Vol 7, Num 20 :: 2008.11.07 — 2008.11.21
Stephen Colbert has made a career of saying what many Americans are thinking in a way that entertains viewers, even while focusing important issues. In a recent interview with Cornel West, one of the top U.S. scholars on African American culture, Colbert asked West, “Now that racism is over, what do you do with your time?” It was only because I know Colbert satirizes what he deeply cares about that I was able to laugh; part of the humor was the question’s backwardness. And yet…
On the evening of election day, I watched the excitement of those gathered in Grant Park to welcome president-elect Barack Obama, and found myself the most moved at the many images of people of color who were weeping with joy. By any assessment, this week’s election made history as Americans voted in the first person of color ever to lead our country. In the struggle for justice, this event is indeed one to celebrate and we should take time and energy to do so.
Both Obama and John McCain’s election night speeches were clear: now that the results are in, it’s okay to talk about race again. I got the sense that even though McCain’s speech was one of concession, he was somehow proud of his country’s willingness to follow his lead and demonstrate the character of one who does something noble even when it conflicts with what is expected. McCain stated,
…We both recognize that, though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound. A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.
Likewise in Obama’s speech, there was acknowledgement of how far the U.S. has come in the past 100 years through the story of 106-year-old voter Ann Nixon Cooper and all she’s seen in the last century. As a nation, we have learned not to look the other way while black people are lynched or while voters of color are kept away from the polls. However, another hundred years lies open ahead of us, with generations of unborn citizens waiting to see what story they will be able to tell as proof that societies can change for the better.
Our country’s work to end racism was not done with Rosa Parks. It was not finished when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It’s not over just because some white people have friends of color or some black people have climbed the social ladder to Princeton scholarship. And, even though we should all affirm the progress of electing a black president, our work to end racism is still not finished with Barack Obama’s victory. Obama’s victory is a large, clear signpost, to be sure, but it is not the finish line.
In 1948, when the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was still a seed waiting for the right conditions to germinate, Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes wrote:
Americans of good-will, the nice decent church people, the well-meaning liberals, the good-hearted souls who themselves wouldn’t lynch anyone, must begin to realize that they have to be more than passively good-hearted, more than church-goingly Christian, and much more than word-of-mouth in their liberalism.
While Hughes applies the imperative for faith-in-deed (rather than just faith-in-word) to racial justice, his preference can be understood as a principle that extends to all of life. It’s not good enough to talk about being faithful-for empty pietism is clearly not the fast God has chosen. Rather, we’re called even in our darkened vision to discern the movement of the living Spirit who is transforming our selves and our communities to be wholly suitable as living sacrifices. We shouldn’t eat or sleep, work or play as if such actions are neutral and don’t matter to God-indeed that’s what catapult magazine and *culture is not optional are all about. If neutrality is not an option when it comes to such everyday things, it is also not sufficient when it comes to justice for people of all colors in our churches, schools, businesses and governing bodies. We are still on a journey and there is no stopping or standing on the road to reconciliation; we travel forward or we travel backward.
Let us resist the urge to spend the rest of our precious lives patting ourselves on the back for being a country enlightened enough to be led by a person of color. Rather, let’s pray for eyes to see the ways in which racism still visibly and invisibly corrodes our systems and institutions, in the U.S. and elsewhere. To continue to find our way, we have to keep watch for the next sign. And when there are no signs? Learn how to build one.
To learn more about racism and related issues, peruse the following resources with prayer and “eyes to see”: