“Not much has changed.”
Those were the words yesterday of a 73 year-old museum curator and Black Indian activist I was interviewing when I asked her how much, in her estimation, had race relations changed since her childhood in the 40s and 50s.
She grew up in a segregated school system, in a race-zoned part of town, amidst the Jim Crow laws and overt racism of mid-20th century Oklahoma. I was grateful for the opportunity to visit with her, and for her frank responses to my questions, and I was interested to hear what she thought of progress in race relations.
“Not much has changed, really,” she repeated for me.
A flicker of a smile crossed her face as she sensed my surprise. When I asked her to elaborate, she dealt very kindly and gently with my white naïveté. She explained that a lot had changed in the systems and structure of our society — changes that pushed bigotry below the surface. But it was still there, just like always.
She said there never had been any healing. There were some, she said, who were loving and good, of all races to all races, even when society condoned open racism. There was the great mass of society: those who simply swayed with the prevailing wind. And then there were those who truly bore hatred in their hearts — and that hatred was still there. And there were those who bore scars, and anger — and those remained. Nothing had been done to change people’s hearts, she said. The great underlying disease of racism remained, long after the obvious symptoms of Jim Crow and segregation were removed.
I admitted to her that, from my perspective as a white man, raised in predominantly white society, there is a perception that great strides have been made in addressing race relations in our country. We — whites who pride ourselves on not being racist — are raised, I told her, to celebrate the progress that has been made. We read about Brown vs. Board of Education, we read all the appropriate speeches and letters by Dr. King, we hear over and over again about Rosa Parks, and we celebrate. We celebrate, saying to ourselves, “Thank God that’s been taken care of.”
“Not that much has changed.” As her words rang in my ears I realized, with no little shame, this was the first time I, a well-educated 42 year-old, had talked directly and frankly with anyone from the African-American community about how much things had or hadn’t changed. It wasn’t that I hadn’t had the opportunity. I had friends of every possible racial makeup in school, in college, in the Navy — (not so much when I moved to mostly-white northwest Oklahoma) — but I’d never undertaken to have an open, honest conversation with any of them about whether or not things had really improved.
Had I just been a naive idiot to all those friends and co-workers of color? Was I simply willfully blind to the underlying condition of racism in our society? Had I not cared enough to even try to see the world from their vantage point? All those questions rattled about in my head as I finished our interview, thanked my gracious host and educator, and drove back to the office.
“Not that much has changed.” How could that be? Sure, I knew racism still existed. But, so much had happened in all those history classes I took — there had been so much progress. I found myself wanting to believe her perspective must be an outlier. Surely it couldn’t still be that bad. Right?
In answer, almost as if on cue: Charlottesville. Torch-bearing white supremacists, carrying Nazi and KKK banners, were openly marching through the college town I used to enjoy visiting in the 90s. Hatred, bigotry, the vilest filth of the human heart spilled through the streets and manicured lawns of UVA and its quaint college town.
Here was a throwback to the worst of the last century. How could it be? Because, just as my new teacher had told me: “Not that much has changed.”
Hatred still plagues us, as a society, as a nation, and — speaking to my fellow Christians — as a faith. We remain divided in spirit more than a half-century after the courts united us in body. And now, with the rise of Trump, those who have felt compelled to keep their racism concealed feel emboldened to dust off the torches and swastikas.
It’s easy to shake our heads at the alt-right thugs marching and clubbing their way through Charlottesville. But what about the rest of us? The vast majority of us who have long-preferred to think the civil rights movement a closed chapter in our history: what part do we play in this? Is it possible our naive indifference is the cloak under which these bigots have been hiding, waiting to crawl out onto the streets of Charlottesville? I think we all have an obligation to honestly answer that question — for me, I hold the answer to be ‘yes.’
Tomorrow the authorities in Charlottesville will have swept the alt-righters back into their dark corners. Normalcy will be restored. And in that normalcy, not much will have changed.
None of it will change until we really take to heart our Christian mission: to love God, and to love our neighbor. Really love them. Love all of them. To sincerely reach out to our fellow children of God, and to earnestly and honestly attempt to look with compassion through their eyes at the world around us. Until we do that, until we conquer the blindness in our hearts, not much will change.
I think back again to yesterday, and the loving kindness my host showed me, the patience and lack of judgment she had in encountering my naïveté. She was open, compassionate and honest with me, and made me feel safe to do the same. And in that space of Christian love my eyes were opened, even if only a little. Maybe I am again being naive, but I take some hope from that encounter — hope that with sincere effort we may achieve the change that is so long overdue.