I live in rural Ohio and 95% of my community is white. Over the last year I have had several conversations with individuals on race and racism. I find that many people have difficulty with the idea of racism because they believe racism must be overt and individual if it exists. What does that mean? It means that for many people in my community racism involves one individual harassing another individual because of race. Few seen to understand what systemic racism means. I am no expert on racism and I understand that concepts like any systems approach to life can be challenging for someone who is not deeply invested in learning the field. Despite these challenges I think one object lesson from my own local history will illustrate how systemic racism works.
Near me there are two historic sites, Gnadenhutten and White Woman Rock, the first is a small community and the second is simply a rock which overhangs the river. When I ask people the significance of these two historical sites (again both nearby) many people over 40 can tell me that White Woman Rock was named because a white woman was running from a group of Lenape (Delaware) and threw herself from the rock into the river below, drowning along with her baby. This is one of the narratives that grew up a little over a century ago during a time of anti-native sentiment, but it still persists today. The truth is that a woman (Mary Harris) was kidnapped in a native raid in the early 1700’s and eventually became the only white woman living in what would later be known as Ohio when Colonial militia were scouting the land (you can read it here). Whether they remember the true or fictitious story I find several people in the area who remember why so many local monuments are “White Woman”.
The other story is far sadder and yet is relatively unknown even by locals. On March 8, 1782 a group of U.S. militiamen ambushed and massacred 96 Lenape who had converted to Christianity and were living on a Moravian mission (here). This was a brutal act carried out by soldiers on people who were declared pacifists. What is even more shocking to me is how many of these locals are Christian and yet feel no sense of connection with this massacre where their brothers and sisters died and this is in large part because of a racial bias. The racial bias refused to admit fault and allow successive generations to deal with the moral failing of their predecessors.
These events were nearly contemporary with one another (Mary Harris lived in Ohio in he 1750’s), and one is remembered (poorly!) and one is forgotten. This is what people mean when they talk of systemic racism (at least in part). We tell ourselves a history which is selective, only providing ourselves with information which makes our ancestors heroes. Simultaneously, we tell stories about the other side which are negative and we show little concern for researching the truth. Thus, in the end we have a distorted picture of the past. These narratives of the past then help us to shape our current cultural identity and determine how people fit within the system.
Given the narratives that most people know about the local history they are likely to see the Lenape as savage aggressors and forget the fact that it was their own ancestors who were the savages. This mindset will then justify little concern or even hostility toward descendants of the Lenape who want to regain some of their heritage. Conversely, forgetting the destruction done by American forces, locals are not forced to confront the reality of the past and what foundations their civilization are built upon.
One of the genuine concerns I have in the current culture wars is that Christians are speaking out about proposals for changing what history is taught in schools. They rationalize their concerns by calling this movement “revisionist history” which is a very serious charge, all the while they do not realize how skewed their own history curricula were. Most people are not aware how biased a history text can be simply because an instructor must be selective about material. If a teacher wants to tell the story of America the Great (which is what so many learn) then it is easy to dismiss content like the Gnadenhutten Massacre. It would, of course, be just as easy to tell only negative stories, but I think the number of American history teachers trying to do that is smaller than some want to admit. Rather, what we need to do is inform people about the true nature of American history. The constant battle to keep the rich from marginalizing the poor through legislation, the bitter conflicts between factions that have lead to hostility, the corruption of politicians, and of course the racist brutality against so many minorities. In some ways we have begun to own this past and move to a point of healing but we need to do more. We may no longer identify with Teddy Roosevelt
“I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the Western view of the Indian. I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”Teddy Roosevelt, 1886
But there is still truth in the idea:
We are a racist society in which white skin provides a blank check for power and privilege. Racism comes in many shades. There is the old Southern kind that says, “We don’t care how close you get to us as long as you don’t get too high.” There is the old Northern kind that says, “We don’t care how high you get as long as you don’t get too close to us.” There is the recent kind that says, “We don’t care how high or close you get, as long as you become like us.” But what becomes, then, of God’s Story, which says that differences among people are not a curse that justifies the concentration of power and privilege among a select few, but are rather gifts meant to enrich and reconcile the family of God through service?Roger Van Harn
Removing racism, particularly systemic racism, from our communities is going to be a long and rather difficult task, but a necessary one. I have found much help in looking into a fuller picture of American history to help me understand why we think and act the way we do in America. But I also think it is helpful to read what those who study racism think and so I will close with some recommendations for where to begin. All of these are from a distinctly Christian tradition and though there is some disagreement in how issues are handled they should be viewed for their essential unity.
Jamar Tisby The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (I’m also looking forward to reading his book How to Fight Racism)
George Yancey Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (I loved this book but a word of warning to white readers, it is easy to hear him talk to minority communities and forget that he is showing you how to speak to yours) (I am also looking forward to his book One Faith No Longer: The Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America)
Sho Baraka The Narrative especially track 5 “Here, 2016” (I also want to read his book He Saw That It Was Good: Reimagining Your Creative Life to Repair a Broken World)