“We Need to Talk About Race”

The following was delivered by Glenda Whitehead during the JOFUMC service on June 21, 2015.

Over the last few days, I’ve struggled with what to do this morning, with how best to address the terrible acts of violence committed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and the endemic racism that violence represents. I considered changing my sermon. In fact, I went back and forth many times, finally deciding to address it as a separate part of the service. But before I do, let me tell you a story.

This past February, I had the privilege of meeting two remarkable people: Edward and Patsy Luna. The occasion was the “stateside” wedding of their granddaughter Amy to my “adopted nephew” Nathan Turner, both of Temple. The wedding was in Edward and Patsy’s home in Troy. It was just them, their daughter, the bride and groom and me. The date was Edward’s birthday, chosen because his worsening dementia would prevent him from attending the “public” ceremony in Cancun this past Monday, but they wanted him to feel included. It was made more special because Edward “Pops” blessed the newlyweds with Holy Water he’d picked up on one of his many visits to the Vatican.

Sometime prior to that day, I’d learned Edward and Patsy’s remarkable story from their granddaughter, Amy. 60 years ago, Patsy and Edward met, fell in love, and planned to marry. Just prior to their wedding day, Patsy, who is Anglo, rented an apartment in Temple that was to be their first home together. However, on the day they were to move in, they were prevented from doing so. Why? Because Edward is Hispanic and 60 years ago they didn’t allow his “kind” there. So they found a home in the only part of Temple that would have them – East Temple, which was and is predominantly black. And for more than 50 years, that was their home. Patsy even went on to become a City Councilwoman for that part of town.

Fast forward to last Monday, the evening of the “official” wedding. I was talking to Amy’s dad, David, about his incredible parents, their 59 year marriage and all the hardship and prejudice they had to endure over the years. I said I just didn’t understand it, but then that was 60 years ago. Thank goodness things have changed. But have they really?

Wednesday night, I arrived home from Mexico very late and awoke Thursday morning to the horrific news of the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. I was stunned. My heart ached and my mind struggle to take it all in. How can there still be so much hatred and prejudice in our country? Haven’t we moved past that by now? Aren’t things different now, post-Civil Rights? After all, we even elected an African-American President. I want to believe that things have changed but there is simply too much evidence to the contrary. The reality is that our country still suffers from a deeply embedded sickness, a form of evil we call racism and until we who benefit from white privilege begin addressing this sickness, this evil, until we start talking about it openly and calling it what it is, it will never go away.

In the past, I’ve shied away from talking about the epidemic of violence against people of color for a number of reasons: it’s controversial; I don’t want to make anyone mad; it’s complicated, especially when it involves law enforcement --I don’t know all the facts, I have friends in law enforcement who I know are good people, not all cops are racist, etc. But the growing list of incidents of violence against blacks by white officers makes it hard to ignore. And while each case must stand on its own merits, there is clearly a major problem here. Yet somehow, I think the problems exhibited within law enforcement are simply symptomatic of a much larger societal problem. Racism is real and it’s not confined to isolated incidents. It’s structural. It’s built into the fabric of the way we do things in this country. And whether or not you chose to believe in it, white privilege exists.

For instance, in our nation, blacks are three times more likely to be denied a mortgage than whites. The median wealth of black families is around $11,000, while the median wealth for white families is $134,000. Nearly half of all black families have lived in poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, while just 7% have for white families. Black children are 500 times more likely to die from asthma, a totally manageable disease, than white children.(1) It’s an absolute travesty that our nation has ostracized and persecuted such a large portion of our population, and it’s time for the public to begin discussing that fact and accepting the guilt of what white America has done.

There is a sickness in our land, and this sickness is the cancer of unacknowledged bias and white supremacy. It has been with us since our founding, and civil rights laws, personal achievements and the trappings of success for a fortunate few African Americans have not made us well.

That same illness very likely affected the man who killed the nine A.M.E. souls at Emanuel Church. Yes, the killer was deranged; but he simply had a more extreme version of a common malady that threatens to kill many more - either directly, as in Charleston, or indirectly from the attendant hate and pain. The question now is: Will we continue to write this off as an isolated incident, or will examine our national conscience and finally take the steps necessary to become well?

50 years after the Civil Rights movement we need to begin having serious conversations about the race problem in our country and these conversations need to be driven by those in power, the white majority. We need to ask hard and courageous questions about our complicity in the problem. Only then, will real change take place. (2)

I’d like to close with a quote for your consideration:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” The Dalai Lama

(1)Taken from a speech made by Hillary Rodham Clinton in the days following the Charleston massacre

(2) From “We Need to Talk About White Culture” by Joshua DuBois