Parables are stories Jesus often told in order to help people learn the right “lessons.” Clearly Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago are parables for us the nation now, and when we visited those places recently on the town meeting tour for America’s Original Sin to gather with local activists and clergy, we found those lessons running very deep.
In Los Angeles, where we just spent several days, I got many hopeful glimpses of our multicultural demographic future. We saw how Los Angeles is becoming an epicenter for the parable of the “new America” emerging that I believe is underneath all the politics in this nation right now.
In the next few decades, a fundamental change will occur in the United States. By the year 2045, the majority of U.S. citizens will be descended from African, Asian, and Latin American ancestors, according to the U.S. Census Bureau projections. For the first time in its 240-year history, America will no longer be a white majority nation. Rather, we will have become a majority of minorities — with no one race being in the majority. The United States will be no longer a dominant white nation but a multiracial nation, which will make the assumptions of white privilege increasingly less assumed.
That multiracial reality is already the case in many major cities around the country such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, and Milwaukee, among others. It’s also true for several whole states, including California, Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.
According to the latest census figures, Los Angeles County is 71.3 percent white — but because the Census tracks race and Hispanic/Latino origin as separate categories, this figure is deceptive. In fact, 48.4 percent of residents of LA County are Latino, and only 26.8 percent are non-Latino white people. In California more broadly, the population is 38.5 percent non-Latino white people, 38.6 percent Latino, 6.5 percent black, and 14.4 percent Asian.
This is a historical milestone, a fundamental demographic shift. Demographic changes are already affecting our nation’s elections in many states and especially at the national level. But demographic shifts don’t automatically translate into shifts in wealth, power, or governance — and the white “minority” will still retain economic and political dominance for a long time to come.
Nonetheless, the demographic shift in America, with a majority of its citizens being people of color, is both significant and dramatic for the culture, ethos, and politics of a new America. And the truth needs to be told that many, if not most, white Americans are simply not ready for that demographic change — especially older white Americans — which is dramatically visible in this election’s national conversation.
The question becomes: Who will help navigate this fundamental demographic change? Who will provide the moral compass for such a transformation?
It’s an important question to ask, because demographic shifts do not make positive change inevitable or easy. On the contrary, these great demographic shifts could simply lead to more and more conflicts. For real and positive change to occur, choices must be made, and somebody has to provide leadership. The choices are between collisions or community or, as Dr. King’s final book put it, between “chaos or community.”
Fifty years after the great victories of the civil rights movement, and Dr. King’s dramatic reminder that Sunday morning at eleven o’clock was the nation’s most segregated hour, most Americans still live most of their lives segregated from other races. It is the geography of race that continues to separate us, keeping us in different neighborhoods, schools, and churches and keeping us from talking more deeply together and developing the empathy and relationships that bring understanding, friendships, common citizenship, and even spiritual fellowship. And those relationships are necessary to change public spaces and public policy.
When you are not with other people, you simply don’t know what their lives are like, what they are most concerned about, what their core values or top priorities are, and what they most want for their children. You learn about other people when they are your neighbors, or parents of your children’s classmates or teammates, or the fellow members of your religious congregation.
I was invited to preach at New Song, a deliberately multicultural church in Santa Ana where the average age is 28 and the interpretation of the Luke 10 story of the Jesus Good Samaritan parable is that “your neighbor is someone who is not like you.” Fuller Seminary co-sponsored a town meeting with Second Baptist Church in downtown LA and the audience was very different, according to the Fuller planners, than what would have been in Pasadena, the seminary’s home base.
It’s instructive to consult the Racial Dot Map, released in 2013 by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. It uses 2010 census data to create a map of the United States with more than 308 million dots (one for each person in the United States), color-coded by race. You can look at the racial distribution of our population at the national level or zoom in to look at particular states, cities, or even neighborhoods. It’s fascinating to zoom in on Southern California for a visual representation of our country’s demographic future in action. Still, the geography of racial separation is painfully evident, even in Los Angeles. Thanks to the color-coding, it’s immediately apparent where the black and Latino neighborhoods are, where the city’s Asian enclaves are located, and where the white people live.
Research has shown us that people have regular, sustained, and personal contact with people and families of other races have much more positive, respectful, and reciprocal relationships. So how do we change our racial geography?
This is one place where the churches can and must lead the way. In Galatians, 3:28, it says there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female – we're all one in Christ Jesus. If churches are just silos of people like each other, we're really not doing what it we're supposed to do. We're supposed to be the ones who are demonstrating a diverse "beloved community," in Dr. King’s words. Our theology is supposed to trump our sociology.
This was a declaration of the meaning of “the body of Christ,” and Galatians 3 was used as a baptismal formula for Christian converts to the early church. Baptism was what made the new converts faith public. That Galatians passage became the baptismal text, telling both converts and the world about the new kind of community that people were joining. These divisive and oppressive factors were used to fuel human conflicts, but now there was a new human community that would deliberately and publicly work to reconcile and unite human beings — from different races, classes, and genders.
Many Christians today don’t fully realize that racial and cultural integration was an original mission of the first disciples of Jesus. Galatians, and similar passages in the epistles of Ephesians and Colossians, were a culmination of earlier biblical commands about how the children of God should always be welcoming to “outsiders.”
The early church was making a public statement, because baptism was a public and not a private event: In this community we will overcome the divisions between Jews and Greeks, men and women, slaves and free. If you don’t want to be part of the kind of community whose purpose is to bring people together, don’t join this community! Imagine churches in America making that kind of strong statement today. We need to reimagine that reality into being again.
Together, we will get to the place where our racial and cultural diversity is understood not as America’s biggest problem, but as our greatest gift. If we can do that, it will also be our best contribution to a world threatened as much by ethnic, racial, and religious conflict as by economic confrontation and environmental catastrophe. The consequences of not talking are too great to risk, while the rewards and potential of racial justice and healing are too important to miss. And given the historic nature of the new America coming into being — the potential conflicts and dynamic hopes are now so important, and leadership is crucial.