I failed the State of Louisiana literacy test. Yes, I flunked a voting test designed to measure whether or not I could read at a fifth grade level. There were 30 questions and I had 10 minutes to complete the test. More than one wrong answer denoted FAILURE. I missed five questions and failed, and so did everyone else at the Camp Tall Turf Reconciliation Retreat who took the test with me.
This exercise was one of many eye-opening events I experienced at the Tall Turf retreat on racism, co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan in November. The retreat opened my eyes to the systemic racism that still persists in our country.
The overnight event was billed as a high school retreat—and I attended as a Grace youth chaperone—but I learned as much if not more than the students. The Tall Turf team made me look at myself and my country in a different light – and it was harsh, revealing picture.
They made me understand, and write down, that racism is more than individual attitudes and actions. It is the collective actions of a dominant racial group, and they demonstrated how “prejudice becomes racism when one group’s racial prejudices are enforced by the systems and institutions of a society.” (Racial Reconciliation Retreat handout)
We can spot racism in America by looking back at the laws enforced since the age of Christopher Columbus–beginning with the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, which authorized conquest of native lands occupied by inhabitants who were not Christians, and extending up through the new Jim Crow laws of today, which relegate black men to second class status by incarcerating them at exorbitant rates. (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, 2010.)
We see racism in segregated neighborhoods and unequal school funding, in urban renewal and lack of employment opportunities for people of color. We see it right here in Traverse City, an affluent resort town that has no race problem because minorities cannot afford to live here.
And I saw how racism still poisons our society. During the last activity of the seminar, all participants stood together in a long line holding hands. The moderator began asking a series of questions, and for every question you could answer with a “yes,” you took a step forward.
“Are you able to drive your car late at night without fear of being stopped and searched for drugs or alcohol?” If yes, step forward.
“Are you able to go to a video store and find five movies where the star is a positive role model of your race? If yes, step forward.
“Are you able to go to the mall with a group of friends, without being suspected of shoplifting?” If yes, step forward.
Step. Step. Step. With each question, the gap between the races grew. And by the end of the exercise, the white men were at the front, the white women a step behind, the Hispanics a few feet back, and the blacks were back at the starting line.
We ended the evening with heavy hearts as we began to grasp the gap between our vision of equal rights and the world we live in. And then we sat together and prayed. We prayed for each other, for our country, and for ourselves. And whether through developing new relationships, reading books, or participating in community events, we agreed to be agents of reconciliation in God’s world.