On race: trying to sing a new song

By George Clifford

Two recent Supreme Court decisions have ignited fiery discussions about the role of race as a criterion for assigning children to public schools. The decisions, in one case from Louisville and another from Seattle, appear to have largely reversed the landmark 1954 school integration case of Brown vs. Board of Education.

My initial response to the decisions was one of anger. Then I began to reflect on some of the ways in which race issues intersected with my life and ministry.

I performed my first inter-racial marriage in 1980. Eight other clergypersons had declined to officiate because the man was an African-American and the woman a Caucasian. That was in northern Maine. Since then, I have officiated at many inter-racial marriages and learned that such marriages were formerly against the law in some states. Today, in Raleigh, NC, I frequently observe inter-racial couples going unnoticed in restaurants, shops, churches, and elsewhere. This is a different world than in 1954.

In seminary, my advisor was an African-American. In the military, I worked for several African-Americans and had several work for me. Two of my six ecclesiastical superiors have been African-American (including the current Bishop of North Carolina); a third was an Asian-American. When celebrating Holy Eucharist, they drink from the chalice first; in confirmation, they lay hands on the confirmand; they approve the remarriage of divorced persons; and nobody is offended. This is a different world than in 1954.

Thanks be to God for a new song! God, as Peter learned through his vision in Acts 10, loves all people equally, regardless of a person’s race, ethnicity, nationality, or gender. The Civil Rights movement, Supreme Court cases like Brown vs. Board of Education, and important legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dramatically changed life in the United States. Most, if not all of us, have sung this new song in our life and heard it in the lives of family, friends, neighbors, and communicants.

Yet race is often the “elephant in the room” about which nobody wants to speak. When I preach about racial justice, whether in a predominantly Caucasian or African-American congregation, invariably at least one person will tell me that I was brave for doing so.

Why does the topic of race make people uncomfortable? I suspect there a variety of reasons. For some, the problem is one of guilt, over what not only happened in prior generations but events in their own life. Another source of guilt is recognizing that racial bias and discrimination are un-Christian but still widespread in the U.S. Other people are simply uncomfortable with racially formed identities, their own and that of others.

The truth is that we who sing this new song have a difficulty staying on key and in time. Most forms of blatant racism are gone. Now the prejudice is more subtle. Listening to blacks (as well as women!) in the military tell their stories, I always heard them speak of others singing off key notes. But that is not the whole story. In spite of visible successes, like that of General Colin Powell who retired from the Army as the United States’ senior military officer, disproportionately few blacks serve as commissioned officers and even fewer become senior officers.

The military, in spite of its imperfections, deserves its reputation as one of the nation’s foremost equal opportunity organizations. The proportional lack of black officers stems from not only lingering expressions of racism but also from differences in quality of education, access to education, and other factors over which the military has no control.

White liberals, and even a few blacks, criticized the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he started voicing his opposition to the Vietnam War. He replied that he had to speak – the issues of racism and an unjust war were inherently connected. He received similar criticism when he rightly linked the issues of poverty, education, and racism.

In the United States, race remains inherently connected to most other issues of social justice. For example, mandatory school integration prompted white flight. Busing accelerated parents turning to the ironically named Christian schools and then to home schooling. Fair housing laws have achieved marginal results. Sunday morning remains perhaps the most segregated time of the week.

Discrimination based on race is illegal, as it should be. However, racism, along with other forms of injustice, remains deeply embedded in American culture and therefore contaminates most of us. Long, late night conversations with a friend in college started to open my eyes to some of the ways in which this culture and I were racist. Subsequent reading and conversations have opened my eyes further.

One reason that I answered a call to the priesthood was realizing that changing laws and winning court battles were only the first steps, the easy steps, towards creating a more just society. The hard steps lay in changing hearts and minds, eradicating all forms of discrimination and injustice that are incompatible with the gospel.

Perhaps the recent Supreme Court cases are a disguised gift from God. No longer can school districts view race in isolation from other forms of injustice. To grasp that gift, Christians will need to follow Dr. King’s lead. They will have to engage the political process and push for schools in which the students reflect a cross-section of the larger community’s socio-economic composition. Doing so will more directly and fully address the multi-faceted sin of racism as well as other forms of injustice. Doing so will force people to talk about the elephant in the room, creating the possibility for healing and transformation. Most importantly, doing so will help us to sing this new song that God has give to us with more fervor and more on key.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. He was the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School. He taught philosophy at the Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School.

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