Our Racist Legacy of Fear
Numbers 14: 18; 1 John 1:4
The Lord is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love and mercy which is needed for the Sins of the Fathers are visited upon the Children unto the 3rd and 4th generation
There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear
The novelist William Faulkner set most of his novels across generations in Mississippi. He would typically open a chapter with an extended dialogue between two people. Often you had to read several pages without a clue as to who was actually speaking. It could be grandfather and slave in 1855, father and the help in 1900 or grandson and tenant farmer in 1935. Like Franz Kafka, he made it intentionally blurry to show how the actions of our ancestors fate us with a kind of tragic destiny. Southern history was especially filled with irony and pathos as we both fulfill the timeless contradictions of race and atone them at the same time.
Once when he was asked why he was so fixated on the past, Faulkner remarked, ‘the past is never over… in fact it isn’t even past.’ He recalled the profound moral insight that we read in our first scripture this morning. It says, “The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children unto the third and fourth generation.” It is an observation of moral fact. The consequences of our actions not only radiate horizontally, effecting our extended family and friends all around us. There are also consequences that radiate vertically, things broken and not fixed in one generation come to haunt and hobble the next generation, sometimes directly, sometimes almost surreptitiously. But their effects are very real.
I thought of that reading Ta-Nahesi Coates “Between Me and the World”, an extended letter he wrote to his son in the aftermath of the protests that we have had around our country in the Black Lives Matter campaign. His son is 9 or 10 and is just coming to awaken to TV news and the wider social world that he has been born into.
One night, they are watching the news together and his son is in front of him. The case was Eric Garner, the 40 year old man who was arrested for selling loose cigarettes in front of a bodega and was choked to death in a tussle with several officers that was caught on videotape.
The videotape was pretty damning in retrospect. The crime was petty, the use of force excessive to the point of real tragedy, unnecessary and out of bounds. Certainly that is the way it looked to a kid.
The grand jury had convened to see if criminal charges would be brought against the officers and the press corps was all gathered outside the courtroom. The grand jury brought no charges, no reasons given of course, because these hearings are sealed in the state of New York.
Father and son sat there looking at the TV, agape. After a minute, the kid turns and walks to his room in silence, not speaking to his father. It was the prospect of his son, sitting in his room all alone, interiorizing a deep sense of fear and alienation that prompted him to write this long letter on being a black boy in America today and why the past matters so much.
The spiritual legacy he unpacks revolves around the pervasive fear that still haunts and defines the internal psyche of African-Americans and the prospect of that fear instilling itself in yet another generation just filled this father with a rage that he had to intentionally channel to keep it from swamping him.
That is the way that the legacy of our racist past is transmuted down the generations. It recalls the glaring injustice that Harper Lee captured so poignantly in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the middle of the Jim Crow era when the South was defined by a sharp two-tiered social order, black people up in the gallery only able to watch in silent desperation while an all-white jury took the testimony of a white woman, any white woman- however unstable or compromised- over the testimony of a black man- any black man, however virtuous and full of integrity.
There was no recourse, no court of appeal. And if you bucked the system too much, you could be beaten or lynched. Indeed, it is a grim statistic to review but from 1885-1915 there were almost a hundred black people lynched by a mob in our country every year.
You may be interested to know that in the same years there were almost as many white people lynched, a reminder of how simple and violent our country was then, with people willing to take the law into their own hands with regularity that we would find disturbing today.
That fear that African-Americans lived with routinely was so crippling to their souls. It didn’t have to be like that, but that is what happened.
The Southern historian C. Vann Woodward pointed out that at the end of the Civil War in 1865, just after slaves were emancipated, there were many examples of integration for about 10 years in the South. I found it surprising to learn. Colonel Thomas Wentworth wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly in 1878 about a trip he took to Charleston, South Carolina in which he noted that the fire department was integrated, the trains were integrated. He saw a black policeman arrest a drunk and disorderly white man without incident, integrated theaters, drinking establishments, ice cream stands.
His article suggested that more progress had been made in certain parts of the South than in most towns in New England where there were hardly any African-Americans.
Of course, during those ten years, after the defeat of the Civil War, after the destruction of the economy in the South, political power in the South was anemic and weak. But, as they started to take back control of their states again, the racial class system was re-born and enforced by law. African-Americans were politically disenfranchised with a series of laws that curtailed their right to vote- literacy qualifications, property qualifications, and the poll tax (all ruled unconstitutional later on); special exemptions were made to protect white people’s ability to vote like the ‘grandfather clause’ (even if you couldn’t read and owned no property if your grandfather had been registered, you could be too.), the ‘good character’ clause (if you could find another white guy to testify that you were a good old boy, you could register even though you were illiterate).
By 1910, all southern states and Texas, Oklahoma had such restrictions that something like only 5% of blacks could vote, even though they were a majority of 26 parishes in Lousiana for example.
And it was during this period that we instituted strict segregation laws, primarily that African-Americans were only allowed to live in certain sections of town that you can still see today in Baltimore, in Atlanta, in Birmingham, in Jackson and throughout the south.
Steamboats, street cars, amusement parks, even prisons and hospitals were completely segregated.
The intention was clear enough. We wanted to create a perpetual servant class. Whites monopolized control of the legislature, the police force and the entire economic infrastructure from banking to farming to all small business.
Lawyers will recall that in the Plessy v. Ferguson case the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that ‘legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instinct.’ That was the predominant American attitude at the time. Thirty five years later, when the Nobel sociologist and economist Gunnar Myrdal did a study of the South, he concluded that the Jim Crow laws were actually creating and fostering racial prejudice. That was how other Europeans viewed us.
Fortunately, we recognized the contradiction at the heart of our country and we started to correct it in the Civil Rights movement. We realized that if the American Dream is not open to everyone, then it isn’t a real social virtue. We began dismantling segregation, first at the polls, then in education, jobs, the police force, more slowly in housing and other areas…
But the spiritual legacy that remains palpable after slavery and a century of Jim Crow discrimination is that sense of “fear” that still haunts the African-American psyche, says Ta-Nehesi Coates. It strikes me as very real, even if it is difficult to quantify or measure.
I can remember images of the overt fear from the Jim Crow era from my own childhood. I was eight years old when the Civil Rights bill was passed, so I have the memories of a child from the old South because my grandparents lived in Memphis. Maybe because I was just a child that expression of fear was palpable. Adults often acted back then like kids didn’t exist.
I remember the way the (all black) ambulance drivers and orderlies snapped to when my grandmother entered the room as the Director of the Hospital.
I remember my uncle, probably 25 at the time, only high school educated, foreman at the warehouse interacting with the dozens of black guys that worked for him. I remember the way that those exchanges could switch from easy joking to anxious and fearful deference just like that.
I remember sensing that in black guys as a kid. Probably because I was just an innocent kid, I was embarrassed by it. It took a long time to assume the dysfunctional attitudes of racial superiority (that permeated everything in the South then) and I was just too young before the whole era started to really shred. But I have a palpable memory of grown black men stammering with internalized inferiority, having to placate this imbalance of power.
Fear and anxiety permeated so much of that world. I can only imagine what it was like when they had to deal with the cops. The police force back then was not integrated in the least.
Thank God that era is over. But I can certainly understand how young black men, especially those that still live in the hood, have that same sense of psychic fear induced each and every time we have another over use of violent force. I can understand that collectively young black men are, so to speak, re-traumatized. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.
We used violence and brutality to enforce slavery. That trauma was not healed, so it was transmuted to the next generation. Our country continued the trauma through Jim Crow laws, creating the slums, the under-education of four/five generations and the economic under-development of five/six generations.
We had some noble efforts to address some specific issues in the “War on Poverty” in the 60’s and opening education and employment opportunities through the 70’s and 80’s but we never directly addressed the specific injustice that was done to African-Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow. We simply lifted the overt restrictions against them.
What we have socially today are these remnants of fear that have not been healed, especially not in the hood where poverty and race still have crippling symptoms. As we have gotten further away from overt racism of our past, as our society has become more complex, it has gotten harder for us to craft legal solutions like Affirmative Action in a way that meaningful addresses the very real handicaps African-Americans have uniquely experienced as a people. At the same time, our world has become much more complex, so that we now live in a multi-cultural pluralistic world where literally we have people from all over the world
I taught on these subjects for 8 years and I know how complex the arguments actually are. We aren’t going to solve them this morning. But I come back to this at the beginning of Black History Month after a year of protests that have spontaneously developed across the country. We haven’t done enough to redress the wrongs that African-Americans have labored under and the way you know that, spiritually, morally is that sense of fear, that sense of anxiety and inferiority that black parents and children share.
And we know this. 1 John says, “There is no fear in love. For perfect love casts out fear.” We cannot legislate love. But we do know this, that every time a black child in our country thinks to themselves, “I am not as good as”, “I am not as loveable as” we have failed that child. What we are doing in our world is not good enough. Not yet.
We Christians follow a God who taught us “You are a child of God.” “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.” We know that love is the way and that driving back fear in the name of transcendent love is the real spiritual path towards redemption, towards healing salvation.
We know that toleration is not enough. We must move towards genuine acceptance, respect and love which develops the inner potential that we see in every child. Our perspective is a fuller transcendent view than legal justice because this is what we understand God’s will to be for all people.
We have to do better in police enforcement, in criminal justice reform, sure… More broadly, we have to drive back that fear and inferiority that children learn without ever being taught about it. We have to transcend that fear with love. And we will know we are making progress when that nagging sense of fear is largely a relic of the past. As a society, we still have a long way to go.
In the meantime, a word of thanks to our congregation for becoming a spiritual community that is more and more diverse. I have to tell you that I am grateful to be a pastor to such a group. I grew up in an extended family that was led by the tail lights of history, always looking back to our racist past with nostalgia.
When I grew up, I hoped to be part of a spiritual community that was guided by the headlights of the future and what we could become if we realized our potential through each other. We may not be changing the world, but we are healing people, one child at a time. I don’t take it for granted.
In 1955, when the bus boycotts started in Montgomery, Alabama Dr. King addressed the very first group of protestors for change. I couldn’t help but think how relevant his words are for us today. He said, “If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people- a black people- who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’. This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility”. Amen.