Resistance in Black and White
By David Moriah
I live in two worlds. Never have I been so aware of this than in the aftermath of the recent election of the man now in the White House.
One world is that of the historically African-American church. I am a member and deacon in a large black Baptist church in Trenton, NJ. Most of my day-to-day friendships and social life revolve around the people in this faith community.
I am a white man. I’ve lived in several places and assembled many friends and acquaintances, most of whom until recently are also white. As I lean toward the progressive or liberal side of the political spectrum, many of those friends identify as white progressives.
When America awoke the morning after Election Day, many who opposed our new President-elect were not only stunned but also traumatized. The realization that this new reality in America would not be going away anytime soon began to settle in.
As days and weeks wore on I began to notice strikingly different reactions, and actions, taking place within my two worlds. My white progressive friends seemed blindsided by the election. It had been inconceivable to them that a person marked by vulgar bullying, overt bigotry and lack of government experience would appeal to millions of Americans.
For many paralysis set in, and I still know people who linger in despair and hopelessness. Others set off on quixotic and predictably futile ventures like demanding recounts and attempting to orchestrate an Electoral College revolt.
However, in my church on the Sunday after Election Day there was a sober atmosphere but little shock. My faith community had been down this road before. They had seen their countrymen elect lawmen like Bull Conner, governors like George Wallace and President Richard Nixon. It was Nixon who concocted the “Southern Strategy” and trumpeted a “law and order” campaign using coded language that played to race fears amongst whites. This new man coming into power was simply the latest in a long line of such demagogues and fear mongers.
Our pastor began his remarks saying, “America has elected a new President and we should be praying for him and all those in authority.”
His tone was somber and sad but resolute. “Now we need to be alert and aware, and hold him accountable every step of the way.” Many immediately took up that call, as prayer became the foundation of renewed activism in the long struggle for equality and justice.
I pondered what was at the root of this stark difference in reactions.
One explanation is that the dominant mindset of progressives is an assumption, conscious or subconscious that history is, well, “progressing.” The last 150 years of American history have been marked by continual expansion of human rights and benefits – the abolition of slavery, laws forbidding child labor, women’s suffrage, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, laws overturning racial discrimination, clean air and water protections, and more recently the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
This expectation of continual progress made it almost unfathomable that a bigoted fool could be elected President, and, backed by a regressive Republican legislature and soon-to-be SCOTUS, many of those advances might be rolled back. The shock to the system of white progressives was deep and palpable.
But the historical experience of African-Americans has been more checkered, marked by an alternating landscape of progress and setbacks, victories soon reversed and battles fought again and again. The requirement for African-Americans has been constant vigilance and a need to stay strong for the long haul.
Jim Crow and a cruel second-class citizenship quickly followed the abolition of slavery. The long and difficult struggle of the civil rights movement led to important anti-discrimination laws, but black Americans continued to experience racist attitudes and practices in their everyday lives. More recently, a conservative Supreme Court reversed crucial provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the African-American community there is no naïve complacency that progress is on a steady march forward.
Another explanation traces to the contrast between a largely secular white progressive movement and the African-American community, where faith continues to play a deep and abiding role. Whereas white progressives have increasingly decoupled from organized religion and Christianity in particular, the black church remains an important community institution and personal faith is fairly strong for most African-Americans. This faith has been a source of sustenance and inspiration for generations of blacks to persevere in the struggle for racial progress and economic justice.
Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-NJ), a member of my congregation, connects this faith to renewed activism.
“The Black community is not sitting idly and simply waiting on the Lord or white progressives to engage or save us. Indeed, we believe in what James says in the Bible, that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). So, please know the Black community is actively engaged in truth bringing and resistance strategies, as well. “
Today there are encouraging signs for progressives that many have emerged from their funk and taken up the banner of activism - marching, organizing, calling representatives, etc. But victories will be hard won and likely few rather than many, and the struggle to regain a share of power in Washington will be long and arduous. It will be tempting to give in to discouragement and despair.
In this, it would be wise for white progressives to look to the black church and the historic civil rights movement for lessons and inspiration. Generations of African-Americans have found encouragement in the words the prophet Isaiah spoke nearly 3000 years ago – “Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall. But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.“ (Isaiah 40:30-31)
We shall overcome!