Gather ’round, folks. Auntie Becky is going to tell you a story. A metaphor really, about race in America. And about the American Dream.
Imagine for a moment, a long relay race where for generations it has been considered acceptable and in some cases even required to break the limbs of a one group of people trying to run the race. The people thought this was OK. After all, it wasn’t long ago that this group of people had been used as horses to pull everyone else’s carts around the track. At least they were free of that back-breaking work. Now, they just had to contend with some needed cobbling. To keep the race running smoothly. Make sure the people who have been running the race so diligently for generations don’t lose any hard-earned ground. Anyone who resists the “in group’s” right to break bones is killed, so that keeps everything on an even keel. Not a bad system, really.
Of course, people with broken bones do not do very well in the race. Pretty quickly there are people lying all over the place with broken bones and deformities from past breaks which were never set properly. Many people in that group will simply stop trying to participate in the race. Maybe even set up little shanty towns around the track to do the best that they can outside of the race. The more ambitious set up little lemonade stands along the track and play music for the people running by to keep themselves out of the darkest, scariest parts of the shanty towns. A few are fast enough to elude those who would break their bones, but these would be few and far between. The track is littered with those who tried to be one of the fastest few but got caught. Their broken bones and mutilated corpses remind the out group not to try to hard or rebel against the natural order of things.
Now, let’s say that after a very long time, once most of the people who are able to run the race are pretty well ahead, that people start to come to their senses and decide that it is wrong to break the limbs of the out group. So they ban limb breaking. From that point forward, a person’s success or failure in the race will depend on their efforts and abilities. Except, many of the people from the out group still have broken arms or deformities from past injuries. Some of them were born after their forbearers gave up the race as a lost cause and have never run a day in their life. Many of them have never left their shanty towns to deal with the people in the race before.
Instead of offering training and rehab and counseling and medical care, the people in the race resentfully offer a selected few a slight head start to make up for the fact that they haven’t been able to get a fair shake at competing. Some do-gooders head into the shanty town to paint the walls of the homes of those who are least prepared to compete in the race in order to make them a little more comfortable where they are. A few people who are willing to train people stuck in the shanties make timid efforts at offering their assistance, but the do gooders painting the walls come out and say nasty things to them. So the potential trainers go back to the race and content themselves with yelling out helpful advice about moral bravery and perseverance as they run past.
Most people from the out group do their best to shake off past injuries or to learn to run with the rest. They have a better shot now since getting your bones broken is fairly uncommon. Of course, there are still people in the race who resent and look down on the out group and it’s not uncommon for them to trip one of these new competators as they run past. Those who are in fairly good shape pick themselves up, brush off the scrapes and bumps, limp for a few steps and forge ahead. Those who aren’t in such great shape – maybe have never run the race before, never had training to run or who have been warned by their elders not to try – may find themselves unable to get back up. Or perhaps just decide that it’s not worth it and retreat back to their shanty town. Some just get on the track and realize that they don’t know how to run this race properly and they can’t seem to get their shoelaces to stay tied, and give up. Or they keep going, but have such poor form that they just don’t get anywhere much.
Over time, things do get better. Some of the out group is able to get training on how to run the race well. Some are naturals who are lucky enough to run with a good pack and do well. Many just stumble along the best they can and try to teach their kids what they’ve learned in the hopes that they will be able to run the race well one day.
Meanwhile, the “in group” those with no history, personally or in their families, of being systemically targeted for bone breaking are not too happy with the state of affairs. It’s not the new competition so much, although they do bitterly resent when that new competition is given any head start. It’s that these people from the “out group” still aren’t performing as well as they are. Social scientists claiming to be intellectually brave rush forward with studies which they claim demonstrate that the out group simply isn’t inherently capable of competing in the race at the level common to the in group. People can’t understand why there are still people from the out group hanging around in their shanties. And there are all these people shouting good advice from the track – why don’t these people listen them? When whispers of anger at the state of the race and at the in group’s advantages in the race leak out, people are outraged.
“How dare these people besmirch the virtue of the race! It’s been a long time since people’s limbs were regularly broken – at least a generational lap, maybe even a lap and a half. If they aren’t competing well, that’s their own dang fault. My great grandpa didn’t get a head start and I have a blister on my foot. They just need to get over it. Besides, there’s some people from the ‘out group’ over there who are doing just fine! Or at least I think they’re doing just fine. Maybe they’re just coming to steal my running shoes. I’d better cross over to the other side of the track just to be sure.”
That is my metaphor for race in America. Rather depressing isn’t it?
Years ago, I read an interview with Bishop Desmond Tutu in which he commented on race in America:
When I first came to this country in ’72, I was quite shaken by the intensity of feeling that African-Americans had. And I said I couldn’t understand: Why are they so bitter? Why are they so angry? There, in South Africa [under apartheid], they told you, “You’re nothing, and we’re going to treat you like the nothing you are. And don’t ever hope to think that you have a chance of being treated differently.” Here, you say to them, “You’re equal, and the sky’s the limit.” And they keep bumping their heads against this thing that’s stopping them from reaching out to the stars. And so I understood that it was the illusion of equality, which is still the case. . . Q: How do we fix this problem that half the country doesn’t recognize and the other half is so bitter about? A: You guys [need to] sit down and have a process, something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where people will have the opportunity of telling their story. [There is a] pain in the tummy of every African-American that has not been articulated. And if you were to have a forum recognized by the nation, accepted by the nation, endorsed by the nation, people could come and tell their stories and tell it without fear. You really are a great country, and you owe it to yourselves to exorcise this demon. You owe it to your own children.”
Can you imagine what would have happened if we’d had an Truth and Reconciliation Commission 140 years ago at the ending of slavery? Or 40 years ago with the abolition of Jim Crow? Obviously, not such thing happened. Hopefully we won’t do as our forefathers did and just pass the mess on for the next generation to have to deal with. Even if we did try something like this today, I expect that large numbers of people would continue to refuse to acknowledge the very real pain and damage done by our history of race. They would just resent it and continue to deny any problem. We are certainly getting better, but the intransagence of many (white) people’s thinking on the nature of our racial tensions in this country really limits our ability to move past race as an issue. I have sometimes thought that the continuation of our racial problems in America is God’s judgement on our country for our stubborn refusal to deal head-on with it. One of those “God gave them over to a deranged minds” (Romans 1:28) things. In which case, all I or anyone else can say is “repent, repent, repent”.
*Excerpted from The Upside Down World Takes on Race in America. Available for download from Amazon for $.99.