Much to celebrate, much still to do, regarding race relations

Prejudice and racism still stain our democracy. It is a continuing, tragic reality. It is a part of what I’ll remember as I recently joined other citizens in celebrating the nation’s independence on July 4.

I have just completed reading an informative and moving book, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. It is an exhaustive study of the migration of black Americans from the South to the North and West, between 1915 and 1970. However the book is not a mere recounting of sociological observations and detailed statistics, though it includes both. Rather, Ms. Wilkerson highlights the complexity and pathos of such a human drama, through the stories of three individuals.

Ida Mae leaves Mississippi in the 1930s for Chicago. In the 1940s, George leaves Florida for New York City. Robert leaves Louisiana for Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Each of their stories is compelling and sensitively told by the author.

Robert becomes a brilliant surgeon, developing his skills and gaining some recognition during the Second World War, when he serves in the U.S. Army in Europe. He returns after the war to his native Louisiana, but there he faces the same indignities that he had experienced before serving his country overseas in the fight for freedom. A freedom that obviously wasn’t meant for him.

One of the most valued possessions I have is the American flag that draped my father’s casket. A World War II veteran, at his death he was afforded a military graveside ceremony. It was moving to watch two soldiers remove the flag from the casket, fold it with precision in military style and give it to my mother. She then gave it to me.

Though I was a boy during WWII, I remember well the impact it seemed to have on the whole nation. It was “everybody’s war.” Hardly a family was not touched by it.

But after the war, returning black soldiers faced almost immediate hostilities and rejection in communities still gripped by racial prejudice and laws of segregation. Stories were reported of black veterans being killed or attacked, even while still wearing military uniform. Such actions stained the democracy they had sought to protect at home and abroad.

A recent article in The New York Times reported on a study that analyzed Barrack Obama’s victory in 2008 as the first black American to become President of the United States. While President Obama won by a decisive margin, the study indicated the margin might have been even greater if it were not for racial prejudice. The researchers go into detail to justify their conclusions. Many are turning to the study as evidence that America is still at war with racism.

That is one way to look at the data, and the nation.

But there is another way, especially as we celebrate the nation’s founding.

Four years ago a black American was elected decisively to the U.S. Presidency. And believe me, my father would not recognize America today in its racial diversity, and the many ways that black and white people, in particular, interrelate on a daily basis. He would be flabbergasted at the places where black Americans now serve, and the institutions in which they now participate with little notice.

The latest issue of a national magazine features a cover story on undocumented immigrants. It is estimated that there are some 12 million now living in the U.S. What is striking about the cover is the racial diversity of those pictured. However imperfect our democracy is, there is something about it that continues to draw people here from all over the world.

I personally believe we have seen a resurgence of racial prejudice in our nation in the past four years. It seems that everywhere I go, black people have a story to tell of slights and insults. Animosities that had apparently lain dormant for some time.

But I believe this is happening precisely because the nation has come so far in the area of race, especially in the last 50 years. In significant numbers there are people who find it hard to accept such progress, because their racial prejudices are so deeply embedded.

But make no mistake, there is a new America emerging, despite the fading gasps of racism we hear on the radio, see on television, experience in our politics and encounter in department stores, or even in local congregations.

That is the America I celebrated on this Fourth of July, even as I sadly acknowledged that we still have a long way to go.

Endgraf: Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.

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