Race Denial Is a River in the Heart of America


A column in the Tennessean generated 70 negative e-mails from the race-denying residents of Tennessee.

The Nashville newspaper carried a statement about the defeat of Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford, in which I wrote:

 

"Tennesseans looked at the heritage of a man, not his heart, when they voted against Harold Ford Jr., allowing race to be a key factor in Tennessee's senatorial race.

 

"Republicans did what Republicans always do in the South. They played their Southern strategy of slinging racial mud. They ensured that race will remain a wedge issue in future elections and that Tennessee will remain divided along racial lines. Tuesday was a sad, albeit predictable, day, given the muteness of white pulpits about racist Republican ads and mailers.

 

"Several months ago, we asked, in a column on this page, if Southern Baptists, who make up a large percentage of Tennessee voters, would vote for an African-American Baptist. The answer is a resounding and regrettable 'no.'

 

"CNN's exit polls show that 'white evangelical/born again' voted overwhelmingly for Bob Corker over Ford (65 percent to 33 percent) and that those who attend church more than once a week voted for Corker over Ford (61 percent to 38 percent).

 

"The voting booth may well be the second most segregated place in the South, behind the Sunday morning church."

 

Some e-mailing race-deniers said they didn't even know Ford is black. Others said they voted against his family. Still others said I was a racist for even talking about race.

 

In an obviously organized intimidation effort, many e-mailed redundant messages claiming Tennessee's African-Americans were the real racists for voting overwhelmingly for an African-American, and that Democrats were racists in Ohio and Maryland for voting against Republican African-American candidates. Of course, they overlooked that African-Americans in Memphis elected a white man over Ford's brother. They ignored the painful historic realities that make Tennessee different from Ohio and Maryland.

 

Like Holocaust deniers, Tennessee's race deniers disregard indisputable evidence.

 

They forget that the Republican Party was not competitive in the South until President Johnson pushed through integration and that Richard Nixon took advantage of southern anger in 1968 with a strategy designed to get racist Democrats to vote Republican.

 

Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, even admitted the "Southern strategy" and apologized to African Americans for it in the summer of 2005.

 

Admissions and apologies don't erase the sin of racism, which is America's original sin. Apart from the crucible of race, we can understand neither American culture nor American Christianity. And that is what race deniers miss.

 

From the genocide against Native Americans to the enslavement of Africans, from demeaning treatment of Mexicans to demonizing of European Catholic immigrants, from the internment of Japanese in World War II to segregation, race has been a defining issue.

 

At each point, the majority group, usually white Protestants, have used moral arguments to justify their power position and often denied race as a problem.

 

The Southern Baptist Convention is surely Exhibit 1 in any discussion about race, faith and politics.

 

The SBC was started to a significant degree in 1845 over an intense disagreement about the appointment of slaveholder missionaries. That split became a defining mark. Southern Baptist clergy used biblical proof texts to defend slavery.

 

Southern Baptist churches collected Sunday morning offerings for the KKK, an organization birthed in Tennessee. Most churches opposed desegregation. Too many churches started Christian academies in reaction to integration.

 

When Martin Luther King was killed, only a handful of white Baptists spoke publicly with lament. Most labeled King a troublemaker. In the late 1980s, a SBC agency officer called King a fraud and was re-elected to a second term in office.

 

Denominational officials were silent about racist ads against Ford, denying through silence the nature of the ads and their appeal to Southern Baptist church members.

 

If denying sin enables sinners and sinful structures, we must talk about the sin of racism; not deny it, not pretend it isn't a political wedge issue, not collude with sin through silence.

 

Since the mid-term elections, both raw and thinly veiled racism has appeared:

 

Michael Richards, a TV star on "Seinfeld" erupted, shouting the "N-word." Caught on videotape in a comedy club, Richards screamed: "He's a [expletive]! He's a [expletive]! He's a [expletive]! A [expletive], look, there's a [expletive]!"

 

Senate Republicans elected Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a Southern Baptist,  to their No. 2 leadership post because of his effectiveness, after stripping him from leadership for praising the segregation past of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), another Southern Baptist.

 

Lott, then Senate Majority Leader, had said in 2002: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

 

Six Islamic clerics were removed from a U.S. Air flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix, after some passengers and the crew deemed as suspicious their act of prayer. One passenger warned that they said, "Allah," the Arabic word for God.

 

Racism is an entrenched American problem that flows through our souls and structures, keeping us blind from uncomfortable truth, causing us to excuse wrongful attitudes, making us deny the nature of who we are in a sinful world. 

 

When Adam blamed Eve, he became a denier. When Cain answered God that he did not know where Abel was and asked if he was the keeper of his brother, Cain became a denier of reality and responsibility.

 

Should we ignore the stumps of sin related to Ford and Lott? Deny that Richards' explosion with racial slurs is an overt manifestation of a covert disposition just beneath political correctness? Justify corporate action and passenger prejudice?

 

Denial is not a river in Africa. Racial denial is a river in the heart of America.

 

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com. He is white, and grew up in Africa as a missionary kid.  

 

 

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