During February Abingdon Press will publish my, Who Lynched Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism. The book is a “labor of love,” a tragedy that has captured my imagination over a lifetime, a topic that has been one of my major concerns.
Who Lynched Earle? opens with a lynching in my hometown when I was one year old. After the lynching, a young Methodist preacher, Hawley Lynn, preached a courageous, historic sermon to his all white congregation in the South Carolina town where the lynching occurred. I move from a narrative of that great sermon to an appeal to white preachers like me to preach to their mostly white congregations about the sin of racism.
We are having a day-long conference with scholars, bishops, and students at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. on February 17 (seventieth anniversary of the lynching of Willie Earle) to talk about the book and its concerns.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be running excerpts from Who Lynched Earle?
Large numbers of American whites believe that racism is something we have overcome. Anybody who believes that we are in a “post-racial” America must account for the statistics—education, wealth, social mobility, infant mortality, incarceration, the composition of most Christian churches—that belie the claim that we are at last “color-blind.” The racial gap is narrowing ever so slightly, but at a glacial pace. The median white household is thirteen times wealthier than the median black household, ten times wealthier than the median Latino household. The gap between white and black education, income, and mortality rates is as wide today as it was forty years ago. If you look into a hospital nursery and see a black infant and a white infant, you can predict which baby will die first, which one will make a higher income and have better education, just by the color of the baby’s skin. There is no area in American society (education, incarceration, income, preaching, and so on) where racial disparity isn’t operating.
Martin Luther King Jr. could not have known how we would abuse his hope that we will not be judged by skin color but by character.
King said nothing about blindness being a virtue. Jesus never praised blindness as a virtue; on a notable occasions he healed it. When whites claim, “I am color-blind in my dealings with others,” it’s usually an indication of our ignorance of how we have been thoroughly indoctrinated into race. It’s like saying, “I am sinless,” meaning, “My sin is so dominant in this society that it just seems normal.” A first step is to name our whiteness.
As James Baldwin said in The Fire Next Time, “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
I grew up during an era of legislated, enforced white supremacy that the civil rights movement mostly eradicated. Laws were changed but not white privilege. Prejudice implies an individual disposition; privilege points to continuing, unspoken, not explicitly legislated practices whereby whites enjoy, benefit from, and depend upon economic, cultural, political, and educational advantages that blacks and other people of color do not have.
Race is a human fiction, though a powerfully resilient one. The English depicted the Irish as monkeys, Jews who immigrated to America were drawn as apes, and Asians were spoken of as vermin. All of these groups, after a time of initial subjugation and prejudice, became “white,” assimilated, and took their part as white privileged “Americans.” Willie Earle’s family could not do that. As Toni Morrison said, “American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
Occasionally we whites may feel some Christian motivation to get involved to help them solve their problems, failing to acknowledge that, because of the way we’ve historically organized the economy, educational systems, and church polity, we already are involved; this is our problem.
Our inherited privilege leads us to think that we’re not raced, not white—we are Americans. America is white. Whiteness is the norm and when that norm is questioned, our typical response is, “They’re playing the race card.” When American unemployment hit 16 percent in the recent Great Recession, few of us pondered that black unemployment has always been at least as high. When the national alarm sounded about the jobless numbers, no African Americans said to white America, “You’re playing the race card.”
Though these sociological and historical facts about racism are significant, race is a specifically Christian problem because of the God we are attempting to worship and to obey. In the gospel, we are given the means to be color-courageous, to talk about matters our culture would rather keep silent. That you have persevered this far in my argument suggests you are exercising a bravery that is not self-derived. Congratulations, your willingness to talk about this subject makes you an illustration of the powerful grace of God at work.