I’m racist. It’s important that you know that about me. I feel that it’s even more important for me to verbalize my racism, given my constant urge to keep up appearances. As a white American living half a century after Dr. King, I have internalized the rhetoric of racial equality without materializing the reality of it.
I like to think of myself as a “good person” and “not racist” but the fact is that neither of those statements is true. I’m actually a bad person and I’m racist.
I live a fairly insulated and isolated life in a just about all-white bedroom community in upstate New York. I can’t name a single African American family in my neighborhood, but I can show you who proudly flies Confederate flag on shirts, hats, trucks, and houses. The church I pastor previously had one African American teenager attending for about six months before he finished high school. The membership currently includes one mixed-race family. I founded an ecumenical outreach ministry in a nearby city that is currently mostly made up of white, liberal Christians in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The clientele of my favorite café, bagel shop, and book store are… you guessed it: mostly white.
The only time I come into regular contact with people of another race is in my teaching job at Utica College, where I’ve noticed that my non-white students regularly (but not always) get lower grades than white students. I don’t know why that is. Have I gone to great lengths to find out what’s wrong with my teaching and/or grading practices? No. Why? Because I’m too busy with all the other stuff going on in my life to put something so big on my plate at an institution where I’m just an adjunct lecturer. I would rather keep my schedule as convenient as possible than work to adjust an imbalance that benefits people who look like me but potentially damages long-term opportunities for people of other races. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty racist to me.
I am racist because I presume that racism was a problem for previous generations, but thank God Dr. King came along and fixed it all for us with one amazing speech in 1963. I am racist because I think having black friends makes me not-racist. I am racist because I think racism is confined to my personal feelings about black people.
I am racist because I benefit from living in a country where the following facts are true:
Black youths arrested for drug possession are 48 times more likely to wind up in prison than white youths arrested for the same crime under the same circumstances.
Black and Latino men are three times more likely than white men to be stopped by the police and have their cars searched – even though white men are four times more likely to have weapons or drugs.
White men with a criminal record are more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men with no record, even when their education and experience are the same.
Students of color are far less likely to be put in honors courses even after you take test scores and grades into account.
Students of color are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school even though they are not much more likely to break school rules than whites.
Black college men end up just a few dollars ahead of whites who went no further than high school.
45% of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 16% of white youngsters.
From 1939 to 1959, the earnings of black men relative to whites improved by over one third. However, from 1972 to 1992, the relative earnings of black men tapered off—and this was the period of affirmative action.
Black unemployment rates, for as long as records have been kept, have been at least double those experienced by whites. Today, the definition of unemployment has been sufficiently restructured (the figures no longer count people on welfare, those whose unemployment benefits have expired, those in jail or in the military) to become nearly meaningless. However, it is reasonable to claim that unemployment levels among urban youth exceed 60%.
Black professors hold less than 5% of faculty positions. Less than 5% of the K-12 teaching force is black. About 85% of this group is centered in urban areas.
Of all the doctoral degrees awarded in 1990, just 3.5% went to black men and women.
The attrition rate of black university students at many prestigious universities is greater than 60%.
Most NCAA universities refuse to release attrition rate for athletes. An NCAA study showed that nearly 75% of Division I black athletes failed to graduate.
While black students represent 16 % of all public school students, they make up nearly 40% of those classed as learning disabled.
All of these facts are true but I have made no effort to change a single one of them. That’s why I’m racist.
Because I’m racist, I don’t have the right to accuse African American people of “playing the race card” when entire communities are outraged at the verdict of a trial. I can’t even tell them to stay peaceful and not get violent. That would be like me slapping you across the face and reminding you that it would be immoral for you to slap me back. As it turns out, I have a “race card” of my own and it’s an ace that’s permanently up my sleeve: it’s called being white and it gives me a distinct, unfair advantage over others.
As a racist person, I have an ethical obligation to shut up, listen, and be ready to repent when there’s an outcry. I don’t get to offer my two cents. Not yet. Not while circumstances remain the same.
Yet, here I am: still writing and speaking, still spewing out a thousand or so words that will be read by dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the next few days. I still have this urge to say my piece in public when I should be listening. Why is that? Because I’m racist.
It probably feels a little strange to see your pastor preaching in a hoodie on Sunday. Half of you are probably wondering if I’m trying to make some kind of point. The other half of you are probably wondering if maybe we need to turn up the heat in here. Both groups would be right (in a manner of speaking).
It all got started earlier this year when I realized that Palm Sunday would fall on April Fools’ Day this year. I said to myself then, “Oh man, that’s too good. I’ve got to have some fun with this!” And the beauty is that it doesn’t even take that much work to find a connection between these two days.
The setting of the scene, as we already know, is the Jewish festival of Passover. Jesus and his disciples were joining crowds of their fellow Jews as they made their way on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the holiday. Passover is an annual celebration of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. They get together each year and tell the story of how God set them free from foreign oppressors. The message of Passover was particularly powerful to Jews in Jesus’ day as they survived under Roman occupation.
In order to halt any bright ideas about rebellion during this festival, the Roman governor (Pontius Pilate) made a point of marching his troops through the city as a display of Imperial dominance. He wanted to send a clear message that Rome was in charge. The troops marched through town with their banners proudly waving. At the head of the line, Pilate sat mounted on his mighty steed.
Contrast this image with the image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by his usual riffraff as they waved palm branches and made a scene. It was a deliberate mockery of Pilate’s procession. Jesus was making fun of it! It was like an April Fools’ prank, but with a point.
Jesus’ parody of Pilate’s pride was actually a brilliant and prophetic display of political and spiritual theater. I call it prophetic, not because it was predicting the future, but because, in that moment, Jesus was engaged in the exercise of “speaking truth to power.” People have this funny idea that prophecy is all about predicting the future or the end of the world. In reality, the job of a prophet is to reinterpret the present from a spiritual point of view. They present us with a vision of reality as it could be, if we would only open our hearts to what God is doing in our lives at this moment, or a warning of reality as it might become if we remain closed.
Jesus was hardly the first or last person in history to “speak truth to power” as a prophet. We can all think of others who, through their words or actions, presented us with a vision of reality as it could be. I have my own litany of saints who have affected me like that: Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gene Robinson, and many others. Maybe you know of others.
Jesus had his favorites as well. One of them was an ancient Jewish prophet by the name of Zechariah. Zechariah had this crazy vision in his day that Jesus decided to make come true. Jesus knew that people wanted him to become king of the Jews. So, he decided to show them the kind of king he would be. You might call this his “royal mission statement.” He borrowed this donkey-riding image from the mind of Zechariah. Zechariah said,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Jesus would be a humble king and a peacemaker, not a guerilla fighter or imperial overlord. And his reign of peace would include all the nations of the earth, not just his own ethnic group. This, by the way, was also another slight against the Roman Empire. They prided themselves on their large and (relatively) stable territory. They rejoiced in what they called the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) that would one day spread to the ends of the earth through the imposition of military order. Jesus shook his head at this idea and laughed. He used the words of the prophet Zechariah to introduce another vision of world peace.
In this hilarious lampoon of Rome’s arrogance, Jesus is reminding his followers (and everyone else) where true power lies. It doesn’t rest in the hands of the privileged few who happen to wield the death-dealing resources of an international superpower. True power comes from God. And it is not on display in the exercise of intimidation, but inspiration. True power, as God sees it, doesn’t come from dealing death, but giving life. It’s not about exclusion, but inclusion. Real power, according to Jesus, doesn’t come from our ability to condemn, but to forgive. This is the upside down vision of reality that Jesus is proclaiming to us on this Palm Sunday.
This leads me back to the hoodie that I’m wearing. Most of you are probably aware of certain events that took place in Florida over a month ago. An African-American teenager by the name of Trayvon Martin was on his way back from the store with a bag of skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea when a vigilante neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman, who has a documented history of aggressive and violent behavior, called 911 about a young black male in his gated community. The 911 operators specifically told him to leave Trayvon alone, but Zimmerman picked up a gun and went after him anyway. The facts of what happened next have not yet been established (it appears that there was some kind of fight), but we know that it ended with George Zimmerman shooting an unarmed minor in the chest and killing him.
Over a month later, George Zimmerman is still free. He has not been arrested or charged with a crime. The state of Florida has not even suspended his license to carry a concealed firearm. In theory, this means there would be no legal barrier to prevent this same person from walking into this room with a gun right now. If this had happened to one of our kids in Boonville, would we be satisfied to wait a full month before the authorities investigated deeply enough to make an arrest? How safe would we feel if it was a student from Adirondack High School lying on the ground with a hole in his chest while the person who pulled the trigger was happily mowing his lawn a month later? Wouldn’t we, in the very least, be passionately asking questions about the truth of what happened that night? Of course we would.
In the weeks following Trayvon’s shooting and death, members of the media have been weighing in on this. I realize you might be sick of hearing about it, but I’m following the advice of theologian Karl Barth this morning: “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other.” Some pundits have tried to paint a mental picture of Trayvon Martin as a no-good thug by appealing to stereotypical images of young black men. Geraldo Rivera went so far as to blame this incident on the fact that Trayvon was wearing a hoodie (like this one) on the night of his death.
There has been a widespread response to Geraldo’s ignorant comment. Last Sunday, pastors in churches all around the country joined together in a prophetic display of political and spiritual theater, just like Jesus’ famous entrance into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. They all preached in hoodies. Since then, folks in other public professions have followed suit. There have even been some of our elected officials who have worn hoodies into the halls of Congress. I’m a latecomer to this action, since I didn’t hear about it until after-the-fact, but that’s okay because it fits well with what we’re talking about today.
Geraldo Rivera implied (intentionally or unintentionally) that wearing a hoodie somehow makes a person eligible to be shot. If that’s really true, then I’m eligible to be shot right now and, as I already noted, there is nothing to legally stop George Zimmerman from walking into this room and doing so.
Now, you and I know that such an idea is ridiculous. No one out there really believes that hoodies justify murder. The importance of this symbol lies in its association. This style of dress is associated with the hip-hop subculture which, in turn, is associated with negative stereotypes of African-Americans. So really, underneath the surface, this is still a conversation about race. Geraldo used the word hoodie, but what he really meant to say was black. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because he was black. The only thing that disturbed George Zimmerman was the sight of a young black man walking down the street in a suburban gated community. Why? Because young black men aren’t supposed to live in gated communities, according to the racist subconscious assumptions of our society. We may have outlawed segregation on paper, but racism is still very much alive in reality. And that, brothers and sisters, is a gospel issue.
We agree with the apostle Paul when he says that, in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.” We could easily add “black nor white.” When I and my fellow-pastors wear these hoodies into our pulpits, we are standing together to make a bold prophetic statement. We’re not doing it because we’re cold (although we are trying to “turn up the heat” on this issue). The prophetic statement we are making has to do with the equality of all people in the eyes of God. We’re saying that one black life, ended in violence, is no less disturbing or tragic than a white one. This prophetic action is shining the light on this truth, which we all hold dear.
In a few moments, we’ll all be participating together in another bold prophetic action as we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Around this table of Christ, we gather together and partake of one loaf and one cup. We remind ourselves that we are all members of one family. The same blood, the blood of Christ, flows through each of our veins. This is the truth we believe in that trumps any other division or distinction we try to make among ourselves. We are connected, through the mystery of this sacrament, to each other and to God.
On this Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ prophetic proclamation of the power of peace. Likewise, we are making our own prophetic proclamations as we wear hoodies and share Communion with each other. This celebration leads us into Holy Week, the final stage of our journey toward Easter. We will be reminded during the coming week that there is a price to pay for speaking about God’s vision so boldly. This willingness to confront is what ultimately got Jesus crucified. He spoke out against the dominant system of power in his day and the system pushed back. The system used all the terrible might at its disposal to silence his message. But Jesus wasn’t afraid of them. He didn’t keep quiet. He continued to proclaim the prophetic vision loud and clear, even though he knew it would get him killed. Why? Because Jesus believed that love is stronger than death. He believed that the prophetic vision of the kingdom of God was bigger than his own individual survival. He trusted in resurrection more than survival.
As Christians, we are called to do the same. We are called to be Easter people who believe in the power of resurrection more than survival. Jesus has handed this prophetic vision to us, so that we might continue to proclaim its truth in the midst of a world that doesn’t want to hear it, but needs to hear it. As a church, a household of faith, we are called to take chances. We are called upon to risk our very lives for the sake of truth. We are called to embody this truth in our words and actions at church, home, school, work, or play. We should make those uncomfortable observations and ask the hard questions that we would rather ignore. It will not make us popular or successful. If we’re doing it right, it will lead us, as it did Jesus, to our own crucifixion and death. But it will also lead us to experience the Easter-power of resurrection and eternal life, which will continue to stand firm long after the systems and the nations of this world have passed away.