Yesterday morning, I visited the King Center with my mother-in-law and my daughter. Every building on the grounds was packed, as were the sidewalks in-between buildings. It didn’t take long to notice, however, that although there was a sprinkling of non-black visitors, most of the crowd consisted of black people and families. The racial homogeneity there, I think, was an indicator of where we still are in our nation. I would venture to say that a large percentage of non-black people still think of Martin Luther King Day in terms of black history instead of American history, even though his writings, leadership, and actions transformed the social landscape of our entire country. There are a number of reasons for this disconnect.
The reason that stands out to me the most is this: Although it’s easy to identify the ways that racial segregation hurt non-white people in general and black people in particular, we often fail to see the ways it damaged people in every racial group in our entire society, even the ones that benefited from segregation the most. Although there is much to say about the fact that in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, white people in both the North and the South often participated en masse in the oppression of black people (through lynch mobs, race riots, redlining, and restrictive housing covenants), if we are to understand the enduring damage that affects us all today, we have to recognize the way that the codified system of segregation negatively impacted even white people who never actively participated in racial oppression.
Although it’s arguable that a respectable percentage of white people never witnessed or participated in a lynching, never actively resisted integration or black voting rights during the civil rights movement, and have never hurled racial epithets at a person of color, the system of segregation that placed them at the top of the American racial caste system insulated them from developing an active consciousness of, or a conscience toward, the large-scale oppression taking place in their own communities. It rendered even those who might otherwise be compassionate by nature numb toward the things God cares about the most: justice and mercy, with a special emphasis on societal outcasts (Matthew 23:23, Luke 4:18,19).
My 80-year-old mother-in-law, who is white and grew up in North Carolina in the 1930s-50s, then lived in Pennsylvania between 1962-1968, remarked to me on the way home from the King Center yesterday, “I really regret that such major history took place in my lifetime, and I didn’t connect with it at all when it was happening. It just completely escaped me. I can’t even tell you why. I was aware that things were happening. It was in the news. But it didn’t affect me, and it felt so removed from my day-to-day world of raising young kids. I don’t think my [sister and her husband] thought about it much either, and they were living in Atlanta when it was all happening.”
It didn’t affect me.
That’s why many white people in my own city, famously recognized as the historic center for the American civil rights movement, treated Martin Luther King Day as a bonus day of rest instead of a day to remember something earth-shatteringly important, as they might Independence Day or 9/11. Contrast that with the thought process of someone who has been affected: “Gwinnett resident Charleen Lincoln… said she felt obligated to show her support for someone who fought for equality. The daughter of a white mother and black father, she said she has faced discrimination throughout her life and knows the hard work it takes to stand up.”
Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, explained our current situation well in a recent interview on the podcast On Being. She refers to her book as being “about the caste system, the artificial hierarchy that was put in place before our great-great-great grandparents were alive. It’s something that we’ve inherited. It’s not something that we wanted. If you’re on the beneficiary end of it, you didn’t ask to be on the beneficiary end of it. Certainly, if you’re on the targeted end of it, you certainly didn’t ask to be on that. But this is where we are.”
Racial segregation separated people into different geographic regions of cities, different social circles, different faith institutions, and starkly different sets of socioeconomic and sociopolitical realities. As a result, it splintered our collective memory and consciousness, entrenched us in our prejudices toward one another, and allowed and continues to allow what ought to be universal moral outrage and calls for justice to become ghettoized. Benjamin Franklin alluded to the importance of “de-ghettoizing” justice in his famous statement, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Developing a keen awareness of our collective disease, this long toxic hangover of de jure racial segregation that we’re all still experiencing, is a necessary catalyst for the healing work left to do.