A new ideal in race relations is capturing the hearts of the young.

In my lifetime, Americans, including evangelicals, have gone through two stages in black-white relationships. They have now entered a third, which we sincerely hope will be the last.

My mother represented the first stage. She grew to maturity on a farm in central Ohio during the period just before the first World War. She lived her adult years in a small town that included only two black families, both of whom lived on the other side of the tracks.

Mama feared all blacks, largely because she really didn’t know any of them. She was polite to a black person if she met one, was happy to feed one scraps of food if he came as a tramp to the back door, decried lynchings and all Jim Crow laws as violations of human justice, despised the Ku Klux Klan as a blight on white society, and believed in sending missionaries to convert blacks overseas.

But Mama was also convinced that blacks generally fell short of the intelligence of white people, were almost universally dirty, and tended to be dishonest and immoral (especially black men who were believed to be generally oversexed, which is why it was thought dangerous for any white woman to be caught out after dark in a black neighborhood). Mama also believed they were good-natured, but lazy and shiftless.

From the white perspective this was the era of distrust and put-down. Blacks were human and their rights were to be protected, but blacks needed to be kept in their place.

Attitudes in the Bible Belt were not significantly different from those held anywhere else. All of this was too bad, those believers would agree, because like all the rest of us, blacks were created in the image of God. Yet, misinterpreting Genesis 9, those Bible Belt believers would say it represented the judgment of God upon blacks because of the sin of Ham and the curse placed on him and his descendants.

Black response was, as might have been expected, a combination of hopeless resignation and anger. Many simply adjusted to the inevitable in a white racist society. The older black spirituals reflect this attitude. Hope for this life was impossible, but for the Christian, trusting in Jesus brought a vivid and compensatory hope awaiting across Jordan’s farther shore in the sweet by and by. If this represented an overly emotional Christianity, it nonetheless sustained blacks through a bleak period of their history and gave meaning and courage to their lives. For many others, hatred of their white oppressors seethed in their souls; and the pressure built up for the explosion that was to come.

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No doubt personal affection between some blacks and whites during this period was not only present but powerful. All too often, however, for whites it was like the love of a cowboy for his horse: he cared for it and protected it. It almost became an appendage to his own body. But he owned it. And blacks understood that kind of love all too well.

Consciousness Raised

My generation, coming out of the second World War, represents a second stage in black/white relations. I still remember, vividly and with shame, a childhood scene from the playground of vacation Bible school. In the excitement of the contest, I called my black opponent a nigger. Now, I know nothing of the religious views of my teacher, then or now; but she had strong social convictions. When the game was over, she took me aside and delivered a stiff and much-needed rebuke. Whatever the word nigger meant to me, it was a cruel term in the eyes of my black companion (“Negro,” my teacher called him then). If I really wanted to be kind, she said, I should never use the word. I owe much to that woman.

As I grew older, I gradually shed most of the prejudices about blacks my upbringing had built into me. Moreover, I learned that whites must take the blame for whatever fragments of truth were to be found in my mother’s prejudices. We enslaved the blacks through the first two and one-half centuries of American history. We destroyed their family life by breeding them like animals. We crowded them into “nigger towns” in both North and South. We forced them into menial, low-paying jobs and isolated them from the culture of the nation. We kept them down by denying them educational advantages—even to their brightest.

Evangelicals were no better on this score than the general populace. Both our country and our evangelical subculture might have been different if we had been willing to admit Martin Luther King, Jr., to one of our evangelical seminaries. (He tried to gain admission, I have been told, and was made unwelcome.) The racial make-up of evangelical schools still betrays their history.

Whites, not blacks, ought to pay the penalty for their sins against our fellow citizens and brothers in Christ. Affirmative action was certainly the right way to make amends for our un-Christlike past.

Whites, one older Christian woman told me as I prepared this editorial, must go out of their way to prove to blacks that they love them, regard them as fully equal, and value their contribution to American history and the evangelical cause.

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By contrast, my friend added, blacks must be willing to appropriate their new acceptance and forgive the whites when they truly repent.

But blacks coming out of the fifties and sixties wanted no part of this sweetness and light. Filled with rage at the injustices heaped upon them by the white community, they demanded their rights—all of them, right then and there—and with interest.

No Special Favors

But times are changing. A new mood has crept over both black and white. Last week I raised the issue of black-white relationships in my college class in Christian Doctrine. I relayed to my students the concern of my older friend. They would have none of it. The class was mixed black and white, but their views on relationships between the races were identical. Why, protested white students, do we need to go out of our way to show we are friendly to blacks? When we walk into the college dining hall, we don’t first look around to see who have blond hair and choose to sit with them and avoid the brunets. We see our personal friends and sit with them. We don’t think about who is black or white.

Blacks agreed: We don’t want anyone to try to be specially friendly to us because we are black. Either they are our friends or they are not. If someone acts friendly because we are black, that’s not real friendship. In fact, it’s a subtle racism that distinguishes between the races by showing special favors. It’s a “put-down.” We don’t want special consideration. We are proud of our blackness. We wish to be treated as individuals. Anything less than that is racism, and we resent it.

Of course, this attitude is not entirely new. The three stages have not marched past in strictly chronological order, and these students recognize that there is still a lot of hidden racism—some consciously hidden because we know it is wrong, and some unconscious. We still need to be on guard against it.

A New Day

I think these young people are a little starry-eyed. But I am grateful for their response. We live in a new day of race relations, a day with promise for the future. Our prayer is that this new attitude will become universal in our society.

The trouble is, these young people are confusing the ideal goal of color-blindness with the overcompensating means—often far less than ideal—by which that splendid ideal may be attained. I share the students’ goal for individuals and for society. True racial equality and a society free from racism will only be achieved when people regard others for what they are, not for what color their skin is.

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But we live in a society where people do not accept the biblical teaching that God made humankind of one blood (Acts 17:26), and that all are of equal and infinite value. Therefore, we must have laws backed by force—not to enforce the ideal, but to prevent the worst abuses by selfish humans in a society whose structures have been warped.

Christians are committed to a society of “justice for all.” We seek equal opportunity for black and white. So long as the life span of the average black remains significantly below that of the white, so long as opportunities for gainful employment are immensely less for blacks than for whites, so long as health care is miserably poorer for blacks than for whites, so long as black children are barred by their color and family background from educational opportunities freely open to those from white families, so long as blacks face hurdles to voting rights not met by whites, we should seek to right these wrongs.

I am not saying that society should reward everyone equally or that government should meet all needs. Nor am I saying that factors other than skin color or racism have not played significant roles in the plight of black America. I am saying that racism is one significant factor and that it is wrong. I am saying that evangelicals should seek laws and societal structures to eliminate the worst cases of discrimination. In certain cases it is even right and necessary to employ affirmative action programs to overcome the effects of the past so that, for example, today’s black youth can catch up in America’s educational program—and not indefinitely perpetuate patterns forced on society by a history of racism in former generations.

My young students are right on. They see the goal toward which we should strive. But we live in a society whose structures are twisted by sin. With no illusions that we can legislate perfection, we are still responsible citizens who seek to do what we can to bring about a more just society.

We must set the pace in the struggle to make American society free from racism. Christians, of all people, should be committed wholeheartedly to the biblical principle that God has made of one blood all people. The place to begin is right inside the Christian church.


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