The Sound of Silence: White Christians & Race in America

The Sound of Silence

Guest Post by Troy Jackson

One of the most provocative songs of the 1960s is Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence.” The haunting lyrics, which marginalize “the words of the prophets” to “subway walls and tenement halls” are poignant when it comes to white Christian engagement in the pains and struggles of African Americans. When it comes to bold prophetic leadership for racial justice, those looking for white Christian voices have, more often than not, been met with the Sound of Silence.

The need for white Christian engagement in racial justice is greater today than at any time since the 1960s, when Paul Simon’s tune hit the charts. Why do I say this? Well, as a pastor with a doctorate in US history coupled with several years working for racial and economic justice, I have arrived at a startling conclusion: The circumstances facing young people of color in the United States are the worst they have been since the age of Jim Crow.

Before you stop reading, let me share what I do not mean by this analysis:

  1. I am not saying that all white people and white Christians are racists. Many white Christians care deeply about racial justice and reconciliation. The intentionality around race within the white church continues to grow.
  2.  I am not suggesting that overt prejudice and racism are equivalent to what they were in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. By and large, we are far less likely to participate in racist behaviors, language, and practices than we were in the 1950s. Racial epitaphs are taboo in the public arena. And legal segregation is a thing of the past.
  3. I also recognize that opportunities for advancement for some people of color are greater than at any time in US History. This is most obvious in the realm of politics, where we have had an African American Attorney General, Secretary of State, and President within the last decade.

So what do I mean? Well, when it comes to outcomes and opportunities for African Americans, things are getting worse.

Gun violence continues to plague many urban neighborhoods, and the funerals of young children and teens are common-place in many neighborhoods where work and jobs have disappeared. When added to the deaths of unarmed African Americans like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and John Crawford III, many young people of color are wondering if black and brown lives even matter to our nation, and to our faith communities.

The staggering impact of mass incarceration adds to this sense of despair. As Michelle Alexander chronicles in The New Jim Crow, a racialized execution of the War on Drugs has in fact been a war on people of color, incarcerating African Americans at unprecedented rates: over 2 million people in the USA are in prison, roughly 7 times the number behind bars in 1980. And today, there are more African Americans under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850.

Almost any statistical indicator adds to the story of increased despair by people of color in this country. The unemployment rate for African Americans remains at least 2X that of whites. Increased efforts to restrict voting through voter ID bills and limiting early voting opportunities have disproportionately affected people of color. And we could go on and on with these disparities.

So how might we respond? Let me suggest four ways white Christians should engage the growing despair and pain of young people of color.

  1. Listen: We must build relationships with people of color, and honestly care about their experiences and perspectives. The goal should not be to seek approval or validation by people of color, or that we are somehow forgiven or absolved from our racialized history and participation in what is all too often a racist nation. We listen to understand.
  2. Learn: We need to become students of our history and care about the voices of people of color both now and in the past. I recently co-authored a book called Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith that explores the historic sins of the American Church, and includes a chapter on sins against African Americans. But don’t stop there. Read The New Jim Crow, Race Matters, by Cornel West and The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. Taking time to learn demonstrates care and concern.
  3. Solidarity: Even if we do not fully understand or even agree with the perspectives and views of young people of color, we can stand with them as they struggle. We are called to mourn with those who mourn. Right now, young people of color are mourning. And we should take our mourning public, standing with them as they grieve and protest and work for justice.
  4. Justice: Sooner or later, we need to start deconstructing evil systems that conspire against people of color in this nation. We need to continue to respond to injustice with charity and development, and couple this with hard work to take on financial systems, justice systems, corporate systems, and political systems that benefit from injustice and work against people of color.

The call of Micah is not to simply reflect upon justice, but to do justice. This demands risk and true prophetic ministry. Jesus’ amazing love, grace, and justice demand an end to the days when the white church’s response to racial injustice amounts to “The Sound of Silence.”

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