Van Ens: Is racism a stain or a scar marring America?
Americans are severely split on the extent of racism’s influence on our society. Some citizens compare past racial flaws with stains, which have been cleansed by correcting past racial inequities. Their rosy-tinted version of U.S. history features the segregated 1950s replaced by 1960s civil rights legislation. What follows are social reforms that guarantee equality of opportunity for all Americans.
Those who see racism as a cleansed stain regard American history as an upward sloping line with an infrequent setback or two. Historian Jon Meacham describes why those who regard racism as an unavoidable stain on U.S. history downplay rights for people of color. “If living with injustice is part of the nature of things [in U.S. history], then perhaps we need not put ourselves through the most anguishing of trials to fight it,” observes Meacham. “We can be too satisfied with a bit of progress, unconsciously limiting our vision by focusing on the incremental rather than on the transformative [that curtails racism.”
These citizens believe 19th century slavery barely influences us because it is a relic of an era long ago and far away. Steady progress in race relations heals past hurts.
Others disagree that the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1954 to desegregate public schools has led to steady progress defining our nation’s character. Racism lingers as a scar on our country’s character.
Racism squeezes Americans like a snake coiled around its victim. Racism is “systemic,” an academic word sociologists share in university classrooms. “Systemic” refers to biased housing ordinances, racist law enforcement and underfunded schools, which deny people of color an equal chance to succeed.
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Individuals vowing to treat neighbors with dignity are not able to completely make this scar disappear. Laws must change to give people of color opportunities to improve. Biased norms about racial differences need correction. Slavery’s legacy endures today.
See racism now exposed in “whites only” real estate covenants from the first half of the 20th century. Banned by Federal law in 1968, language restricting home sale to “whites only” still exists in deeds of residences across the U.S. These regulations crippled Black peoples’ buying power, blocking them from gaining increases in home equity.
Even today, Black buyers find it difficult to purchase homes in all-white neighborhoods. Banks are reluctant to finance mortgages in Black neighborhoods. Black people’s options are “red-lined,” forcing them to buy homes in communities where they previously resided. The Christian Century magazine refers to such systemic racism as “collective sin,” which penetrates social norms, trends and entrenched business policies.
Some conservatives reject treating racism in America as a scar. They favor individual solutions to systemic failure and reject government solutions as encroaching on personal liberties. America’s bright future shines on all citizens, say conservatives. Compared with the Civil War and Jim Crow eras, today’s progress corrects mistakes racism inflicted on people of color.
Why do key GOP members regard “systemic racism” as an insult to free enterprise? They admire the conservative economist Milton Friedman who taught how companies prosper by winning against competitors in a free non-racist marketplace. If such companies and their workers are not prospering, asserted Friedman, the fault lies with Uncle Sam’s unfair regulations and high taxes that squelch free-market competition.
Racism has little to do with achievement in such marketplaces, declare Friedman’s admirers. At Republican National Conventions, Black speakers tell how they succeeded through challenging work. They invite persons of color low on society’s ladder to climb rungs and join them at the top.
This same individualist dynamic applies to reducing racism, preach free-market advocates. Learn from prior mistakes. Roll up your sleeves to beat the odds. Workplace racism will be washed away like laundry stains.
Why do some of these Christians’ blind spots keep them from seeing sin as a collective reality? They avoid wrestling with systemic evils opposed by biblical prophets. New Testament teachings describe sin as pervasive, seeping like polluted water into structures to weaken cultural foundations.
The Hebrew prophet Isaiah railed against more than stains caused by individuals’ unhealthy habits and hard hearts. He declared a public theology that targeted unfair social norms and left victims as bystanders while ambitious people sprung ahead and secured financial success. “Woe to those who decree evil demands and [Hebrew power brokers] who spread oppression, turning aside the needy from justice and rob the poor … of their rights. They violate widows as their spoil, and [exploiters of children] make the fatherless their prey” (Isaiah 10: 1-2).
The Apostle Paul warns readers not to narrow Christianity to merely “saving souls.” Sin acts like a huge scar wrapped around the world. Jesus’ healing touch restores broken communities. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself …” (II Corinthians 5:19).
Today, we hear critics say those who believe racism is pervasive and runs deep teach our youth to hate America. Such dreary news slights the U.S. of its achievements. We deny progress in race relations. Belief in “systemic racism” undercuts love of our country and makes white people worse than what they are, say conservatives.
A prime sign of healthy patriotism is a willingness to admit America’s flaws as well as applaud its achievements. Learn from our nation’s history by looking through a self-critical lens to see the U.S. as it really is and what it hopes to become — a nation where all races have equal chances to succeed.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.