Tag Archives: race relations

50 Years Later: What Martin Luther King’s Dream Means to Me

Martin Luther KingOn the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, so many people are pontificating over the speech’s ongoing legacy, what it means today, what Dr. King would say and advocate for in our time, etc., etc. I don’t feel I’m creative or steeped enough in the issues of race and racial politics to add much to the discussion.

But I can share what King’s speech means to me and how his legacy inspires me forward, especially as a middle-class white male whose roots hail from the south and the midwest. (Yes, I  grew up surrounded by overt and subtle racist attitudes in my family.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. died six years before I was born. By the time I became aware of him, King had already been “exalted to sainthood” as the great civil rights leader whose work, speeches, and writing forever changed the shape of racial equality and race relations in America.  It took a long time for me to step through that misty shroud of sainthood surrounding King’s legacy to look carefully at his leadership, vision, and most especially his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”

What I’ve found is an endearing vision for all of America, black and white, that is still struggling to be actualized today. That vision is a call to action. It’s not enough to simply proclaim liberty, equal humanity, and equality of opportunity for all Americans. We must all work to secure that liberty and equality for all people. That’s justice. Justice is something we do, not just preach.

King’s speech also lifted up  a vision for basic harmony and fellowship between white people and people of color. That part has impacted me the most. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t think I’m superior or claim a greater seat of privilege than people of color. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t hold hatred or bitterness towards people of color. I can say I’m not a racist because I don’t purposely avoid or try to keep myself away from people of color.

But as I let King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sink in more deeply, I can see an area of racism that still exists within me and many others that creates a barrier to full harmony and fellowship. This racism manifests itself as fear and ignorance. It’s mistrust and presumption, formed from a lack of intentional relationships and experience.

We saw this form of racism on full display with the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tragedy, trial, and fall-out. Blacks and whites clearly misunderstand, falsely characterize, and at times demonize each other in ugly ways. Meanwhile, no one in the midst of the conflict would claim to be a racist! However, if we’re all honest, our failure to truly understand and trust each other is a layer of racism we have yet to overcome. It cost Trayvon Martin his life. And George Zimmerman? I can’t imagine him ever living a normal, everyday life ever again.

Martin Luther King’s work has challenged me to combat this form of racism by intentionally getting to know, love, and work with people of color. Of all the diversity of friends I have, I’m blessed to have several African American friends with whom I can talk about anything. And when a question of race comes up, we can talk about it point-blank without anxiously couching our words so as not to offend each other. I trust them. They trust me, and that has allowed me to learn so much about how a person of color sees the world and issues of race and justice. In fact, I’m always humbled by what I don’t yet know or appreciate within people of color. It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing. It’s all about understanding, which builds basic empathy and solidarity, which in turn builds trust and intimacy.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in order for America to fully overcome the effects of slavery, three prejudices must be conquered: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of race, and the prejudice of color. He couldn’t be more correct. De Tocqeville succinctly identified the three attitudes behind American racism. I restate them this way: the prejudice of superiority/inferiority, the prejudice of  segregation, and the prejudice of fear and suspicion of the other. To date, we have come a long way in overcoming the first two. And I think we still have a long way to go with the third prejudice of fear and suspicion before we can ever say that we are a post-racial America who no longer feels the effects of one race having forcibly enslaved the other. O Lord, within me, remove any trace of suspicion, fears, mistrust, and ignorance that would keep me from fully loving, receiving, and living in absolute harmony with people of color. Only then can I say I am no longer bound to the evils of racism. Amen.

Even so, I’m passionately convinced that King’s dream is not a mere pipe dream. It can find its fulfillment in us. In some ways it’s already happening. And in time, his dream of a post-racial America will be a fully incarnate reality. In the mean time, I want to do my part by naming and casting out any racism within myself. I want to work to assure liberty and equality for all people. And I hope you’ll join me!

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What Can We Make of the Beer Summit?

Well, the much anticipated meeting between the President, Dr. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley is over. We saw images of the three men along with Vice-President Biden carrying on like chummy pals, and so the question remains: now what? I think President Obama was right to downplay the importance of the so-called “beer summit”. After all, it was more a recovery effort of Mr. Obama’s after he interjected himself into the story with his remarks that the Massachusetts police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates.

First, a word about the President’s comments. I don’t completely fault him for what he said. We tend to over-scrutinize every word a president says as if his every utterance has been planned and rehearsed and therefore infallible. Obama was responding to an off-the-cuff question with a very off-the-cuff answer. Granted, it wasn’t a very helpful answer. He pitched unfair aspersions upon the arresting officer which he would days later “recalibrate.” But be that as it may, he also answered as an African-American, obviously seeing things through a long lens of racial history in America. It’s very much understandable and forgivable, yes. But perhaps Obama now knows a bit more keenly that as President of the United States, he carries a most certain gravitas, especially as an African American president speaking on issues of race.

Now I realize that what I say here comes from my worldview as a white guy. At the same time, I have dear friends from many different races and proudly pastor a multicultural, multiracial congregation. I’ve learned from my experiences that people from different races and cultures view the world from a wide range of varying angles. Who’s to say which angle is the most accurate?

Just to give you an example, the day after the Gates arrest and the President’s ensuing commentary on it, I called one of my African American friends to ask him what he thought of all this. His first words were, “Oh man… You’d have to ask that question!” Obviously, the incident stirred up a lot within him.

I was amazed and dismayed– and maybe I shouldn’t have been– to find him questioning not Gates’ behavior nor the President’s remarks but the police officer. His gut told him, “This was racial profiling.”

Then I quoted the police report which detailed Gates’ outlandish behavior and the reasons for his arrest.

My friend held the report in suspicion.

Then I said, “But Crowley has an exemplary record as a veteran police officer. He’s even taught racial sensitivity courses. He has no record of racism in his past.”

To that, my friend replied, “But past behavior isn’t necessarily an indicator of future behavior.”

Then I blurted out, “What?? So you’re saying the officer is guilty simply because the charge of racism has been made?? So the charge is greater than any other evidence??”

I have to admit that beyond that I can’t remember the details from the rest of our conversation. My friend may have had some other good things to say, but my mind shut down after that. We talked some more and agreed to keep watching to see what would happen. By the way, my friend and I rarely agree on much of anything, however we really respect and learn from each other.

Afterwards, a day or so before the White House beer summit, my friend and I talked again. We saw things a little differently than before. While we still didn’t agree on who was to blame for the incident, we both did see that there was some overreacting from both Gates and Crowley. In other words, it was a momentary mistake of judgment. I would add that the President also committed a momentary mistake of judgment by the tone of his remarks.

So is that all it was? Was there no racism involved?

After thinking about things, I’m going to throw this idea out there: There was no racism inherent in anyone’s motives or actions. But racism, like a demonic force, stepped in as an outside intruder to make this incident into yet another firestorm to throw our country into a debate on racism that quite honestly will never be resolved.

So was there any healing balm to be found in the White House beer summit? Perhaps. It was a nice symbolic gesture. Frankly, that’s all it was. Both Gates and Crowley walked away still not agreeing on who was right and wrong. But they both seemed to walk away with a greater respect for the two different worlds in which they live and work. They both want to “move on.”

And that’s probably the best thing for them and for us, too. My African American friend and I drew the same conclusion.

Of course, there is no denying what an incredibly ugly, horrific scar the history of racism has left on America. From the earliest days of slavery in the American colonies to racial segregation and inequalities to the systemic and personal incarnations of racism we find today, that scar still lives and breathes. I truly believe that over time, the scar will will continue to weaken and fade. But I do not think that we will ever find any great coming-to-terms on the debate surrounding racism, i.e. who’s to blame and what are we to do about it.

The debate on racism is what fueled last week’s events, not racism itself.

There is no victor rising from the debate on racism, only casualties. Americans of European and African descent do not see issues of race in the same way, nor may they ever. Thankfully, it’s not necessary for us to agree in order to create racial harmony in the United States or anywhere else in the world. What we do need, however, is mutual respect for the integrity of differeing views. With my African American friend, I can learn to appreciate how and why he sees things as he does, even if I don’t view things the same way, and vice versa.

So, instead of debate, let’s dialogue. Dialogue builds bridges into community with one another. Dialogue might possibly bring new, creative solutions to the lingering issues of racism that the tired out debates could never deliver.

Finally, I’d like to offer a sure, absolute cure to the issues of race, this one from the gospel of Jesus Christ:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. (Galatians 3:26-29, NTL)

If only we would all see, especially those of us who call ourselves Christian,  that God’s promise of Jesus Christ is our healing, our unity, and our life, we would have all the unity we need. And there would be no more need for symbolic beer summits.

Cheers!

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