The history we don’t want to know

Demonstrators walk along a street holding signs demanding the right to vote and equal civil rights at the March on Washington

It is essential to know how our history has created a much different experience for people of color than the one most of us white people experience.  I do want to make the point that just because I am sharing black history, I urge you to try not to get all bunched up into the “what about me?” mode of thinking. This month does not diminish your history. We all have stories. We all have backgrounds that have made us who we are today; many of those stories are painful. but at least, for this month, I want to elevate the stories of our black sisters and brothers.

You might ask, what is a white girl doing talking about this? And sometimes I think that too.  I doubt my voice and pull back from this work. However, I realize that my learning has created immense empathy for the experience of black life in this country. Through stories, we develop compassion. I find it is hard to judge someone when you know their story. But, at times,  imposter syndrome sets in as it does with most of us who are putting our voices out there. I am reminded of a dear friend Tanya, who continually tells me “Kristen, we need your voice, because often white people don’t really listen to people of color’s experiences and stories” Her voice in my head causes me to step out in faith and step out where I often fear to tread.

I also need to talk about systems and where things come from because it is hard to know where we want to go without knowing where we came from. Jemar Tisby, a historian, author and speaker recently wrote the following quote on Threads, “If I could get all white evangelicals (and many others) to understand one aspect of racism better, it would be that racism is not simply a matter of individual attitudes and interpersonal relationships but of systems, policies and institutions that create and perpetuate racial injustice.” This may be hard to hear because many of us want to argue that we were not a part of those historical systems. That may be true but understanding them is still incredibly important.  There is a movement right now where parents don’t want schools don’t want to talk about black history. These parents fear that it will make their kids feel bad (as if we must always bubble-wrap our children). But guess what? The kids of color have “felt bad” for generations. And maybe we can develop some additional empathy in kids. If we skim over it or only highlight the positive stories, all it does is alleviate us of from having to feel the pain that our friends experience.

Often, I hear people say that their black friends don’t talk about this, so they assume none of it is a problem. Think about it for a minute. You have a friend of color. And this friend NEVER talks about anything political with you. Ask yourself why. Have you created a safe place for them to share their story without you interjecting or judging that story?

Five things to learn

So with that,I want to share five things that I have learned  and that you may want to research as we head into this month. If there is a term I use that you are unfamiliar with look it up. I will also ask a question to ponder. Additionally, I would encourage you as much as possible to read and watch things from black sources, which I realize is a bit ironic with me writing this right now. Still, hopefully, I can be a conduit to encourage you to learn a bit more. I highlight these things in my IG feed, but I briefly want to share some things that were an important part of our history, that will aid in us understanding one another a bit better. All of these are systemic in nature and are terms you might want to be familiar with, and although they are not specifically related to faith, it is important to know that the church as a whole was not actively fighting any of this. In fact, often leading the charge. I will have a whole week dedicated to the church and race in a couple of weeks, so buckle up for that one. 

So where do we begin?

It all starts with the Middle Passage What do you happen to know about the Middle Passage?  For me, it is definitely one of the harder things to face and learn about. 

This was the experience in adjectives. Captured, shackled, separated, shipped, sold.  The process of dehumanizing the Africans began here. Over 10 million Africans were shipped to the Americas.  Mercilessly, over 2 million died on the journey that lasted 2-6 months in overtly inhumane conditions.  Another 1/3 died within the first three years of being in the Americas. Well over 500 years ago, I would argue that for the African American- this is where the roots of generational trauma began.

It is painful to read and write about, but unless we face all of our histories, we cannot begin to repent and reconcile.  What do you need to learn about the Middle Passage?

Slave Codes

Another thing I never learned in history class. In the mid-1600s, each American colony was allowed to create its own slave code.  These “codes” were any of a set of “rules” based on the concept that enslaved persons were property, not people. They were seen as chattel, on the same level as livestock. 

Brittanica.com writes “Slaves had few legal rights: in court their testimony was inadmissible in any litigation involving whites; they could make no contract, nor could they own property; even if attacked, they could not strike a white person. There were numerous restrictions to enforce social control: slaves could not be away from their owner’s premises without permission; they could not assemble unless a white person was present; they could not own firearms; they could not be taught to read or write, nor could they transmit or possess “inflammatory” literature; they were not permitted to marry.” Think about what that meant for a people who, despite their circumstances wanted to gather, read the Bible and praise God.

Slave codes were the precursor to actual laws that were in place in our country until the Civil Rights Act. Looking closely at them, you will see the shadow of internal biases we still see today.  Ask yourself…do I believe any of these things about people of color, and where do we see the lingering ideology today? How might this history be reflected in today’s church?

Wealth and the Housing Gap

Here is a fact to know.  African Americans have 60% of the income of Caucasians but only 10% of the wealth!  What does that mean, where does that wealth come from, and why the discrepancy?  First, income and wealth are different. Historically, wealth comes from equity in housing.  You may be familiar with the term redlining, which is the policy to refuse a loan or insurance to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk).  If you look deeper, you will find that housing segregation was not de facto but actually intentional through federal, state, and local POLICIES. As a country, we created ghettos, Levittown, blockbusting, slum clearance, and state-sponsored violence, which have all led to enormous gaps in wealth.  And yes, in 1968 the Fair Housing Act was put in place to rectify this, but the damage had been done generationally.   Look up those terms or watch the 20-minute documentary “Segregated by Design” for a fascinating lesson on this history. For many who argue about the behaviors of those who live in “ghettos,” this documentary will shine a new light on how that came about and how it has been challenging to rise above and out of old policies that created the situation.

I fully realize that my family’s ability to buy a home in the 1950s and prior has a direct link to my ability to buy one now, thus creating wealth for me and my kids (whether I “feel” wealthy or not on any given day when the bills arrive).

What do you know about intentional segregation? Where would you look to learn?

The polarizing topic of Elections

We know this is an election year, and most of you who listen or watch the news may see stories about gerrymandering and new policies people are enacting to ensure that no “voter fraud” exists.  In my opinion, this is the latest issue to disenfranchise certain blocks of voters.  You can’t elect candidates with shared values or policy priorities without the ability to participate fully in our process. Due to legal and/or covert tactics, people of color continue to endure marginalization over 150 years after the abolition of slavery. According to a Center for American Progress analysis, in 2016, 9.5m. American adults, most of whom were people of color, lacked full voting rights.

You may have seen the movie Selma, where Oprah Winfrey plays a character who is desperately trying to vote, yet she runs up against barrier after barrier. And a side note: if you have never watched that movie, I would highly encourage it. The main song, Glory, by John Legend, is worth the entry price alone. How did we get here? The Enforcement Acts (of 1870 &1871) provided short-lived gains followed by nearly 100 years of brutal suppression and disenfranchisement. After Reconstruction, a battle was waged to suppress Black voters and seize control of Southern state legislatures, including the adoption of poll taxes and English literacy tests, requiring Americans to pay a fee and answer an endless series of challenging and unclear civics and citizenship questions to vote (see above comment about Selma). Most whites were exempt from these tests; they were haphazardly only used for black Americans.  Until 1915, many states used the “grandfather clause,” stating you could not vote unless your grandfather had voted, an impossibility for most whose ancestors were slaves.

If you think this was only limited to the South, Oregon did not ratify the 15th Amendment until 1959, almost 90 years after federal certification. In 2011-12 alone, lawmakers in CA, FL, IL, MI, MS, NV, NC, and SC introduced bills that would make it more difficult to register to vote by limiting registration drives.

In 2012, the national voter turnout rate among Black citizens exceeded that of whites for the 1st time in US history. Yet, following the election of our 1st Black president, 20 states adopted new restrictions on the right to vote. This included ID requirements, permitting “only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African Americans.” voter purging was also enacted: (in 2018 70% of Georgia voters who were purged were Black). Local laws allowed the shutting down of polling places in black communities and opening more in white ones. (Across the country, counties with larger minority populations have fewer polling sites and poll workers per voter) we began to allow Armed security guards at early voting sites.

Some data to ponder:

Today 4.6 million people cannot vote due to prior felony convictions for which they have served their sentence. For a bit of context on why African Americans are disproportionally imprisoned, I would highly recommend watching the 2020 documentary 13th. One in 19 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.5 times that of non-African Americans. Among the adult African American population, 5.3 percent is disenfranchised compared to 1.5 percent of the adult non-African American population. In 8 states, that number is one in 10.

Disenfranchising people with felony convictions was a tactic by white supremacists after the Civil War to prevent Black men from influencing elections. It creates limitations on absentee and early voting, stricter voter ID requirements, restrictions on voter registration, and other systemic barriers that decrease the voting engagement of minority populations.

Why, might we ask, are 48 U.S. states still doing this?

The Wealth Gap

Few things can stress me out more than money. Whether it is the month when I am stretching to the next paycheck (income) or thinking about paying for college for the boys, a new fence, the broken car, and retirement (wealth), if I allow it (and momentarily step away from my faith), I can start to panic.

Earlier, I wrote about housing policies that went deeper than redlining. I mentioned wealth and income gaps and want to share more data (for my data geeks). But it hit me that real people are behind the numbers for all the data I share. People live with the data’s realities because it is not just about numbers.  I live the reality of policies that helped me buy a house and get an education (although interestingly, data show that education does not change the wealth gap for African Americans). Still, I have friends for whom those policies have hurt and created additional stressors in their day-to-day lives. And if you think this is a thing of the past, check the deeds to your homes. Many still have clauses in that deny purchase by certain groups. This can also show up in home valuations for people of color. Ask your friends how often they stage their homes differently to look whiter to get a fair value on their homes.

For these friends, their American experience began with slavery. America, particularly white America, profited off bodies of enslaved people, who by law were unable to live freely, let alone build wealth to pass along to future generations. We dehumanized them. More than 150 years since the abolition of slavery, we have not fully reckoned nor atoned for this original sin. Again, how this connects to Christianity is extremely important, and I will address it later this month. The disparities between white and black Americans can nearly always be traced back to the policies that implicitly or explicitly discriminated against black Americans and new policies that do not make significant dents.  This has created a vicious cycle of economic struggle. 

You can research enormous amounts of data on this, but for today, think about how to change this cycle. Simple things like buying from African American businesses.  Women in particular – support black women when you buy products and services!   And always remember that behind the policies and data are people…. family, your neighbors, people at your church, and kids on your sports teams.  What can you do to change this cycle?

This is a challenging month as we learn more. I find that even in writing and speaking this, my heart aches over and over each time I allow myself to learn more. If you have questions, please feel free to reach out to me or put them in the comments. This is a safe space to ask the stupid questions, the questions you are afraid to ask or to push back on what you are hearing.

Data sources:

Sentencing Project data

Jim Crow and voting
Suppression of Black voters

Episode One on Apple

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