That Would Put Us at 1888

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Since 2014, I think I’ve been told on three separate occasions that a blog post I’ve written has “set racial reconciliation back 50 years.” I think that would put us circa 1888 by now.

What was the state of racial reconciliation in 1888? If you google “United States in 1888” and check out many of the pages chronicling events that year, you won’t find much (if anything) mentioned about African Americans. Grover Cleveland was president. The “Schoolhouse Blizzard” killed 235 in the Dakota territories. Another blizzard hit the East Coast. National Geographic was founded. John Reed of Scotland brought golf to Yonkers, New York. The Washington Monument officially opened to the public.

You can find a lot of facts and trivia for 1888 and the Gilded Age of which it’s a part. But you won’t find a lot of descriptions about the state of things between African Americans and White Americans. Not with a general search like that—which looks a lot like the general history taught in our schools. If you believe that Google search and most text books, African Americans were hardly visible, hardly real, and hardly worth thinking about.

But for African Americans, that’s hardly the case.

Type in “African Americans in 1888” and you get more American history than is typically told. In that same Gilded Age (1870-1900), a period named for its rapid economic growth and industrial expansion, African Americans were having all their hard-earned rights following emancipation and Reconstruction systematically dismantled by counter-Reconstruction. African Americans were stripped of voting rights, political power, and economic opportunity. The U.S. Supreme Court voided the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, opening the gates for a later rise in white supremacy and the terrorizing of African Americans by hate groups. The U.S. Supreme Court also invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which forbid individuals and businesses from discriminating on the basis of race. Major League Baseball prohibited African American players from joining the league in 1887. By 1888-89, states passed segregation and Jim Crow laws on trains and public transit. It would take African Americans nearly 100 years to regain rights that were once protected in 1875.

At least two things should be obvious by this simple recounting of differing realities in America 150 years ago:

  1. Folks who think a blog post sets back racial reconciliation 50 years are not sufficiently acquainted with history and reconciliation to be taken seriously. The real threats happen in legislatures, where signed bills do far more than blog posts.
  2. Folks who think a blog post set back racial reconciliation 50 years are not really clear on how our current level of reconciliation has been achieved.

On that second point, just think of the contrast between what was happening in America at large (read, white America) with its rapid economic expansion and what was happening in African America with the roll back of nearly every freedom and right gained after the Civil War. Mark Twain’s use of “Gilded Age” could not be more fitting, because the country was thinly gilded with the gold of material prosperity covering the puss of racial apartheid.

We must understand that every single gain in equal rights, civil rights, and basic freedom and dignity has come through the courage, conviction, risk, and sacrifice of African Americans and their few allies pointing out and protesting injustices. Not one single right has ever been given to African Americans out of the kindness of people’s hearts. Not one. Every right we have has come after long years of protest and pressure and appeal to conscience.

So, when my interlocutors argue that by pointing out problems in society and the church I am setting things back, they prove themselves not only ignorant of the history but also prove themselves ignorant of how change has come. It is quite likely that if African Americans never protested but waited for “good folks” to do the right thing we would still be living in Jim Crow segregation at least. And “good folks” would still be saying, “Just wait; now is not the time.” And “good Christian folks” would still be mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” as Dr. King put it in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

A good number of folks who think they are protecting the unity of the church with exhortations to quietude and denial of injustice do little more than echo the voices of people 50 years ago who opposed progress and equality. Perhaps that’s the very reason it sounds to them like I’m setting things back. They call for quietude while claiming to celebrate a reconciliation their accommodationist position never contributed to.

Let me make this plain: It is not pointing out injustice that creates injustice. It is not pointing out racial insensitivity, animosity, or racism that creates racial insensitivity, animosity, or racism. It is not pointing out disunity that creates disunity. The long track record of history demonstrates that by pointing out those things we give ourselves opportunity for real justice, opportunity for a real redress of racism, and opportunity for a true unity.

Pointing out these things is not an act of cynicism or pessimism (at least for me). Our history (by which I mean American history, of which African American history is a part) and the progress it shows encourages me. I think we’ve come a long, long way. Let me illustrate how far with a simple sentence:

“Yesterday I sat on a plane next to a white woman, and we had a wonderful conversation.”

You probably think nothing of that sentence. The fact that it doesn’t even register curiosity is evidence of how far we’ve come. Just 50 years ago, it was highly unlikely that I could afford a plane ticket. That’s economic progress. Certainly 50 years ago I’m unlikely to be able to take public transportation with integrated seating sections. That’s legal progress. Fifty years ago talking to a white woman in an intimate way could excite mob violence and get me killed. That’s social progress. We can take all that  progress for granted either by acting as if the country just changed its mind one day or by failing to realize countless lives engaged in unimaginable sacrifice made possible that simple sentence with its profound achievements. We honor those people and their sacrifices better if we keep our shoulders to the plow in the cause of even more equality and justice.

So the next time you hear someone say or read someone write that someone has set racial reconciliation back 50 years, you might just ask yourself, Is the person saying that representing the views of those who earned the 50 years of progress or the view of those who 50 years ago were opposed to it? Dig a little deeper, know the history, and be careful about whom you charge with setting things back.

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