Our youngest daughter was 8 months old when we adopted her from an orphanage in Ethiopia. She had some difficult trauma to navigate, and it would take time to win the right to be Dad.
One week later, as she lay on her changing table, we locked eyes for a moment. She seemed to be thinking, “Maybe this guy’s legit.”
All I could think was, “This kid’s black.”
I was completely taken by surprise.
I grew up in the metro Dallas area in the 70’s and 80’s. Jim Crow was 10 years out of its misery on my birthday, but Northeast Texas was still a difficult place for people of color. I entered my teens desperately seeking the approval of the cool crowd, which always poked fun at black people. There were never any black kids in our squad, and we seldom talked about them without invoking the n-word.
When I became a Christian, I was introduced to a new crowd, one that didn’t value disparaging others. My outward racism quickly ground to a halt, but the damage had been done. Like most of my friends, I lived with a very firm conviction:
there must be something wrong with black people.
Decades later, staring into my daughter’s huge, coffee-brown eyes, I was confronted with the racial prejudice I had engaged, entertained, and tolerated most of my life.
I eventually fell in love. I became her father—in her eyes and mine. I can’t imagine any kid, even a biological kid, feeling more like my kid than this kid. I see a human being, wrapped in beautiful brown skin, with all the potential of any other person.
But my feelings for this one black person had me convinced that my prejudice against all black people had been put to bed.
Living in the Wrong Story
Like so many in America, I’d come to believe that if blacks can’t make life work, it’s their fault. We’ve adopted a mountain of legislation to protect them. They’re now more educated and empowered to pursue their dreams than ever before.
I saw prisons full of blacks, and my favorite news outlets were often awash with the misdeeds of ne’er-do-well nonwhite folk. The voices I trusted reassured me over and over again, “there must be something wrong with black people.”
A few years after my daughter came home, I was introduced to an entirely different story when my exasperated non-white spouse encouraged me to read a book.
Ten years ago, author, lawyer, and social activist Michelle Alexander claimed that our criminal justice system is recklessly skewed against the black community. Her book, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is a mob of statistics, history, personal narratives, and testimonies that I had a hard time believing.
So I fact-checked her over-the-top story. It was 10 years old after all. Maybe things had changed.
I spent 6 months poring over crime, arrest, incarceration, and drug use information provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Few would argue their legitimacy.
I wish I hadn’t looked.
There’s no need to recount the studies, charts, and other proof that our country has a big problem here. People like Michelle Alexander have been vocal about this for years—their work is now a quick internet search away. I was shocked and embarrassed to learn that I’d been in the dark for so long.
All of this was accompanied by a bit of righteous anger. I had just been introduced to our country’s morass of racial inequities, and began to think about how I might do my part to change things.
A racist person wouldn’t do that, right?
Emancipated by a Large Group of Black People
We now have two kids from Ethiopia, both attending an inner-city school near our house. Every morning, we walk through hallways jam packed with black people, then sit in a crowded auditorium waiting for teachers to gather their classes.
My racist inner voice goes off the chain in these spaces, telling unflattering stories about people I’ve never met, simply because of the color of their skin. That woman looks like she’s still in her pajamas—lazy. I wonder if that guy’s in a gang—criminal. Look at that piece-of-junk he’s driving—irresponsible.
I’ve since gotten to know a few of the parents, some of the teachers, the principal. Where I used to see people who need to clean up their acts, I’m starting to see heroes who have a mountain of barriers stacked against them. Many could be playing the victim, but aren’t.
I’m adopting a new understanding about the black community. But the old story is still there, and won’t leave without a fight. Each morning, I engage in a sort of emotional-intellectual war, trying to give this new story space to grow roots.
I’m still tempted to believe that my racism has been put to bed. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I’ll always have work to do. Once you embrace this spirit, it’s super hard to get rid of.
I don’t think I’ll ever be done.
What’s Missing in Our Attempts at Reconciliation
While I’m ashamed to share my predicament, I know I’m not alone. There is no shortage of voices claiming that racism is a problem among people of faith. A growing number of these are white Evangelical authors, scholars, and pastors.
Black Evangelical leaders have been vocal about this for years.
We should listen. Every time the spirit of racism has taken hold of a country, the devout are often its unwitting supporters. It is arrogant to believe that us church folk are immune.
It’s not that we don’t care about justice, equity, and solutions to our segregated Sunday mornings. These topics have been growing in popularity for years. As a seminary-trained church leader, I’ve had numerous conversations about our responsibility here. And we’ve made some unprecedented strides.
But we typically excuse ourselves from the question: “Are we racist?” Me? You?
We don’t feel racist. And we get mad enough when the topic of systemic racism is broached. Imagine how angry we’d get during a sermon on personal racism.
It’s not a question we should be skipping.
I have an elderly friend, Miss Asie, who was raised by sharecroppers in Mississippi long ago. I asked what she thought would be more powerful: whites and blacks going to church together and fighting racial inequity, or white Christians dealing with their own racism?
She chose the latter.
There are lots of us. White Evangelicals occupy one of the most powerful demographics on the planet. If we were able to somehow manage mass-repentance, Asie knows that mountains would move.
As discussions about racial healing become more prominent in our churches, it’s mission-critical for each of us to back up and ask:
- Do I have negative feelings about the black community?
- Do I say “All Lives Matter” because I feel like blacks exaggerate their experiences with racism?
- Do I feel like blacks are mostly lazy, uneducated, entitled, criminal?
- Do I tell myself stories about people I don’t know simply because of the color of their skin?
Am I racist?
I asked that question, diabolical as it is, and never imagined the answer would be yes. I have black friends, black children. I’ve been to multiple meetings about racial equity, reconciliation, and integration. I’ve marched in the MLK marade on Colfax with my friends from Black Lives Matter.
It was a difficult thing to admit, and began for me a journey of repentance that’s been less-than-cozy. But the power and clarity that came with the pain have been well worth it.
I had no idea how free I wasn’t.
Now, I’m left with some deep concerns about the impact that racism is having on our attempts to bring healing. Would our reconciliation campaigns find new freedom, power, and success if they were accompanied by repentance at the personal level?
Is our racism holding us back?
This unholy spirit has constrained our country since day one. It chained me up for years. I have no problem believing that it’s constraining God’s church as well.