbly confess that I continue to have personal issues with race that black and white brothers are helping me with today. My intent is not to divide but to help us understand one another and have real and lasting unity that is based on truth and reality.
As I said in the introduction, I believe our family of churches can continue to be a shining light of the kingdom to a world mired in darkness. Christ is the only answer for racial division. In Christ alone is the salve for the wounds of slavery and segregation. It won’t come easy. It will take working through the fear, the damage of sin, and the mistrust that we might have for one another’s perspectives. We will have to do it together. We can do it together because we have the Spirit that unites us in brotherhood and fellowship (2 Corinthians 13:14).
I pray I have been successful in giving you something to think about and perhaps a new perspective. My wish is that it helps you to see that the effects of systemic institutions like slavery don’t just go away because we feel uncomfortable talking about them or because enough time has passed. We must not believe the dismissive claims that since slavery was more than 150 years ago, it cannot not impact us today. Satan will use anything to divide us and this is no exception.
But think of this, sexism is not over because Margaret Thatcher was named prime minister of Great Britain. Capitalism is not over because Bernie Sanders ran for president. Racism is not over because Barack Obama was elected president. Your sin was forgiven when you were baptized into Christ, but its consequences and continuing challenges did not end. There is much work to be done. Listen, learn, and love—and the world will be a better place. Work together and we will be the city on a hill that God longs for us to be.