I grew up in a white Protestant family. I attended white elementary and high schools. I was taught by and worshipped in a white Protestant church. I’m old enough to remember the off hand prejudicial remarks made by members of my extended family: “That blue car is a N— color.” “Oh, he’ll always try to Jew you down.” “Watch out! Kennedy will be a puppet of the Catholic church.” The only black people I knew (from a safe distance) were the people of African nations to whom missionaries were sent. No one needed to teach me that the white race was better, more intelligent, more (justifiably) deserving. I breathed it in as easily as I breathed midwestern air.
Fortunately and thankfully, I also breathed in another wisp of air as I listened to my dad offhandedly talk after supper about his day at the Detroit factory where he was what might be called middle management: “Today when the sweeper and I ate lunch…” The sweeper? Without being told, I knew this was the janitor and everyone knew all janitors were black. And he and my dad ate lunch together.
Recently I read about the attitude of some white preachers in the early 1960s: “Some white preachers slandered him as a ‘philanderer with communist sympathies.’ Others dismissed his heroic efforts saying King dabbled in politics and didn’t stick to the pure gospel that sidestepped earthly racism for heavenly rewards.” Sadly, I remember these attitudes although not espoused from the pulpit of my evangelical church. Perhaps more dangerous than sermon fodder, I breathed them in from not-so-offhand remarks made by faithful churchgoers of my parents’ generation.
As the tide turns and we this week inaugurate a white president, I’ve been wondering… If Barack Obama’s skin had been white (or even light tan) and his name had been John Jones, would his politics alone have generated such vituperative reactions? After a week’s vacation produced a healthy tan, would Nancy Reagan or Jacqueline Kennedy been dubbed “an ape in heels”? Would we have accepted one artist’s depiction of the president’s wife as a “grotesquely muscular-armed Marie Antoinette” if her name had been Sally O’Hara?
I have lived long enough to know that prejudice and racism lie just below the surface, exposed to view whenever I think my rights, my heritage, my children’s future, my way of life are in danger. But how can I claim my anything if I also claim to be a follower of Jesus? How do I square my demands for rights with Jesus’ life: …he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being? Or the apostle Paul’s teaching: …in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
I wonder if Donald Trump would have won—on politics and issues alone—if his skin had been black? I wonder…