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What White Americans Owe Black Americans

After ruminating a lot on the subject, I believe it boils down to four essentials: history, trust, respect, and grace.

America needs to grow up and get past our obsession with racism. I know that’s a tall order, given that many in the media, and certain leaders with titanic egos believe it’s their destiny to promote the idea that white versus black racism is rampant, and white supremacists hide behind every tree and rock.

Racism always seems to be simmering just beneath the surface of the American news cycle. For my entire life, it’s been a running theme. From Boston busing and forced school integration, to sports, music, and organizations promoting racial strife (both white and black oriented), to, of course, politics, it’s an itch we always return to scratch.

To overcome the obstacle of simple name-calling and childish manipulation, white Americans need to take an accounting of what, exactly, is owed to black Americans.

After ruminating a lot on the subject, I believe it boils down to four essentials: history, trust, respect, and grace.

Let me explain, but first a few very short sentences about myself. In my life, I have met, and been close friends with, many black people. I know that is a terrible cliché, but it’s true. Growing up, I never had issues with people’s skin color or race, ethnicity or culture. There were exactly three black people in my New Hampshire high school, and I was friends with all of them. My groups of friends included a couple of Jews (another rarity in N.H.), a Lebanese Christian, a couple of black boys (one of whom my mother thought the world of), a couple of Chinese boys, and some white kids. None of us cared about skin color or ethnicity or religion. We just didn’t.

I have heard testimony from one black man who said he hated white people his whole life, until his heart was changed by an encounter with God. One of my black friends from high school who joined the military said he was razzed for being and acting too “white.” He told me he ignored such ignorant remarks, but learned not to be surprised at the peer pressure to fit in, culturally-speaking.

Perception is the Real Problem

Actual racism is provably smaller than it’s ever been in the U.S. It is magnified by those who generally have one of two motives: 1) personal ego or desire for political power or money; or 2) a sincere personal or institutional desire to totally eliminate racism, and therefore treat any outbreak like an epidemic.

A third motive is more cynical and pernicious: a desire to damage the United States through racial strife. The old Soviet Union long engaged in a program to incite racism in the U.S. Even now, Russia is believed to be “stoking racial tension” in this election cycle. It’s a big problem, actually. But I’m not going to delve into that, because it has little to do with the actual debt white Americans owe to black Americans, which is my subject here.

The current state of race relations in America is, on a microcosm level, very good–we get along with our neighbors, white or black; our kids play together at school and on sports teams; we live, work, and even worship together more and more. Much of this has to do with socio-economic status, in that people don’t usually mix with those who live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, and work at different jobs.

A factory worker living in Section 8 rent-controlled housing, and riding public transportation to work, may not mix with a white collar manager who lives in a gated subdivision, no matter their race or ethnicity. With the exception of mega-urban areas like New York City, they may not see each other at all.

But perceptions matter, and the perception, especially among black Americans, is that the racial legacy of slavery is still evident, and the current status of racial equality and opportunity in America, is lacking.

A Pew study on Race in America in 2019 shows that 71 percent of black Americans believe that race relations are generally bad, and 78 percent think the nation hasn’t gone far enough giving blacks equal rights with whites.

The fact that some black Americans have achieved the highest aspirations of any citizen, including being elected President, is no argument against the perception that, as a group, black Americans don’t have it as good as white Americans.

But before we try to solve the problem of perception, which drives the conversation, we have to pay what is owed. We have to be able to listen to each other.

It’s like getting a letter from the bank saying you owe $1 million. You can spend all day arguing with the bank that you don’t even have a loan from them, but until you start listening to them, and they start listening to you, you’re going to get nowhere. Clearly, black Americans believe they are owed something, and we can’t just argue “no, we owe you nothing” and expect things to change.

I want to cover the four essentials I wrote about earlier: history, trust, respect and grace. Without these, there can be no conversation. And we are sorely lacking in all of them.

History

Slavery happened. Black Africans were rounded up by slave traders, loaded onto ships in appalling conditions, and transported as cargo, without regard for life and health, to a place far away from their birthplace. They were then forced to labor, for no wage, under the heavy hand of slave masters. They were bred like animals and sold like chattel.

Slavery came to America by way of England, and mainly its Caribbean island colonies. One of the two triangles were slaves to the Caribbean, sugar from the cane plantations to New England, and rum and manufactured goods to Africa. The other triangle was slaves to the southern American colonies, sugar, tobacco and cotton to England, and textiles, rum, and manufactured goods to Europe’s African colonies.

As religious revivals spread in England and the colonies, the evil of slavery was revealed in hearts and minds, leading to a strong abolitionist movement. In England, William Wilberforce spent 20 years persuading Parliament to end the slave trade.

Our founding fathers faced a bigger problem, in that the slaves weren’t in far-flung colonies, but on American soil. If the delegates to the Constitutional Convention held out for full abolition of slavery, there would have been no United States of America, at least not in the form we see it.

Southern states wanted full representation in Congress for each (non-voting) slave as a person. Northern states did not want to grant the south more representation for “persons” who had no rights except essentially as property. The compromise worked out to give slaves representation as 3/5th of a “person.” It wasn’t ideal by any measure, and in fact it granted the southern states more representation–to preserve the institution of slavery–than they should have had.

But even then, the U.S. took strong and early measures to end the slave trade. England ended its slave trade in 1807. The U.S. passed the Slave Trade Act in 1794, followed by the 1807 act prohibiting the importation of slaves.

We know what happened after that.

A series of compromises and terrible Supreme Court decisions as the U.S. expanded westward led to the Civil War, in which 600,000 Americans died (more than any other war in which the U.S. has fought).

Reconstruction–forced political reorganization with military administration of former Confederate states–gave southern blacks some authority, but this was ended and Jim Crow began. The racial identity lines had been drawn and remained in place for a century.

In school curriculums today, history is distorted, magnifying parts of U.S. history that involve victims and terrible acts by our government, while minimizing–or skipping completely–the role of morality, religious conviction, and courage of men and women who fought against evil practices and evil external enemies.

White Americans owe black Americans an unvarnished and truthful history. Fabulist stories like the 1619 Project do not help to promote useful dialog, but only serve to provide more tinder for racial conflagration.

The United States was founded with the explicit goal of ending the slavery which was started before our nation was formed and before the first musket was fired in our war of independence on that green Lexington, Massachusetts field. But political reality and economics prevented the goal from being reached for decades, and required the blood of two percent of the entire U.S. population at the time of the Civil War. That’s the equivalent of 6 million dead in war today.

If black people in America are genuinely offended that some military installations are named after Confederate soldiers, we should listen. If those calls are coming from people who wish to magnify our racial tensions, or from organizations who benefit from the appearance of racism, then they should not be taken seriously.

We don’t see southern white people getting all upset today, that the primary American main battle tank in World War II was named after Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman’s “total war” philosophy against civilians in the south, and especially Georgia, resulted the burning of Atlanta, and the bloody march to the sea, destroying lives and countless families on the way. Many southerners see Sherman as a war criminal.

The protesters in Washington state have gone so far as to tear down a statue of George Washington, and another of Ulysses S Grant. That’s ignorant. Americans have to learn enough about history to know how to determine what’s true. Unfortunately, we’ve done a very poor job educating both white people and black people with the truth.

The short version of history is: black people in America were slaves, but now they are not slaves. They were “separate but equal” but not they are not separate. Their culture and economic opportunity was limited, but now we are working more than ever to remove those barriers. We have more work to do, if we will listen to each other.

Trust

Humans are hard-wired to ignore people who look like our own selves. Walking down the street, a black person will be more likely to notice a white person in a sea of black people, and vice versa. Noticing leads to a conscious judgment of the person as a threat or not a threat. But as we’ve seen with so many incidents like Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, and police-involved killings like Raynard Brooks, white people seeing blacks as a threat can go horribly wrong.

I know, black on black crime exceeds white on black crime. But that doesn’t excuse the latter, and it doesn’t explain away the fact that many black people look at police officers as enemies, regardless of whether the black people are actual criminals.

The problem is when people try to claim every white officer who shoots or restrains a black suspect does so because of racism, and any black officer who shoots or restrains a white suspect, or a white officer who shoots or restrains a white suspect, is done professionally, or at least without racial motive. Claiming that only when something happens where a black person is a victim is there racism involved is poor logic, and in fact, racist.

It’s the same faulty thinking that leads to takes like this one from Ibram X. Kendi (a darling of the liberal media): “There’s no such thing as being ‘not racist.’ We are either being racist or antiracist.” There is a significant number of black leaders who say there’s no such thing as reverse racism, or that racism can only be when white people discriminate against blacks. This is, of course, gaslighting.

Black people can be, and are racists. In July 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson said he “wanted to kill white people, especially officers.” Johnson killed five police officers in Dallas. Liberal media tripped all over themselves to characterize him as reacting to police shootings of black people, as if he was simply triggered, and not a racist.

Louis Farrakhan is a racist. Rev. Al Sharpton is an anti-Semite, and many times espouses racist beliefs. King Samir Shabazz, head of the New Black Panther Party’s Philadelphia chapter (which even the biased SPLC acknowledges is a hate group), is an unabashed racist. These people believe that white people are all white supremacists or racists. They believe you can’t be white and not be a racist.

Kendi believes you can be a racist by not being an “antiracist.” The motives are already assigned here. If you don’t agree that you’re already a racist, then you must be one.

We, including black Americans, need to stop attributing evil motives to other people who don’t share our skin color, or forcing people to “take a stand” against something they aren’t even aware is damaging, and we need to start ignoring people who do this.

On the other end of the spectrum, many blacks are uncomfortable, even in liberal cities like Seattle, because non-black people don’t trust them when they’re noticed. Read this really enraging story by Sonya Green about how an innocuous task like changing her license plate led to being surrounded by Seattle police officers.

This is how whiteness works. A white person feels uncomfortable or threatened by black people’s mere existence in a space perceived as white only and they call the police. No matter the consequence for the black person who more often than not isn’t breaking the law or committing a crime. Look no further than the many examples of living life while Black whether at a BBQ in Oaklandinspecting property for investment or sitting in Starbucks waiting for a friend.

I wish I could tell you these incidents were uncommon or better yet that my situation in Seattle was an isolated incident. But it’s not. This was the first of many such experiences where the liberal whiteness façade was unmasked to reveal the ugly truth.

I’m from the south. I choose to go back to the south. Why would you do that many proclaim? Isn’t it a step back in time?

We should be willing to listen, and believe, that things like this happen. Yes, gang shootings also happen, but if we can’t trust people’s accounts based on their skin color, how can we move past the finger-pointing, name-calling and enter into a real conversation?

Respect

Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, Florence Johnson, Benson. These are brands and caricatures with subtle, but racist, overtones or roots. They don’t convey respect, and most black people find them offensive, or at best, uncomfortable.

I can’t do this better than Carlet Langford’s answer on Quora to this question: “Is cancelling the Aunt Jemima pancake syrup brand taking things too far? I loved that brand. They could change the story.”

This shit has no place in 2020. It had no place in 1920. It may be warm and fuzzy to you, but to us it was insulting and degrading. Let me say it again so that white folks on the slow side of the IQ and empathy scale hear me: IT WAS INSULTING AND DEGRADING. IT WASN’T CUTE. IT NEVER WAS CUTE.

If you are complaining about this stuff going the way of the dodo, that says a lot about how little respect you have for the people who are the targets of this stuff and who have, I repeat, NEVER LIKED IT.

“Uncle” and “aunt” were terms reserved for adult black people, who were too old to be called “boy” and “girl,” but undeserving of being called “mister” or “missus.” So it really didn’t matter that “Aunt Jemima” and “Uncle Ben” might have been real people (or not), calling them by those names does not honor them, or any black people.

I am Jewish by heritage. It would be like calling a Gefilte fish brand “Benny the Kike.” (Or less on the nose, “Hook Nose Benny’s.” Take your pick.) Insulting and degrading.

Florence Johnston was the maid in the Jeffersons sitcom. She was played by Marla Gibbs, and was arguably the funniest character in the show. But she was a black maid serving a newly rich black couple. The meaning was never lost in the show, and is very real.

Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., says history haunts many black women who might want household help but hesitate to hire it.

From the end of slavery to the end of World War I, Harris says, “the job that black American women could get was being domestics. They were often incredibly disrespected.” She knows this because Harris has heard the tales firsthand: “My paternal grandmother was a domestic,” she says. “So for a lot of black American women, we can’t let [the memories of] that go.”

History Makes Hiring Household Help A Complex Choice, NPR, May 24, 2013

Robert Guillaume played the character “Benson,” as butler to a hapless state governor, Eugene X. Gatling. As the series developed from 1979 to 1985, Benson eventually ended up as Lieutenant Governor, and even ran against his former boss.

The series ended with both Gatling and Benson watching election returns together, having reconciled after racial tensions pulled them apart. The election results ended in a cliffhanger with no resolution, because ABC cancelled the season and left it in midair, despite the showrunners filming three different endings.

If the show went on to an 8th season, Benson would have likely become governor. “Knowing the way the show was going, and the way the Benson character was going — that’s how Bob Guillaume wanted to see the arc of the character go,” said Gary Brown, who directed the show’s finale.

But Benson was never going to become governor. It’s subtle, but such things are subtle when they are left to cautious television executives.

These things have little to do with toppling statues of Confederate generals, or of renaming U.S. military bases. But they are more pernicious because they are a constant reminder of the history of black culture and how it’s viewed by white entertainment executives in Hollywood.

We need to acknowledge in our American culture that black people have suffered disrespect, and endured it for years, in subtle, and not so subtle ways.

White Americans owe them some respect, and by that, I don’t mean virtue signaling, 20 years later than we should have done. I mean real respect, which starts with honest listening.

Grace

It’s said that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America. That’s because most churches are still either “white” or “black.” You don’t see white pastors in the pulpit of A.M.E. churches, and only 6 percent of Southern Baptists are black.

In fact, in 2018, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary released a political 71-page report on how racism and pro-slavery attitudes factored into the denomination’s origin.

That story is now told, in a way only Southern Baptists themselves could tell it. The report draws heavily on seminary archives, including correspondence among the four founders. Among them, they held more than 50 enslaved persons.

The report acknowledges that the only reason a separate Southern Baptist denomination was formed was because northern Baptists refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries.

“The seminary’s early faculty and trustees defended the righteousness of slaveholding,” the report says, “and opposed efforts to limit the institution.” 

Some of them argued that slavery was in the best interests of the slaves themselves, while others insisted it was “a God-ordained institution.” The seminary leaders opposed Abraham Lincoln’s election and argued vigorously on the eve of the Civil War in favor of secession, seeing it “as the only hope for preserving slavery.”

Southern Baptist Seminary Confronts History Of Slaveholding And ‘Deep Racism’, NPR, December 13, 2018

Ouch.

Southern Baptists make up 21 percent of all American evangelical protestants, and account for 5.3 percent of the U.S. population. And it’s a thoroughly white institution with a racist past. No wonder black religious leaders are so wary of so many Southern Baptist preachers turning their pulpits into Trump megaphones.

One interesting feature of the Civil War is that both sides experienced powerful revivals of religion.

Revivals occurred more or less equally in both the Union and Confederate armies, in all theaters of the war, and throughout most of the conflict. Some historians have suggested that they began in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and became most noticeable beginning in the spring of 1863, though they occurred before then, as well. In fact, revivals generally followed an army’s first experience of heavy fighting and high casualties. A Confederate chaplain was not alone in writing that it was a well established pattern that “scores of men are converted immediately after great battles.”

We could attribute this to the adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” But I think there’s more to it. I believe that God was working His grace into the horrible reality of war, and into the righteous future where America finally outlawed slavery–and did it without massacring the losing Confederate soldiers.

The grace that General Grant showed to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, in negotiating a parole for all Lee’s men to simply go home after taking an oath of allegiance to the United States, is legendary in the history of war.

When General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain presided over the surrender ceremony, he was moved to order his men to salute General Gordon’s disheartened and defeated column. This poem by Sarah Kay Bierle captures the moment well.

The Last Salute
The field is silent and still,
The days of war are past;
The Confederates break camp on the hill,
The day of surrender is here at last.
 
Silently the victors wait,
Waiting for the formalities of the day.
No longer is there any hate,
No longer do any want to slay.

The gray column moves out,
Toward the open field,
Slowly they come, though they would rather turn about,
Instead of their weapons and flags to yield.

General Gordon rides along,
His head bent down.
The words he hears are like a joyful song;
“Salute them!” is the order which sounds.
 
Salute them as brothers,
Salute them as brave men;
Salute those slain 258,000 others,
Salute them for more than can be told with pen.
 
They expect humiliation and receive honor instead,
And Gordon returns the salute.
Not another word is said;
They lay down their guns, never again to shoot.
 
The flags they gently fold,
Never more shall they wave in the sky.
The sorrow of some is hard to be told.
Never more shall they the Union defy.
 
Salute them as long lost brothers,
Salute them as new friends!
Salute them and forget the bitterness of others.
Salute them; this is the war’s long-awaited end!

Black Americans and white Americans are both Americans, and especially those of us who believe in a loving, all-powerful, superintending God, consider ourselves brothers and sisters in the Lord.

To sin, we were all slaves, and now, saved by grace, we are all free. We reside in the liberty of the Lord, and should accord each other the grace of the same love He showed us all.

Racism is sin. It is one of the most heinous sins, as it drives people to commit horrible acts against fellow humans and to consider those others as sub-human, so as to block the action of conscience upon our souls. There is no proper defense for racism. There is no “but” to add to a racist thought that justifies its existence. There is only repentence.

But repentance without grace is merely shame. Those white people who feel compelled to unburden their souls in apology to every black person they meet are not doing anyone favors.

Repent to God, and accept God’s grace. And show grace to others. Black or white, we need to show grace and not pile on condemnation, shame, and judgment. The first is the work of the devil, the second is a work of the flesh, and the last is reserved for God; none of them are useful to us.

Remember, the enemy of our souls wants racial division and racism to rule our lives. The enemy of our souls wants us to obsess over it and to hate our fellow men and women for the color of their skin, or for their politics.

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.

2 Corinthians 10:4-6

History, trust, respect, and grace are mandatory elements, along with prayer and the power of God, to demolish arguments and pretensions that set themselves up against the knowledge of God, and His eye sees no difference between skin colors. We are all God’s children, and we should act that way.

That means we need to grow up and stop acting like little children hurling insults on the playground. We are much too dignified and imaginative beings, and Americans in addition to that, to retreat into such barbarousness.

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