Race in Post-Obama America:
The Church Responds
David Maxwell, Ed.
The first day of our family vacation in New York, my blonde six-year-old rushed joyfully into the opening elevator. Not a second later, she rushed out just as fast, a startled look on her face.
I looked up to see two African-American ladies staring at me, their faces shocked as my child’s.
“Come on, honey,” I said, grabbing her hand, and nodding at the women. I didn’t know what to say—so I said nothing. By staying silent, I hoped to pretend nothing had happened.
Which is exactly why many white Americans stay silent about race.
But the older of the two women spoke up. “We’re just human beings, honey,” she said to my daughter. Then she looked at me. I saw a tiredness and anger that seared my heart.
“Oh, dear Lord, ma’am,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
The encounter hurt me. But it clearly hurt those women more.
Two days later, my child did the same thing to a white woman. I felt better that my child had been shy, not overtly biased. But regardless of why the encounter happened, I wish I had handled it differently. I wish I had apologized immediately rather than staying passive.
Even after a good five years of reading about race, attending a church fellowship where I’m a minority, and speaking up about racial justice, I still avoided a necessary conversation.
The more I educate myself about racial justice, the more I understand how far I have to go. It’s hard to deal honestly with our nation’s ugly history. All my training tells me to avoid its discomforts.
What I need is clear, ongoing instruction to help me choose honest engagement.
Reading Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds, I found a tool to help me do just that.
Originally published as a collaborative online series at The Thoughtful Christian after President Obama’s election, the authors of Race in Post-Obama America added information about the increasing upheaval of recent years.
The book’s first part defines racism and gives an overview of key racist events in American history. It covers not only issues of black and white, but includes events affecting Native people, immigrants, Asians, Latinos and Muslims. The second part addresses current events, like police brutality and Obama’s legacy. It also gives suggestions for how white people can participate in change.
Its anchoring in current events is one of the strengths of the book. It speaks to Ferguson, Dallas, and even the upheavals of the election season. Many white people have been shocked by lingering racial tension exploding into news headlines; this book helps put those tensions in context.
Another strength: brevity. In less than 150 pages, the book covers a lot of ground, giving the reader a good overview of history, theory, and current events. Its length makes it an ideal resource for someone unsure how to begin working against racism, or to hand to colleagues, friends or family for a quick read.
Race also offers simple, clear explanations of difficult concepts, like institutional racism, the model minority myth, and internalized racism.
Pastors, congregations and church staff will also appreciate its grounding within Christian culture and theology. For example, Race points out that the Israel of Biblical times was an ethnic, embattled minority; a helpful hermeneutic to keep in mind as wealthy, majority-white Americans study it.
Race also offers critique of how people have used the Bible to both justify and fight racism. I appreciated the honesty.
Though the length of the book precludes the authors from giving more than summaries of many topics, they do an admirable job of selecting specific events to illustrate their points. This keeps what might have been a boring, theoretical overview interesting and specific.
Given my years of reading about white privilege, police brutality, and American history, I wondered if anything in such a short book would surprise me. I felt humbled (again) to realize I needed reminding about “basic” concepts—like the differences between ethnicity, culture, and race. I also learned new information about key events relating to race.
For example, I felt surprised by analysis of Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. Though I knew being the first Latina on the Court was a major milestone, I hadn’t realized some of the racialized dynamics of her confirmation hearings—that her qualifications for the post were discounted because of her ethnicity, even though she “had more experience as a judge than all other nominees throughout US history.”
The discussion of Sotomayor went deeper to discuss different kinds of multiculturalism—and how they can cover up racist power structures. Sotomayor’s nomination is an achievement, but doesn’t do much to address white-centric assumptions, programs, and power structures in government. Surface-level multiculturalism can serve mainly to “manage and control diversity and its impact on the organization. It is posed as the end of the journey…” rather than an initial step that will bring deeper change and intentional power sharing.
The lesson about surface multiculturalism should give every church pause. How deep are we willing to go to bring true unity and diversity to our communities?
In this way, Race in a Post-Obama America does an admirable job helping readers participate in the current discussion of race in America. As the authors state, “We [in a ‘color-blind society’] lack language that allows us to understand even our own stories of racialization…that inability to have language means we’re unable to have a healthy conversation.” Race gives us words.
Of course, such a brief book has limitations. I would have liked to find more suggestions for further reading in the book, rather than the brief book list offered. I was surprised not to see any references to eminent theologian James Cone in the book, or to notable Evangelical voices such as Soong-Chan Rah, Christena Cleveland, or Drew Hart. Given the book’s length, I wished that the authors had offered more direction for continuing education.
The authors also offered heartening examples from churches intentionally cultivating diverse congregations. Yet they did not mention problems with multi-ethnic churches, namely that minorities who attend them often assimilate into white culture rather than preserving their voices.
Finally, given the book’s grounding in current events, it may quickly become dated as we move past the Obama era. This makes reading additional resources even more pressing.
However, the book is an extremely helpful overview of complicated racial dynamics. It’s a necessary tool for those within the church to view race more clearly and compassionately. As I’m sure to face tenser, more complicated racial situations, I’m glad to have a handy primer to help me react well.