I shared back in February about a racist message left on a graffiti rock in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The school district released a statement saying, “While the district is disappointed in the actions of those who painted the rock, we will not let them take from us our joy or success in the progress our community has made, and will continue to make, in racial relations.”
A few weeks ago the same word that was painted on that rock was written on a white board at my alma mater, The University of South Carolina. President Harris Pastides released a statement saying, “Today, the unfortunate and disappointing act of a student in a study room has challenged the Carolina community to reflect on our values and tell the world what we believe…We have taken appropriate actions to suspend a student and begin code of conduct investigations.”
Earlier last week at Clemson University, also in South Carolina, the university decided to put the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon on probation for their “Cripmas” party that was held in December. The fraternity released a statement saying, “The decision of a few brothers to hold the type of social event they organized is inexcusable and completely inappropriate, and the entire group was sanctioned. Furthermore, their behavior in no way reflects the values and creed of the fraternity.” President Jim Clements had also previously released a statement saying, “Last night’s “Cripmas” party, which the university did not sanction, raised more concerns about the campus climate. Clemson is better than this.”
Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the same fraternity just mentioned, is the same fraternity in Oklahoma where a video was released of the members singing a racist song. SAE released a statement saying, “The Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity (SAE) on Friday confirmed members of its former University of Oklahoma chapter likely learned a racist chant while attending a national Leadership School about four years ago. However, Executive Director Blaine Ayers said the organization has no current evidence that the chant is widespread across the fraternity’s 237 groups.”
Finally, last week a video was released in North Charleston, South Carolina that shows officer Michael Slager shooting an unarmed Walter Scott in the back, killing him. The officer has since been charged with murder and Mayor Keith Summey released a statement saying, “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. If you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”
I share these events that happened over the past few months in my state of South Carolina but I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that similar events are happening all around our nation. There once was a time in our nation when presidents of universities, mayors, and other officials would not only fail to condemn such actions but were even, at times, the perpetrators of such actions and words. We should be glad that is no longer the case, but we cannot end there.
There are phrases that stuck out to me in the statements I quoted in response to these events that took place: “disappointed in the actions of those who painted the rock,” “decision of a few brothers,” “the university did not sanction,” “Clemson is better than this,” “no evidence that the chant is widespread,” “If you make a bad decision…you have to live by that decision.”
These responses all attempt to make clear that these were isolated events. They are not reflective of an organization but of a few people who ruined it for everyone. It’s not a societal problem, it’s a personal problem. These are exceptions, not the rule.
How many exceptions does it take before we stop calling them exceptions? I’m not really sure racism has ever been the exception in this country. Maybe it’s not the painting of the rock that should cause the most disappointment. Maybe the literal writing on the wall is indeed reflective of values and beliefs that exist at USC. Maybe Clemson isn’t better than this. Maybe SAE does, in fact, have a widespread problem. Maybe it’s not just a bad decision made by Slager and maybe he’s not the only one who has to live by his decision.
Rock Hill, USC, Clemson, SAE, Charleston, or police officers are not inherently bad. I’m not advocating that since these actions are going on they are indicative of the entire culture. These actions, however, do reflecta culture that is present in each of these places. The examples I gave range from high school students up to adults. Racism is not a problem of a few individual people or even a few individual actions. It is important to respond when these events come up, but we must also continue to work against a system that continues to say that black skin means less and that black lives don’t matter.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline responds to racism by saying:
Racism plagues and cripples our growth in Christ, inasmuch as it is antithetical to the gospel itself…We define racial discrimination as disparate treatment and lack of full access to resources and opportunities in the church and in society based on race or ethnicity. Therefore, we recognize racism as sin and affirm the ultimate and temporal worth of all persons.
Race is not merely a political or social issue. It is a theological issue. Racism places a divide. It “plagues and cripples our growth in Christ.”
This paragraph of the BOD also explains that racism includes both personal and institutional racism. If we only find the individual people and acts that are racist, we do little to actually work towards a future where racism is no more. We know how to respond to individual acts of racism, but how do we respond to the system that led to such an act?
If we’re naming racism as a sin, then the first step in leading to change is to not avoid the existence of the sins but to name them. Whether we’re talking about high school and college students in South Carolina or police in our nation, we need to stop making excuses. We need to acknowledge that there are racist beliefs and tendencies that run through these cultures both on the surface and below it. To name the sin and brokenness in certain organizations is not to condemn the organization. It is instead the first step towards change.
John the Baptizer and Jesus came preaching a gospel of repentance. Repentance doesn’t mean merely feeling guilty. It doesn’t just mean naming the sins. The meaning doesn’t end with naming those sins. It means a desire and an effort to change. We need people and organizations to repent. We need them to say that we aren’t where we want to be. We don’t need politically correct statements from organizations in order to save face and preempt a lawsuit. We need truth. We need transparency. We need vulnerability. We need a desire for change. We need a commitment to change. We need actions toward change.
Our nation finds itself at a crossroads. Last week Hannah made a strong argument that the American reformation continues. She also challenged us a few months ago to live with sustained discomfort. Where do we stand today? Where do we hope to stand 10, 20, 50 years from now? Let us live into a new reformation. Let us live into sustained discomfort. Let us live out repentance. Let us live into the kindom of God. Let us live into a day when racism is isolated and an exception to the norm and maybe even a day when racism truly is no more.