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PAST IMPERFECT: Demonstrators in Columbia, S.C., on July 20.
Jeff Blake/The State/MCT/Getty Images
PAST IMPERFECT: Demonstrators in Columbia, S.C., on July 20.

Chains of history

Race Issues | Americans have made progress in race relations, but are we ready for healing?

Issue: "Reaping a whirlwind," Aug. 24, 2013

Has the Zimmerman/Martin affair blown over yet? A week of simmering commentary followed the verdict that declared George Zimmerman innocent of murder, along with demands that President Obama say something. On the Monday after a nationwide “day of protest,” he did—to the surprise of newsmen assembled in the White House press room. The unscripted remarks prompted swoons from the left and scoffs from the right, proving once again that in politics there’s no persuasion, only position.

Still, the president’s words should be taken at face value: “There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store …” or “walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars …” or “getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”

This, he said, has happened to him, and we have no reason to doubt it. An intriguing video going around the internet shows a young white man vigorously sawing a bicycle chain near a walking path. Only once is he seriously challenged by passers-by, even after admitting that the bike isn’t his. But a black man of similar age and garb attracts a circle of accusing white people, one of whom even confiscates his bag of tools. “Profiling” happens, but why?

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“[T]he African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” The president referenced history five times in his speech, and understandably so: for many reasons, history has not been kind to a race exploited all over the world, including their native Africa. But invoking history raises two significant problems. For one, there’s simply so much of it that a truly comprehensive view is all but impossible. And for another, a subject so vast, as well as past, can’t speak for itself. It’s like a roll of fabric that can be cut and tailored to dress any agenda. Anything so easily manipulated is soon despised, even or especially by those who do the manipulating. And with that goes any chance of learning from history—a despised teacher cannot teach.

Our own American story was largely idealized throughout the 19th century, leading to an era of cynical revisionism in the 20th. “My country, ’tis of thee” became “My country, phooey on thee” to many American kids. Drained of its uniqueness and inspiration, revisionist America is less than unappealing—it’s boring. It has all the charm of a scab that bleeds again every time a high-profile white-on-black “incident” occurs. Judging by the media, whites and blacks coexist like an unhappily married couple who can’t discuss anything without one bringing up past hurts and the other lapsing into sulky silence.

Here are some historical facts, unrevisable: Of the estimated 10 million Africans stolen into slavery, anywhere from 450,000 to 650,000 ended up in North America. Compare that number to the total of Americans who died in the Civil War: about 650,000. Might it be that the blood-guilt of American slavery was paid then? Following emancipation, blacks suffered another hundred years of segregation, second-class citizenship, and even murder before the Civil Rights Movement brought about a remarkable reversal (anyone over 60 knows how striking it was). Might we say equality, at least under the law, has made great strides?

Minds don’t change with laws, but they do change. “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asked a crippled man beside a pool (John 5:6). The man replied with his personal history of failure, but Jesus wouldn’t have it: “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” Do we want to be healed? History is not a chain that binds both races to its insatiable demands. Under God’s providence, it’s going somewhere, and we play a part in its direction. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded by keeping its eyes on the prize; taking up its bed, and walking forward. Racial reconciliation can succeed also—if that is our prize.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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