IN OCTOBER, Sojourners hosted a Washington, D.C. premiere for the faith community of the extraordinary film 12 Years a Slave. The compelling story about Solomon Northup—a free man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery—is an accurate and well-produced drama, worth seeing for its cinematic merits, but primarily as a start to a conversation about race in America that is long overdue.
In her New York Times review titled “The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis wrote that 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States—but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” The film reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.
The enslavement of millions of people of African descent by white Americans was always violent, and too intense for most white people to really accept the truth. Most white people, white Christians, and white churches tolerated slavery for 246 years. This historically horrendous evil existed because we tolerated it. That’s why evil always continues to exist: because we tolerate it.
What do we tolerate today? We tolerated the gratuitous evil of slavery, and still tolerate the devaluing of black lives. We tolerate completely dysfunctional urban schools, but would we still do so if they were full of young white children? We tolerate a criminal justice system where the racial disparities between white and black arrests, convictions, and sentencing are abundantly clear, resulting in the mass incarceration of men of color. We tolerate murder rates for people of color that we would never tolerate for whites. We tolerate racial profiling of young black men, with results that we would never accept for our white teenage boys. And we tolerate deliberate and clear political efforts to diminish the votes of minority communities.