The Common Good

An Inconvenient Truth: I Am Black

Editor's Note: This column is part of a duo of posts commenting on racial reconciliation in light of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Read the accompanying piece, "A Convenient Truth: I Am White."

I am black in the United States of America. It is quite inconvenient to be black in the United States of America. It has always been inconvenient to be black in the United States of America.

My African ancestors were brought to the United States in chains against their will, taken straight to the plantations, and forced into slavery. They did not pass through Ellis Island, as did most of the ancestors of my white counterparts. My ancestors who fought in two world wars were not allowed any advantages of the GI Bill, schooling, the trade unions, or the opportunities of corporate America that white veterans had; therefore, as a black baby I am more likely to be born into a family who is mired in systemic poverty than a baby who is white.

I am much more likely to live in an impoverished neighborhood, receive an inferior education in a neighborhood school, and not graduate from high school than white students my age. Those are inconvenient truths.

As a black man in the United States of America, I am 75 percent more likely to interface with the criminal justice system, get arrested, go to jail, and have a criminal record follow me for the rest of my life than a white man in the United States of America. I am much more likely to go to jail than to go to college. I am more likely to be on death row than a white inmate, and more likely to be the victim of capital punishment than a white inmate. My black community and I are more likely to be ignored, disrespected, disenfranchised, discriminated against, short-changed, not consulted, and counted out than my white counterparts and their communities. These also are inconvenient truths.

With the election and re-election of Barack Obama—a black man—as President of the United States, it is tempting for many to believe that our historic racial challenges in this country are a thing of the past. The fact is that polls show that more white people described themselves as racist in 2012 than did in 2008, and race-mongering militias are at an all time high. So, our historic racial challenges still seem to be quite alive and insidiously well. 

My colleague and co-pastor Brian Konkol insists that it is crucial for white people to recognize that it is socially and economically convenient to be white; or in other words, Virginia, there really is white privilege! Dealing honestly with the convenient truth of white privilege is an open door into dealing honestly with the inconvenient truth of systemic racial discrimination. In the United States, systemic racial discrimination is part of the DNA of the founding fabric of this country. According to the original Constitution of the United States, as a black man, I am considered to be three-fifths of a person. Being black in America has always been an inconvenient truth.

As we prepare to celebrate once again Dr. King’s dream of racial reconciliation, we must consider replacing “convenient” and “inconvenient” truths with the truth that will set us all free: which is, under the parenthood of God, all people — no matter what race, color, culture, or religion — are created equal, and we have been given all the resources we need for that paradigm to flourish. What we cannot seem to muster up is the political, societal, and spiritual will needed for that paradigm to become reality. 

Some say we cannot accept a society in which some have lesser odds than others, but the inconvenient truth is that we have always accepted such a society. The very inconvenient question of our time is “when is enough going to be enough?” 

Many lives, including yours and mine, are being and will be deeply affected by the answer to that question.

Stephen G. Marsh is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI), and is engaged as a community organizer, activist, writer, and speaker.

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