On Race (and Racism) in America

It’s been over two months since I’ve posted.  My family and I have been out of town.  A lot has happened this summer.

Our summer was busy traveling from youth camps to family camps and a family vacation.  We saw family out of state as well as took a long awaited trip, the one I kept putting off because I was in graduate school.  I promised Margo that I would go on any vacation she planned.  It was the least I could do to thank her for supporting me through doctoral studies.  The trip she planned was in our family van, pulling our camper trailer.  It was a two-week road trip to Yellowstone.

From Chicago across Wisconsin to Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho.  We traveled through 10 states in all.   We saw the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Yellowstone Park, and the Grand Tetons.  There was incredible beauty, much of which is documented on Facebook.   But among the memories I made is an epiphany driving through the West.  At some point in South Dakota, something I knew in fact became profoundly real to me.  It changed how I view myself and America in light of driving through American history.

Driving across the highways that crisscrossed the prairies of the Oregon trail, by Reservations and Native American roadside exhibits, by battle sites of Americans’ drive West, I began to think about race and the fact of my whiteness really sank in.    The epiphany, something I already knew but gained new meaning for me, was this:  There is  no such thing as a white-skinned American in terms of America’s indigenous history.   I was driving across vast lands populated by First Nations peoples and thousands of bison just 150 years ago.   I was struck by how much I felt a stranger there.   I became very self-aware about our being a white American family, with two kids, in a van towing a trailer.  I thought about this against the memories of the Native peoples that once inhabited there.   Thinking about the all-American road trip we were on became a little much for me.   It was as if the Spirit of history spoke through the land to me.  From the central America to the Alaskan Inuit, America is a land of dark-skinned peoples.  I, the white man and his family, am the stranger here.  Measured in millenia, I was.

Race is difficult to talk about for Americans.  As an American with white skin, I find most white Americans deeply resist, or outright protest, any real talk about race.   Yet, to refuse to talk about race severely limits our ability to understand history.  It can even make it impossible.

Race is so much more than skin color and racism is not mere personal prejudice.   Americans did not discover race in the 1960’s and swiftly eradicate racism by the civil rights movement.   Far from it.   Race is a logic-structure that shapes America and all periods of American history.   We still live in shadow of race today.   Many Americans believe race is simply a matter of politics, but it is much more.  Race is historically deeply influenced by 19th century science.

The differences between the “races” were empirically verifiable to 19th century scientists, in a time when colonialism assisted science and its quest to catalog and categorize the entire world, including human beings.   Influenced by Darwinian science, race helped early science shape the logic of evolutionary development in Western history.  European scientists, of course with consent of their governments and philosophers, viewed white-skinned Europeans as the highest point of natural development.    They thought white Europeans were the most developed in terms of cognition, use of reason, instrumental use of nature, culture and self-government, as well as physical features.  If you pay close attention to images of beauty, power, and desirability today, the effects of this racial logic is still recognizable.

As I drove across the West, I couldn’t help but think about the history of how I got there – how I was able to drive freely (and so quickly!) across the vast western prairie to the Rockies.  I traveled in relative comfort compared to early Americans, who traveled under tremendous risk for months.   I thought about the violent history revealed in the story of the land.  I thought about how the image of America became both white and middle-class in little over a century.    Race played a decisive role in a violent and tragic history.

I, now, live on the southside of Chicago.  Here, I am the racial minority.  Chicago is a racially segregated city.   While there is a large population of African Americans in Chicago, Chicago’s southside (Sox country!) is historically black.   More African-Americans live in Atlanta than Chicago (as I recall from a recent NPR program).   Nevertheless, Chicago is still, arguably, the black capital of America by many measures.  It is the home of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, Jet magazine and Ebony.   The neighborhood I live in on the southside is a pocket of wild diversity because the University of Chicago and five mainline seminaries attract a wide array of people.  Still, as a southsider, almost all the professionals I see  are African American: my dentist, doctors, pharmacist, insurance man, and veterinarian.    I am not naive enough to believe I know what it means to be a racial minority.   In fact, I am a racial minority here because it is my choice to live here.   I live, shop, and worship on the southside of Chicago.  But, I am also reminded how much my race is a decisive factor of me being here.   It shapes my choice to live here or not.

One thing I don’t hear from the Right, and only a little of from the Left, is how much race is an enduring reality in America.  Politically and economically, America remains deeply shaped by race and racism.   Despite our election of America’s first black President, the current recession is partially defined by high national unemployment rates that reflect the changing state and nature of our economy.  These unemployment rates resemble what unemployment has been for African American men and other racial minorities for decades.   Why wasn’t America in a crisis, then?    Exactly, whose America is in crisis?     When we say “America,” whose America do we mean?

I believe the current rage against government and the ideological campaigns to reclaim America can also be considered in light of race.  Again, race is much more than skin color.  Liberals are blamed for rewriting American history because intellectual honesty requires that we accept the phenomenon of “winner’s history.”  This is the fact that history is written by the winners and is shaped by that perspective.  In America, the winners can still be racially defined.   While Obama is labeled a Muslim (something much less believable if Obama was white), “his” government is being blamed for economic decay and taking away American freedoms.  I can’t help but wonder how race shapes these politics?    Whose America is under threat of being lost?

I don’t believe America can talk about “recovery” without talking about race.    In addition, if Americans are ever going to share a sense of history, we must begin to acknowledge racism and the enduring perspective of race.  As I drove across America’s countryside, I realized there was no white-skinned American before Europeans claimed America for themselves.   Listening to politics today, the debate about who claims America lingers on.   After 300 years of slavery, the conquer of First Nation peoples, annexing parts of Mexico, immigration debates and ongoing economic disparity between races in America’s cities and countryside, Americans will continue to struggle about race and racism because it goes to the heart of who we are.


20 responses to “On Race (and Racism) in America

  1. I agree with what you are saying Matt, and I know that it is a difficult subject to approach without offending someone. We tip-toe around it, but it is always in the shadows. Everytime I hear someone talking about sending THEM back where they came from, illegal (and legal aliens), I can’t help but think, “you are not from here either, unless you are Native American, so how can you be so quick to want THEM out of America?”

    Also, will we never learn from our own history? The trail of tears, the Japanese internment camps, the balck-listing of possible communists… Are we so far removed from what Hitler did? I read the other day that it is moves, like the one’s against Muslims, that slowly move us in that direction, and seems far-fetched until it is too late. When the genicide begins it has reached a point where it seems inevitable and a natural process. People need to be very aware of who they are listening and where they are being led in the name of fear and, unfortunately to often, in the name of God.

    • Merry,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! It is amazing to me that so many Americans don’t think like you do and feel they must defend themselves, rather than learn from past…yet deny race has little to do with it.

  2. Matt,
    I liked what you said, and I’m glad to know that the spirit of the land, and our ancestors spoke to you. Much of the Native American history has been written by a mostly white/caucasion authors. Yes, there has been, and still is a lot of abuse going on with Native peoples. Other cultures are also being abused, and misunderstood as well; African Americans, Latinos, etc… I’m a board member of a grass roots organization within CoC, called The Welcoming Community Network. We are working towards affirming the worth and value of ALL people, and for CoC to become an inclusive church for All people. The USA church is too white-bred, and does not understand the need to be inclusive of all people. This includes sub-cultures,.ike the GLBT(Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender) community. I’ve been saddened to see and hear the responses in some of our people; such as Central Mission Field. Unloving, would be the nice thing to say. Some would rather judge than love. If you want to make a difference in your Mission Field, start by supporting WCN, and encouraging congregations to become welcoming/inclusive also.

  3. Having grown up in a culture where I was in the racial minority, yet where race was not used to claim any type of superiority over others, I found it a jolting shock to move to the U.S. at the age of 9 and discover that people were being denied basic rights simply due to skin color. I do find it encouraging that many of us are now living in racially diverse neighborhoods. Perhaps one day we will reach the ideal when the subject of race will be no more interesting or relevant than the color of someone’s eyes.

  4. I left the United States in the mid 1950’s and moved to a small European country. I did not experience any of the underlying, developing or blatant racial tensions that emerged in my country of birth. At the many cocktail parties my diplomat parents hosted I heard the tales of rising unrest in places like Cicero (IL), Selma (AL) and other places. I heard the stories of emerging heroes like M.L. King and Whitney Young. I was young then but my life was shaped by the language of the world’s diplomatic corps who seemed to apologize for everything that happened in the United States. It was not until I entered the U.S. military that I was suddenly confronted with the harsh reality that racism was not something discussed in polite forums but it was a seething hatred. The people of the United States were divided by race and those who had money. I never really could find a niche to fit so I kept a low profile for the length of my service in the U.S. Air Force and went into self exile for over 30 years. Have things changed during my long absence? Not really! The language has changed and the hatred has been replaced by mistrust but the racial/ethnic divide still exists. We now use Facebook, Twitter and texting to communicate our idle chit chat with each other and there are those who tell tales of “great social injustice” on these media. Same world different language. We spread hatred in short, choppy sentences and we can’t seem to spell words correctly because we were all taught that every opinion has validity. We are also taught, ad nauseum, that we all have unlimited freedom of speech. What we were never taught was that respect for others might take precedence over that freedom of speech we so proudly hail.

  5. Matt,

    First off, congratulations on finishing your degree! It must have been a hard trip for you, struggling with the passing sceneries and thoughts of history while you were supposed to be relaxing/vacationing with your family. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and struggles from your long road trip. I will share this blog with many friends.

    A small irony of your blog jumped out after having recently read this post on Stuff White People Like: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2009/08/14/128-camping/ 🙂

    Techie note: Your third image isn’t coming through on either my Safari or Firefox browsers.

    Keep up the good work,
    Alan (former unintentional racist, current antiracist)

  6. Great blog Matt. As a middle class white man who is also a Christian minister, I must say that it is good to reflect on how history has placed us where we are and how we have established systems to maintain our position in society. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking blog.

  7. Matt:

    I feel some honest conversation must happen HERE. I had the opportunity to live on the borderland of Morningside Heights (Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, NCC Headquarters) and Harlem in New York City for three or four years immediately before and after my wife and I were married. I gradually realized that Columbia University, while highly diverse in race, and as progressive as any neighborhood in the East, was highly segregated by educational and political class — AND IT WAS DONE INTENTIONALLY. The property had been carefully bought by the University over years and redeveloped to create that island of safety.

    My apartment in the rent-controlled city was available to me ONLY because I held a Johns Hopkins University staff position when I applied. My roof contained an expensive high class restaurant and a well-kept garden. I could look west or south and see wealth and power a few blocks away. I could look east or north, and within a few blocks there were places where pastors carried guns into their pulpits on Sundays to protect their parishoners from robbery during the services.

    If I walked out my door and turned left to walk toward the main campus, I was safe and secure. However, if I turned to my right and crossed the street to the park that served as an effective “urban moat” between the campus and Harlem, all bets were off. On the other side of the campus, Morningside Park, the location of Grant’s Tomb served the same function, as did Riverside Park.

    Although I couldn’t take the time to hunt up the references now, some years ago I saw the same pattern of development surrounding the University of Chicago. It is the same in Washington, I know, or in other large cities.

    I am glad you had your epiphany about some of the differences that separate the people of America from each other. There are still others — between those who bear the economic burdens of progress, and those who presume to manage it from public arenas that have spared themselves from sharing the pain — that are likely to prove more threatening to peace among us than many well-intended people imagine.


    I am sorry there is so much resistance to movement toward inclusion of the GLBT community within the CofChrist. I hope Matt will be able to influence the leadership’s considerations in September.

    • Hey, D! What you describe around Columbia is like what is around the U of C. To some extent, my race puts me in the bubble of Hyde Park, where Obama and other well educated people live. But, in many ways, its a kind of island of graduate students and long-time Hyde Parkers. This community does have very porous boundaries, though. We see it at the several schools that surround us. Katy and Kenzlee’s school is truly cosmopolitan with about 1/2 African American. Besides, there is no real majority ethnically. Race cannot be separated from class, IMO. I appreciate your reply…..

  8. The timing of your blog post was uncanny and a glaringly familiar to a conversation I had when out campaigning for a friend/AL House candidate this past Saturday. I wonderful African American man made an excellent and simple point. He explained that he has voted for the Democratic party his entire life but he disagreed with the direction they were headed concerning illegal immigration. He made the glaringly obvious, yet so little thought about, point that we are all immigrants in this country unless we directly descend from a Native American tribe. However he continued that we need to quit blaming certain races and being angry about desperate people crossing the border and all come to the same page about what the issue is really about. Not the injustice of whatever country they may be fleeing or how they got here or what we may have to offer that they are seeking. The real debate, which is often harder to really disect, discuss and resolve is money and policy. I had a complete perspective shift. I live in the deep south, racism is unbelievable here. Unless you have lived in a small southern town (next to another small town which unofficially prohibits any race but caucasian to live there) it is almost hard to comprehend. However, I tend to wholeheartedly agree with this gentleman. It is ALOT easier to talk about race, blame race, and focus on racism as the root of a problem than to solve the problem by taking race out of the equation. Matt, I am not saying race/cultural differences are not an issue or a factor in American life. Everyone’s America is different and the human experience seems to be most comfortable in like surroundings. Thus the tendancy for the “white” neighborhood or the “black”. Thankfully I live in a neighborhood that cannot be classified as such. The problem of race, I believe comes from a human beings lack of challenging themselves to broaden their experience. Fear of the unknown and those different from themselves. The problem of illegal immigration in America is not due to a certain race, the lack of a fence or to someone who wants to cheat the “system”. The problem of illegal immigration in America is a completely dysfunctional system for allowing someone to become a U.S. citizen AND a broken infrastructure for relating to those who chose to enter our country outside the bounds of the current dysfunctional system. It is ALOT easier to polarize immigration based on race than to come to terms as to how the money should be spent (that comes from most homes in America) to “punish” one who is “caught”. It is very difficult for human beings, Americans in particular, to step back and figure out a plan based on law without emotional/cultural ties intruding. However, I believe that this is the only way some of the “big issues” can be resolved in this country. Unfortunately we may just be too big of a melting pot of cultures, races, backgrounds and biases to come to a solution.

    • Jen,

      Thanks for visiting my blog and making your thoughtful comments. You say alot of interesting things in your post that I think are positive and instructive. I guess the only thing I want to respond to is to clarify that I don’t think race can be separated from money or policy. It can be talked about that way. Perhaps, this will be an important tactic for changing and advancing the immigration debate. But, from a historical perspective, I don’t think race can be easily removed. Race does have something to do historically with access, opportunity, and capital flows in general. Your point, however, I think, is well taken.

      At heart, I care about keeping race and racism on the table because I think its is more deeply about domination. I don’t mean domination in just a violent or militaristic sense. I mean also about policies, economic structures, identity politics, and cultural debates that assert power over another at the expense of human welfare and human life. Something you might be saying in your post is that domination is not just racial in form. I completely agree, and that the common underlying issue of money and policy are, perhaps, another way to address what race has come to over-shape.

      I hope my words make sense. I appreciate how your response adds to the others and gives me pause to think. I hope you visit again, soon.


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