In my life, I do not recall a time since the mid-60s when race relations has been as heated and urgent a topic as it is currently. To be sure, those with an extended memory understand that things now are much different (and certainly better) than they were in the 60s. And yet, racial inequality and injustice are far more than mere ancient memories. Week by week we hear new and alarming stories of racial tensions and violence. From Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland to North Charleston to Tulsa, the stories continue.
I found myself wondering recently why some of my closest friends who are non-Caucasian make room for me in their lives. They have numerous reasons to be suspicious, resistant, or even hostile. Oh, to be sure, I try to live as a progressive individual, open to all, embracing of all, free from prejudice (to the extent that a person can be when prejudice is part of one’s national history). And yet, from the viewpoint of any non-white individual, I was born into privilege. Into wealth? No. Into extraordinary social status? No. Into a circle of political power or influence? No. But, into privilege? Undeniably, yes. I was born as a white male into a society that opened doors wider and more quickly to white males than to anyone else. Opportunities came easily to me because of my color and gender, while those same opportunities posed significant challenges to Blacks, Hispanics, and women. And unless I took advantage of every opportunity not merely with gratitude but also with a voice of advocacy (“Why is that person not allowed to walk through this same door with me?”), then why would people of color not be resentful of me?
There is an argument which we sometimes hear: “That was then, this is now. The Civil War was 150 years ago. That age is over.” But, Jim Crow America, the KKK, and crosses burned in front yards continued long after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law. Refusal of admission to universities continued long afterward, as well. I remember growing up in an era where segregation was the law concerning everything from schools to theater seating to public water fountains to rest rooms. It wasn’t that long ago. Furthermore, obviously none of us has to appeal to distant memory to name incidents where young people have been profiled, targeted, and even killed by people with racist motives and, occasionally even by those who are charged to protect them. We’ve seen that in the last year, the last month, the last week. Obviously Frost was right. We still “have miles to go before we sleep.” (Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)
As a nation, this day in history is to a significant extent about race and our individual needs to address remnants of racism we naively thought were gone. However, in my own personal pilgrimage this day is also about race and grace, which brings me back to the question I’ve been pondering: Why do my closest friends who are non-Caucasian make room for me in their lives? The answer has to be “grace.” Somehow they have come to understand the teaching of Jesus about loving those who have not always been lovely. (Matthew 5:44) They have reached a spiritual point of not denying the tragedies and travesties of history while still not rejecting or hating the great-grandchildren of those who were guilty. They rightfully expect me to be aware of my history and, thus, to be sincerely motivated to help build a better and more just future. And they are willing to love another person, as Dr. King encouraged, not based on the color of their skin but on the quality of their character. In all those ways, my friends of color are more than friends. They are mentors, guides for the journey, incarnate reminders of what I need to become in my own relationships to all people.