Raised in Alabaster, Alabama, I spent the first six years of my life in between Selma and Birmingham. These two places that hold great significance in the fight for equal rights for Black Americans; Selma for the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in response to Bloody Sunday, hundreds marched from Montgomery in solidarity; Birmingham for the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the bus boycotts, and the historically horrifying images of the police dogs unleashed on peaceful protestors while others were knocked down with high-powered fire hoses.
Many white Americans believe that racism changed with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, my earliest childhood memories vividly contradict such a notion as I witnessed the systemic prejudice against my Black classmates, sports team members, and friends. I am privileged to have grown up in a household with two parents that talked about and did not tolerate a notion of racism.
And yet, I must check my silver-lined memories of my childhood, recognizing that I am the beneficiary of a white privilege. My upbringing, education, upward mobility, economic comfort, and vocational opportunities are a blueprint to the continued existence of inequity, systemic racism, and delusions of cultural progressions.
Now serving a church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I do not see evidence that racism is in our past and equity exists for all people. Take, for example, Louisiana’s education system, which was the last state to force integration. The response from the white community was to start hundreds of private schools, continuing to underfund the public school system. As a result, Louisiana ranks last or second to last in almost in upward mobility, education, and economic opportunity, with the black community disproportionally suffering the greatest. America’s greatest sin is an ever-present reality in Louisiana.
Over the summer, I led a book club with University Baptist Church (UBC) on Jemar Tisby’s latest book, “How to Fight Racism.” The participants ranged in ages, but all were born and raised in Louisiana. It was fascinating to hear the diversity of stories and recognition of the myriad of ways we are not beyond racism, how participants unwillingly have contributed to inequity, and what our church’s role has been in all of this.
There has been this fascinating narrative at UBC that since they were the first white church to accept black members in the 1960s, they have been a leading voice against racism. The church even opened its doors to a neighboring black church that lost its property to the flood of 2016. However, our book conversations uncovered a different story that has not seen the equal treatment of ethnic minorities regarding leadership opportunities, higher ranking staffing roles, and membership inclusion. The group recognized that its “open arms” to black community members are often done paternalistically rather than with equality.
The challenge was to move the group from the crippling and blinding notion of guilt into contemplative action, considering a fair and just way to expand this conversation to the entire congregation, own our systemic transgressions against our black members, and collaborate in understanding how to create a more inclusive future.