Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series from Bobby Scott, Understanding the Past as a Way to a United Future. For part two, click here.
When asked, “Can (George) Floyd’s brutal murder inspire the political will to fix a broken system and help create a united future?” liberal Philosopher Cornel West responded, “The system isn’t broken; it was built this way.” One of the glaring reasons why our American story is perceived so differently by different people is because we forget how America designed the oppression of African Americans to divide our nation by race. Let me briefly remind us of three examples that shape and influence our present crisis, then I will follow these three examples in a second post with three biblical prescriptions:
Policy Pre-Civil War
In order to sustain an American culture of chattel slavery, unjust laws had to be made specifically and enforced exclusively against black people and Native Americans. Both the police and the courts executed those unjust laws. For example, the supreme court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that even if a slave made it into the free states, s/he was still a slave because owners retained rights over their property when traveling. The decision further stated that the Constitution wasn’t written for nor covered or protected black people. This black and white unjust racial divide reflected the zeitgeist of American life for 250 years (from 1617-1865). There simply didn’t exist in America a predominating legal or moral will to protect African Americans. So just as my great-great-great-great grandmother was raped by her master, neither black women nor their families (including their husbands) could testify in court against their white rapist. Like many black Americans, I have a white family. They are from Tennessee. I have never met them. They are white and have always been free. My family is black and are descended from slaves. America separated us by race. So, I only know the stories and inherited the experiences of my enslaved black family.
Reconstruction, Jim Crow
In order to sustain our American racist post-slavery caste system (known as Jim Crow) for the next 90 years (1875-1965), America had to yet again codify an unjust legal and social zeitgeist to separate America by race, black and white. To uphold a racialized America separated into white and black, a racist culture had to be ingrained within the halls of law enforcement in order to assure that police would carry out those unjust laws exclusively against black people. In extreme cases, public lynching’s were used to subordinate African Americans. Lynching’s were understood by many to be, “necessary supplements to the criminal justice system, and at least one-half of the lynching’s (were) carried out with police officers participating.”
Hence, African Americans’ American story is like the horror story of Emmett Till’s. Emmett Till was the teenager from Chicago whose mother had the talk with him, warning him about the dangers of being black in the south. Tragically, the talk, as is too often the case today, didn’t save her son’s life. But the Jim Crow system of justice worked too perfectly. A woman weaponized her whiteness with a lie that the “black man did it,” sent a mob into a frenzy, which brutally killed him, and the Jim Crow legal system acquitted them. That’s the justice of America for African Americans. Read The History of Policing in the United States, where Dr. Gary Potter explains how policing in the Southern States came about to capture and terrorize slaves to ward off any slave uprisings. Pretty much every black parent has had the talk with their sons and daughters, warning them about the dangers of encountering white authority.
The Complicity of Christians
We all should ask the question, “How could a nation founded on the belief that God gave every person the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—enact such an evil ubiquitous system of laws and mores and the unjust enforcement of them to deny African Americans their God-given rights?” The answer is quite simple. Those who spoke for God—the church—provided a moral justification of America’s systematic racist structure. While the church today lauds the Puritan theologians for grounding culture in a Judeo-Christian ethic, we forget that many of America’s theologians also grounded America in a theological framework that justified America’s racist practices:
- George Whitfield owned slaves and approved of chattel slavery, writing to a friend, “Georgia can never be a flourishing province unless negroes are employed [as slaves].”
- Charles Hodge wrote, “And where there is diversity there is sure to be superiority and inferiority. . . It would be folly to deny that the blacks are as a race inferior to the whites.”
- The American church was so steeped in racism that it was said that if Spurgeon had toured the Southern states as he planned on doing in 1859-1860, he may well have been assassinated. Death threats like this one were common: “If the Pharisaical author should ever show himself in these parts, we trust that a stout cord may speedily find its way around his eloquent throat.”
America wanted a nation separated by race–black and white. America enacted laws and empowered a policing force to achieve that end. The result is that it worked really well. This is our collective American Story. It is the story of a nation that has been separated by race. While tremendous strides have been made over the past 50 years, it shouldn’t shock us that we all have more work to do in order to uproot the 350 years in which we labored to deeply ingrain racism into our culture.
-  https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/if-cornel-west-is-right-14dd4a38cd82
-  For a primer on the abuse of Native Americans: https://www.ushistory.org/us/24F.ASP
-  David Pilgrim, Understanding Jim Crow
-  Luke Tyerman, The Life of the Rev. George Whitefield, Vol 2, page 206.
-  Charles Hodge, Essays and Reviews: Selected from the Princeton Review, Vol. 23; Vol. 974
-  The Southern Reporter and Daily Commercial Courier, April 10, 1860.
- Pray that Americans would understand their complex and sometimes ugly history.
- Lament the complicity of Christians in ignoring problems past and present.
- Pray that our systems would be rebuilt to more fully reflect the justice we claim to value in a united future.