Race in America (David Maxwell & Laura Cheifetz, Editors) -- A Review
RACE IN AMERICA: Christians Respond to the Crisis. Edited by David Maxwell and Laura M. Cheifetz. Foreword by Otis Moss III. Introduction by Mary Gene Boteler. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021. Xvii + 152 pages.
Racism has been called America’s “original sin” that led to the genocide of much of the Native American population and was expressed in the chattel slavery of persons brought to this continent from Africa. It has been expressed in laws that denied Asians either the opportunity to immigrate or achieve citizenship in the United States. It has been expressed in way Latinos/as—a community of peoples, many of whom trace their ancestry to a time before much of the Southwest was part of the United States—have been treated. The ramifications of this original sin of racism remain with us to this day as racism is on the rise. Many of us, perhaps naively, hoped that the election of Barack Obama would usher in a post-racial age. Unfortunately, racism remains a scourge on our land. We’ve seen it play out in various ways in recent years, coming to a head during the final year of Donald Trump’s term, when a racial reckoning coincided with a global pandemic. The aftereffects remain with us even after the end of the Trump presidency.
Even as attempts are made to build relationships, educate against racism, and reform institutions, change has proven to be slow and arduous. Indeed, the names Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown gave birth to the “#BlackLivesMatter” movement, but we keep adding names to the list. We’ve seen Islamophobia present for some time, and now we’re seeing the rise of anti-Asian violence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these realities remind us that there is much work to be done. Claiming to be “color-blind” is not the answer.
As a white male Christian, reading books about race and racism isn't comfortable. Neither is acknowledging white privilege. Yet, whether asked for or not, certain privileges have been accorded to me that are related to the color of my skin. By acknowledging that these privileges exist I put myself in a better position to stand as an ally with those whose ethnicity and race exclude them from these privileges. It is important to understand that these privileges have little to do with economics and everything to do with color.
As an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am expected to participate in anti-racism training. This training is designed to sensitize clergy to the realities just mentioned so that we can help our congregations move forward toward being anti-racist communities. Educating ourselves to these realities is important, and there is an increasing number of books and resources that help us in this regard. One of these books is Race in America, which is itself a revision of a book that appeared in 2016 with the title Race in Post-Obama America: The Church Responds. That book was edited by David Maxwell and appeared right as President Obama’s term was ending and before Donald Trump’s presidency began. This edition is again edited by David Maxwell along with Laura Cheifetz who joined him in editing this edition. While the original edition drew upon ten contributors, this edition has thirteen. They write as members of a committee, so identities are largely hidden. Therefore, the book represents a conversation among a group of people with a shared concern for the church and the broader world. One of the contributors, the Rev. Mary Gene Boteler, writes in the introduction that the book is especially poignant for white Christians living in the United States so that they might "read, discuss with others, and initiate or continue a plan of action to confront racism" (p. xvi-xvii). The book both educates and calls the reader to action.
The book is divided into three parts. Part one defines and recounts racism in five chapters. The first chapter provides definitions of terms used in the book. That chapter is followed by one that explores the relationship of the Bible to racism. This is followed by two chapters that explore the “White and Nonwhite Binary.” These two chapters take a look at the history of the United States through the lens of whiteness. That is, who qualifies as white and what that means for how we live in this nation. These two chapters replace three chapters that look at U.S. history. This first part closes out with a chapter on “Trumpism.” Obviously, this chapter is new, but it is also informative. It speaks to how the illusion of racial progress symbolized by Obama’s election was broken by the election of Donald Trump and the surge in white identity politics. Each of these chapters reminds us that while progress has been made at points, we are far from reaching any real post-racial age.
If Part I offers definitions and recounts history, Part II focuses on the realities of racism today. There are four chapters in this section. The first chapter explores the relationship between colonialism, immigration, and assimilation. Chapter seven focuses on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter Movement, which was born before Trump but took the lead in the protests that followed the death of George Floyd. Chapter 8 focuses on the role of social media, which has played both a positive and a negative role in the current crisis. It has been used to promote hate and bigotry and to organize responses. The authors do a good job of lifting up both the benefits and the challenges posed by social media regarding the continuing racial divide in America. The final chapter in this section is titled “Do Segregated Churches Imply Racism?” The authors agree with Martin Luther King’s declaration that the reality that eleven o'clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week, and that this reality is a sign of racism. However, they aren’t sure that integrated worship is a true salve for the problem of racism in America if we continue with a melting pot vision of assimilation in which we all adopt the worship practices of the majority culture. While truly integrated worship is to be welcomed, a case can be made for, at least at this moment, the continuing existence of ethnic churches. But if we do move toward multi-cultural worship it needs to be more than simply a reflection of the dominant culture's preferences without allowing for other expressions to exist. So, in place of the melting pot, a better image for integrated worship is that of the salad, where distinctive elements are present and celebrated! We have a long way to go before this reality is widespread.
Part three is titled “What to Do?” In chapter ten, a word is addressed to white people like me by contributors who are white. This chapter addresses the challenges of white supremacy and white privilege. It serves to remind us that racism is more than prejudice. It is systemic. We who are white often miss the signs. It is telling that 80% of white youth and young adults don't like talking about race and assume that they live by a color-blind code. So, what do we do? The authors provide us with eight excellent suggestions for how we who are white can address white privilege and work toward the elimination of racism. Among these include recognizing our privilege, along with educating ourselves as to what this means, and then speaking up and showing up. This chapter is not a comfortable read, but then it's not supposed to be. Finally, in chapter 11, we turn to the church's response. While we may want to quickly move toward a color-blind beloved community, they tell us that there must be justice before there can be reconciliation. That will take a lot of work. It means addressing questions of reparations and looking at how we engage in mission. The authors conclude that "racism is hard-wired into this country from its founding and then through its constitution and religious, social, economic, and political life. Undoing it will take more than reading a book or going to one protest. But change and transformation and hope are also in the DNA of the Christian Disciple" (p. 134). Addressing the challenge won't be easy, but this should not deter us or lead to complacency. That is not an option.
Race in America is, as you might expect, a tough read. While the chapters challenge and educate us as to the realities of our times, the current political situation reminds us that we have a long way to go before we achieve something like the Beloved Community envisioned by Dr. King. It’s important to remember that the goal is not to become color-blind. That is because the idea of color-blindness negates the wonderful diversity that is humanity. So, instead of pursuing that goal, the authors—and there is significant diversity among the contributors to the book—invite us to respect and celebrate our diversity. If we do that then we can become a community that exemplifies the motto out of the many we are one. One can only hope that there will be no need for a third edition of the book. But, for that to be true, we have a lot of work to do.