Hope and Act for an End to Racism

I suppose some people think college professors have it very easy.  And in some ways, maybe we do.  We teach about things we love to study, we get to explore things to learn even more about things that interest us.  We get to touch the future by inspiring our students to go farther and learn more than we have.  In a sense, the academic life is all about advancement in knowledge and understanding.

But there is another side to being a college professor.  Whether we like it or not, we can become drawn into our students lives through our roles as advisers, whether formally in terms of helping to craft a plan of study or career exploration or perhaps more informally as mentors and role models.  And yes, whether we like it or not, that modeling may even extend to appearance:  I saw a young woman who, in her pre-professional interview, had adopted the hairstyle and mannerisms of her undergraduate research mentor.  It was like looking at twins.

Part of my job is to serve on the Students of Concern Team, a group of faculty and staff tasked with keeping tabs on students at risk for hurting themselves or others.  I hear heart-breaking stories of young people who are struggling with terrible burdens, some so great they attempt to take their own lives.  Last year, one even succeeded.  I want so desperately to be able to help them all, but sometimes, we can’t.

Over all, I love my job. But sometimes, it gets to me. For example, I have been trying to encourage a very nice young African American student, trying to build his confidence so that he can really demonstrate what he is capable of–and I can see real potential there. One thing that has held him back is that he works a lot of hours in a week, which cuts into rest and study time. My most recent efforts came too late, as seen by a less than helpful performance on the final.

He came to see me Friday, and asked if I really meant what I had said to him about what I see in his potential. I assured him I meant every word. He opened up to me then and said that with all of the things happening in the world today–Ferguson and Baltimore in particular–he sometimes wonders how long he is going to live.

I was crushed by that comment. How do you respond to it? Here’s a good kid who really shouldn’t have anything to worry about from the police, but because of the color of his skin, he wonders how long he will live. What can you say?

It made me angry at the national situation, and very sad for the anxiety he lives with every day.

I don’t understand racial violence. But I know without a doubt I hate every expression of it. And while it hasn’t physically touched Martin, the tension is there.

How do we move beyond it? How do we see beyond the color of skin to understand, appreciate and celebrate our common humanity? Who can wear the mantle of Dr. King and bring the races together with passion and reason?

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that led the greatest non-violent movement in American history.  His writings and speeches are so full of wisdom that it is hard to select favorite passages.  However, Dr. King gave us one of the greatest speeches ever made when he stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on that August day over 50 years ago and delivered the work now known simply as “I Have a Dream.”  In that speech, he says that the beleaguered black population, who were by and large the descendants of slaves, was looking forward to the day when America lives up to its celebrated creed of equality.

In that speech, he says,

 “But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

 “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

 Many of us claim to be people of a Christian faith, but we deny that faith when we express any hint of racism.  How many times is the idea expressed that there is “…neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”? (Galatians 3.28; cf. Colossians 3.11)  Christian people too often—sometimes under their breath—make derogatory comments about people of other races.  It is not in the spirit of Jesus, who taught a Samaritan woman and who cast a Samaritan as the hero in one of his greatest parables, both of which were of a mixed race and loathed by pure-bred Jews of that day.  It is not in the spirit and image of God who declared his creation to be “very good.”

It doesn’t matter that this is the 21st century.  Racism today is as wrong as racism in any other time.  Until we lay aside our prejudices and recognize the spectrum of racial variance as nothing more than the external expression of our fundamental humanity, we can never have true freedom from suspicion, intolerance and the host of other hindrances preventing us from true fellowship.

I echo the sentiment of Dr. King’s most poignant expression of that dream when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  We aren’t there yet, but the only thing stopping us is us, not only those who wish to maintain the status quo of suspicion and mistrust, but those unwilling to move forward to end racism once and for all.  Dr. King saw the same things.

 “We cannot walk alone.

 “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

 “We cannot turn back.”


 

If you have never read the text of the “I Have a Dream” speech or listened to it delivered in Dr. King’s inimitable style, I encourage you take the time and really consider it.  Few writings of the 20th century are as important as that short speech.  Every time I read it, my eyes well up with tears.  Here is a link where you can find it: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

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