“They’re People Just Like Us”

In 1993, Christianity Today reported that a wealthy all-white suburban Atlanta church was committing half a million dollars and 600 volunteers to help “revitalize the low-income African American neighborhood” of Summerville. As part of the effort, one Sunday morning a busload of wealthy white suburbanites attended an African American church service.

“When the service is dismissed,” CT reported, “a question hangs over everyone: Will people connect over cookies and coffee in Fellowship Hall?” (Yes, it’s ok to laugh at how CT frames this drama; it’s funny!) As the bus headed back to the suburbs, there was unanimous agreement among its occupants that a connection had indeed been made (how the ordinary members of the black church felt about it is left to our imagination). Here’s how one of the white visitors put it:

I was surprised at how much we had in common. They’re people just like us. They seem to have the same concerns we do, such as wanting their kids to be the best they can be or wanting to learn more about God.

Your mileage may vary, but I found this passage chilling. A white person took a field trip to a black church and discovered that African Americans are ordinary people. This persistent and recurring need for white people (it’s not just evangelicals) to learn, discover, and state the obvious is one of the most chilling evidences of how white supremacy distorts the imagination and places an experiential and moral gulf between human beings.

It reminds me, of all things, of Gunnar Myrdal’s groundbreaking 1941 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma. I hope I’m being fair to Myrdal, but basically he believed white and black Americans inhabited the same ideological world, sharing a belief in what he called “The American Creed.” He thought if white Americans better understood how African Americans were really treated, and how that treatment violated the creed of equality and opportunity for all, they would favor “a better deal” for black Americans.

The black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier found much to like in Myrdal’s work, but he doubted whether “the problem is on the conscience of white people to the extent” Myrdal implied. Had not history shown that white Americans were content with the status quo as long as black discontent did not spill into the open? While Myrdal imagined an American Creed that everyone shared, Frazier was more pessimistic: “for many whites the Negro lives in an entirely different social world or is not a part of the same moral order.”

Frazier’s insight is a profound one. It still stands. White Americans live with the devastating consequences of racial discrimination by imagining that it happens to people who are in some fundamental way different from ourselves. Discarding this lie can disrupt our whole lives. When we see others as human and as part of our moral order, our view of ourselves and our country changes. Many of us are not willing to take that risk.

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