Segregated public schools, outlawed by the United States Supreme Court in 1954, became a South Carolina reality in the late 1960’s when our state had exhausted all possible means of resistance. One initiative in my hometown of Columbia paired students from all black Booker T. Washington High School with students from all white Olympia High School for a small summer data processing class (in the days when computers were huge monstrosities driven by punch cards).
One of the Olympia students was so obviously poor that his classmates shunned him, so those of us from Booker T. offered him an â€œolive branchâ€ of sorts. We asked him to join us for lunch one day, but he declined and said, â€œI know Iâ€™m poor, probably poorer than yâ€™all are, but at least Iâ€™m white.â€ That â€œmill villageâ€ high school student ably articulated something thatâ€™s still pervasive but seldom discussed or acknowledged in America – white privilege.
Those who claim that there is no such thing and that we live in a post-racial America only need to consider current events. Barack Hussein Obama – cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, former United States Senator from the State of Illinois, the 44th elected President of the United States of America and a figure respected and adored around the world – found it necessary to produce a copy of his original birth certificate to prove that he was born in the United States. When he did so, those who questioned his citizenship and still question his professed Christianity pivoted and immediately started asking if the document was genuine and how he got into Harvard Law School.
Few questions were asked about Senator and Presidential candidate John McCain, who was born to American parents living outside of the United States in the Panama Canal Zone, some who question President Obamaâ€™s citizenship argued for a Constitutional Amendment to allow Austrian born California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for President and itâ€™s fairly well known that George W. Bush got into Yale University not because of his academic prowess, but because his father was a Yale graduate.
The reprehensible demands for President Obama to prove his citizenship are really no surprise. Theyâ€™re the same as demands in the antebellum south that unescorted slaves produce â€œtraveling passesâ€ to prove that they werenâ€™t runaways and laws now being passed requiring Latino-Americans to show proof of citizenship or be detained as â€œillegal aliens.â€ White skin has always been an unquestioned sign of legitimacy in a nation obsessed with the fear that people of color might actually achieve if given equal opportunity. Ability, integrity, intelligence and decency often take a back seat to skin color – Donald Trump and those who believe and applaud his baseless, irrational, ignorant, self serving, profane and bigoted rants to avoid facing their own insecurities are proof of that.
If those who read these words wonder why they appear in â€œThe Pastorâ€™s Cornerâ€ of a church website, rest assured that Iâ€™m not simply ranting – Iâ€™m encouraging Christian action. The time has come for people of faith to stand up and call for a return to sanity and decency in America.
The historically black church, one of the few enduring pillars of the African-American community – must again embrace and share with our young people the message that was drummed into me at home, at school and in the church – if youâ€™re black in America, you have to be better than the rest. We have to teach our young people that itâ€™s fine to enjoy life and aspire to have creature comforts, but itâ€™s imperative that we prepare to achieve in a nation that still relegates us to second class citizenship. We must position our young people not to be â€œacceptedâ€ by white America – that wonâ€™t happen until Jesus comes again and folks are trying to get into heaven. We have to position our young people to achieve so that they can stand their ground in a nation that will try to hold them back, realize the excellence pursued by our ancestors, and assure that those who condemn their skin color will have no choice but to respect their ability – even if they grudgingly do so in spite of their racial fears and insecurity.
Thatâ€™s the challenge for the historically African-American church, but thereâ€™s an equal challenge for people of faith as a whole. Many of those who raise questions about the Presidentâ€™s citizenship, motives and ability also identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Authentic people of faith, regardless of race, must condemn mean and baseless bigotry in their homes, communities and houses of worship, and confront those who arrogantly and ignorantly try to link good religion and conservative politics. Some white clergy did so during the mid-20th century civil rights movement, but many stayed silent, out of fear that theyâ€™d lose their pulpits if they confronted racism and stood for what was obviously right. That was wrong then, and itâ€™s wrong now.
Good religion crosses lines of color, class and culture and requires those who embrace the Jesus who said that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves to actively condemn bigotry, assertively speak truth to power and be prophetic instead of pragmatic. If people of faith donâ€™t stand up and speak against those who use their power to promote hatred and fear, then we risk suffering the fate of German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lost his life for courageously confronting and condemning the bigotry of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer spoke of how the Nazis came for the Communists, the Socialists, the Trade Unionists and the Jews and how he failed to speak against what was happening because he fit into none of those groups and then said, â€œ…when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.â€ We can and must do better and be better.