Though this year’s political races have ended, racism persists. I do certainly acknowledge that the nation is making progress. Barack Obama’s victory breaks new ground for people of color and demonstrates increasing racial tolerance and “blindness”. The refusal of John McCain’s campaign to stir up racial tensions also impressed me, particularly in the closing weeks of the campaign where it became clear he was losing ground. I expected the race card to come out as an ugly last-ditch effort, but it never really did. Neither did Obama’s victory spark violent and riotous celebrations from the African-American community as some pessimists predicted. Yes, in the big picture things look like they are getting better. For all the ways that it did not surface in this election, I am thankful, but my encounter with racism at work today caught me off guard.
Wednesday morning, the day after the election, one would expect members of the victorious party to be excited and even especially African-Americans given the historic significance of Obama’s victory. I, however, did not expect the sense of empowerment and entitlement this would inspire in my black coworkers. A certain measure of this I believe would be appropriate, but rather than rejoicing in equality, many felt that this election demonstrated the overturning of a racial binary. Not only had African-Americans moved to the top, but white Americans had also fallen to the bottom. One coworker got up in my face declaring, “We’ve got the power now-whitey, you’re gonna pay!” Throughout the day, I heard little chants for black power and observed much more aggressive physical postures and attitudes in my black coworkers than I was used to.
Unsurprisingly, all this racial exultation made my white coworkers quite uncomfortable. I saw them separate into their own little group, a voluntary segregation, where they whispered quietly about the assassination of JFK and the perseverance of the KKK. No, they assured me they were not racist, but knew people out there who were. They most likely would not do anything outwardly, but I sensed they were ready to look the other way if someone else did. The tension was thick and many of us waited for someone to cross a line, lose it, and see the place explode.
Race was the defining characteristic of the day. It wholly defined where you stood, whom you spoke with, and how you were treated. Where you stood on the issues or who you had voted for no longer mattered. Only the color of your skin counted.
I find it understandable why people acted the way they did. There are plenty of excuses for both groups, plenty of ways one can point a finger and pass the blame, but none of that is important. The real issue is that racism still exists, that when push comes to shove many people’s loyalties turn toward their own race, that people largely define “their own” in terms of racial distinctions.
Unfamiliar with such blatant racism, I did not know how to respond. Like other whites, I felt attacked, threatened, and vulnerable. However, I also knew that I did not want to just react and oppose my black coworkers. I did not want race to be the criterion that defined them or me. But in that moment of tension, I could not look past the differences. I could not help seeing them as my enemies. As I tried to shake these thoughts, I remembered that Jesus calls me to love my enemies. Perhaps, I had gotten things out of order. I was trying to force my mind, by an act of will, to see my foe as my friend, but I could not. My fear was too strong, my imagination too weak. Jesus though says to love my enemies, not to make them my friends. Perhaps, he knows the weaknesses of my mind and will. He knows that such a change must come about first through actions before the head and heart can follow. Love, the action of love, conquers all, breaks down barriers, and leads to truth. Obedience leads to understanding. Working the other way will not always succeed. Sometimes action must precede and form thinking. I need to will my body to train my mind. I need to serve my enemies before I will be able to acknowledge and appreciate them as friends.
In the kingdom of God, there is no distinction, be it race or otherwise, that matters. We must love and serve all, until everyone becomes one of our own.