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Sermon reflections on the Black experience: Race does indeed matter

Sermon reflections on the Black experience: Race does indeed matter

President Barack Obama delivered a remarkable commencement address recently at Morehouse College It was a speech that focused on the responsibilities of the young black men who were about to seek their fortunes in the world as graduates of one of the leading black educational institutions in this country. The young men were exhorted to take personal responsibility for their lives and to resist blaming this country’s racism for the obstacles that they may encounter in the future.

The President said, “There is no longer any room for excuses… nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.… Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.”

The newly-minted graduates were told to be role models for others, to “keep hustling, keep on your grind, and get other folks to do the same.”

Now, despite these lofty preachments in the President’s speech which undoubtedly played well in White America, many in the black community were concerned that his words harkened back to the days of Jim Crow segregation, when Booker T. Washington admonished black people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. It was not lost on some that just like those early days of the 20th century, this century still finds too many Black Americans without boots.

Disturbingly missing from the President’s address to these young men, was a warning of just how dangerous it is to be a black man in America today.

There was no mention, for instance, of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager shot down outside a gated community in Florida by a white self-appointed vigilante.

No words of warning about the reality that young black men are more than three times as likely to be stopped on suspicion of having engaged in criminal activity than young white men. Nothing was said about the reality of mass incarceration of black men at a rate that defies rational explanation.

The President also did not draw attention to the fact that in the very city in which he presently resides, Washington, D.C., 3 out of every 4 young black men can expect to serve some time in prison. [1] No warning was issued that in some cities, over 80% of young black men have criminal records which will most certainly lead to a lifetime sentence of hopelessness and poverty.

My brother has three sons. And as a black father, here are the realities that he has found it necessary to teach his sons.

Regardless of how many privileges they enjoy;

Regardless of what prep and Ivy League schools they may have attended;

Regardless of the fact that they are the offspring of two highly educated parents who regularly attend a predominantly white professional and upper middle class Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina;

At the end of the day, those young men cannot escape the fact that they are and will be the object of an irrational hate, fear, stereotype and discrimination that they played no part in creating.

This is after all, presumably the Year of Our Lord 2013, and not 1913. But the Supreme Court’s recent decision effectively emasculating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 suggests otherwise. Nor did the Court’s decision regarding the precarious future of affirmative action allay the growing anxiety that the clock is being turned back.

Sadly, no one, including our own churches, is calling this nation and its people to account.

No one questions why our schools and neighborhoods are more segregated now than they were in 1954.

No one demands to know why the gap between black and white children’s educational test scores has not narrowed significantly.

No one condemns the environmental racism that systematically locates toxic waste sites in our poorest urban neighborhoods where black people disproportionately live.

No one wants to confront the realities of racial profiling, the mass incarceration of untold numbers of black men in our prisons, nor the persistence of a system of racialized social control known as the criminal justice system that is every bit as pernicious and destructive of black lives as Jim Crow ever was.

What Martin Luther King called the “congenital deformity” of racism is still embedded deep within the American psyche.

And until we look deep within ourselves and wrestle with some of our own demons that reside there, we will remain what David Shipler so aptly called us -- A Country of Strangers. And we will continue to condemn and sentence to life on the margins of our society those who we have determined to beyond our circle of concern.

What better place to carry on God’s work than in our own congregations--our faith communities? To move beyond our expectations that the “Other” must be culturally assimilated and made to conform to our norms and our value systems. Instead, how can we endeavor to create a “beloved community” of all God’s people who prized and valued for who they are as Children of God?

Within our church communities, we must actively and intentionally be about the work of restoration, reconciliation and justice--working tirelessly to realize God’s incessant call to live in a just and caring community:

  • To embrace our inter-relatedness
  • To confess our interdependence
  • To acknowledge our sameness and worthiness in the eyes of God [Do the words, “Made in the image of God” sound familiar?]
  • To reconcile the world-- seeking to restore all things to right relationship with the Creator, and with one another
  • To examine deeply how we have both consciously and unconsciously become the instruments of one another’s oppression

So the question of the moment quite simply is what kind of church shall we choose to be?


[1] The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.


Amen, and thank you so much! I'm grateful for your witness.

If you look at Obama's full speech, to his credit, he does discuss the continued existence of racism in America. There's quite a bit of contradiction in the speech as a whole.

...we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.

You are right, Mr. Jacobs, that Obama is missing part of the story. He takes these students' eyes off the continued institutionalized racism of the new Jim Crow. And you're absolutely right to point out that the leaders of spiritual communities -- even, sometimes, in inner-city neighborhoods -- are afraid to speak directly to parishioners about how serious that racism is. And congregations don't ask themselves the question nearly enough of how they continue to propagate it. This requires sustained, deep, and sometimes painful self-reflection. It's one of those problems that can't be solved by simply, cheerfully "inviting" the Other to join our church. It really is a question of justice -- that is, of every single Christian looking inside herself or himself, and each other, and trying to discern the subtle, unconscious ways in which we are still living out the long legacy of racism in America, and doing whatever possible to right that wrong.

Situating the black experience in the context of the global workforce is, on the one hand, empowering -- it makes the graduates feel as if they are part of a bigger, international economic project -- but it also draws a false comparison. It's not the same thing to grow up African-American or in China or India or Brazil. One can't just say that they "started with a whole lot less than you did"; how does one even begin to measure, or to generalize, that? We oughtn't to play into the "hypercompetitive" quality of today's world; we should be focusing first on caring for each other. Obama makes that point, too -- that new lawyers should be defending the poor, that new doctors serve the underserved. Looking over the speech, I'm not quite sure how he reconciles these two ideas.

But one place where caring can begin is in our spiritual communities. It's not quite right that "no one, including our own churches, is calling this nation and its people to account." A few people are -- like Alexander -- but far, far too few. It can very well begin in the pulpit, and in Bible study, and in communal prayer. This isn't occuring nearly enough in mainline Protestant denominations; let's hope your message reaches a broad audience.

Thank you Erik. You are so right. The work of empowering and valuing one another must begin with us in our spiritual communities, with each of us assuming the role of prophet and proclaimer of justice. After all, "if not us,who? If not now, when?" Canon Greg Jacobs

Dear Canon Jacobs, Having met you several times-- at Convention and once at our church,St. Andrew's,
Harrington Park, it was always with great joy and appreciation for your gift of expression and the feeling and presence of God you represented.
The tragedy (the greatest) of our United States is that we are NOT united! Black is beautiful--remember that slogan? It is a source of great sorrow to me that we are still divided by our prejudices. There is so much to learn and love in other's ways.
Growing up in Montclair we did rub shoulders with other races however here in H.P. not. Of course we did have Cory Booker who may or may not have good memories of his school life here.
May we all remember that we are 'one' and what is best for one is best for all.
Thank you for YOU and may God bless us all,
Nancy Duran

Thank you Nancy for sharing your insights. Many mistakenly believe that being united means that we all must think, feel, believe the same thing, even share the same values. Such thinking does dishonor to God who takes pleasure in diversity. I rather think that for Christians, the understanding of being united is grounded in the words of Paul who exhorted the Philippians: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus". Philippians 2:5 Canon Greg Jacobs

I am very disappointed in Canon Jacobs' article. He continues to stir up issues that are not really there to favor his point. Trayvon Martin was NOT killed by a white racist. Zimmerman is a Hispanic, not a "white" person. He is as white as President Obama and Tiger Woods. I never hear anyone say that Obama or Woods are white. Gee why is that? But the media and radical black leaders wanted Zimmerman to be white so they could stir up the racism card. What happened was a tragedy for sure. One person is dead and the others' life is ruined. But to try to blame racism as the cause is just irresponsible and self serving. Recently a white kid about the same age as Trayvon was killed in Paterson NJ by a black man. Isaac Rinas had just graduated Wayne Valley HS and was shot a couple of hours later. Why no national outrage when a white person is killed by a black man? OH he deserved it - he was down in Paterson trying to buy a gun. Well guess what, there are pictures of Trayvon with a hand gun while smoking a joint. Does that mean he deserved to die? - the answer is no, same as it is for Issac Rinas. But no outrage for Rinas. No articles in the VOICE saying we need to stop the violence. "Washington, D.C., 3 out of every 4 young black men can expect to serve some time in prison." Well that statistic is astonishing by itself without any other facts. But when you find out the majority of the crimes they are in jail for are crimes against other black people it tells a different story. But you rarely hear a black radical leader telling their own young men to stop the crime against one another. They always put the blame on the 'white man'. Some black leaders do, but more should instead of trying to blame someone else. What President Obama was saying to the students is to stop using excuses and go out and be a good person who works hard and you will be successful. Hard work and perseverance is timeless in a formula for success. Are there racist people in this world? Absolutely and they come in all colors, white, black brown, yellow, etc. Heck Trayvon used a racial slur when talking about Zimmerman to his girlfriend. He called him a ‘crazy cracker’. Yes that is a racial slur. As a white person I am offended by the term because I do not think of myself as a racist. The majority of people in this country are not racist. Because if we were we would not have elected President Obama, twice. A white person with his lack of experience would never have even been nominated - by either party, Democrat or Republican. As a white person I get mad when a politician uses the race card when race is not even an issue. When racism is an issue I fully support the cause to make it right. But when racism is played up in a situation when it really is not there – like with the Trayvon tragedy - it makes me numb to the racism cause. It is like the boy who cried wolf.

It's a shame that the writer of this piece chose to remain anonymous. While it makes a number of valid and thought provoking points, it detracts measurably from its credibility that its author lacked the courage of conviction to put his/her name next to his/her ideas. The unfortunate "giveaway" is the gratuitous insult to our President, one that makes the oft-repeated but patently absurd right-wing assertion that "[a] white person with his lack of experience would never have even been nominated - by either party, Democrat or Republican." Much as the writer goes to great pains to disclaim even a touch of racism, this would seem to belie that claim, for it is so easily refuted and so totally irrelevant to the thrust of the writer's ostensible stated purpose.

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