Hidden Racism

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  August 6, 2016

            While training to be a cook in the US Coast Guard I worked in a galley with a dynamic woman with unmatched cooking skills. She taught me a lot about cooking, but perhaps the most important lesson she taught me was one on racism.
            Before coming to our Station, she had worked at another Small Boat station in an area that was absolutely White. When she moved into the neighborhood to begin serving her country in the Coast Guard uniform, she and her young son were the only Black people in the small, tightly-knit fishing village.
            She went on to tell me how her son faced hideous abuse in the schools, beatings on the way home from school, and unrelenting discrimination at every turn. When she went into the local stores, even when wearing her Coast Guard uniform, she was followed, harassed, and occasionally told to leave because her kind was not welcomed in that establishment. Even in their home, a nice government-leased apartment not far from the Station, they endured racial slurs, vandalism to her car, and threatening notes left on her door.
            Keep in mind, this was not the Jim Crow era of a half-century ago or the Deep South. She endured these vicious attacks in the 1990’s while living in New England. In spite of the Coast Guard’s best efforts to resolve the tension, it was eventually decided that her safety and peace of mind was paramount and she was subsequently transferred to the Station where I would later learn under her leadership.
            In sharing her story with me, I was first shocked at the vehemence of the hatred and racism that she had to endure. As a White man, I was also profoundly embarrassed that there were still people representing my race that had not developed the Christian priority—let alone the American legal precedence—for diversity, inclusion, and non-discrimination. Her story of discrimination and my disgusted response was one thing. It was what happened next that really changed my life.
            After listening to her describe the horrible life she knew, I remarked that it must be better for her while living in a community that was not racist. “No!” she rebuked. “You have it totally wrong.” With a passion and determination I had never seen in her until that moment, she went right to the heart of my own ignorance and presumptive thinking.
            “The difference between the people that I left behind in New England and the people here in New Jersey is that the New Englanders knew they were racist and why they hated me. It was wrong and they will be judged for their sin, but at least they weren’t ignorant about how much they hated me.” She then described the unspoken racism she faced every day in New Jersey. “Folks here think they aren’t racist, but they still don’t trust me, look down on me for being black, or live in the White people’s delusion that racism is only about white hoods and burning crosses.” She then turned to me and said, “The very fact that you live in your White world and don’t even know how prominent racism remains in this country only illustrates your own ignorance and hidden racist attitudes.”
She was right! It was one of the most humbling lessons of my life. Now, some 25 years later, our nation is hemorrhaging along racial lines. In large part, it is due to the hidden and unspoken racism to which she opened my eyes. This is where the Church must transcend the populist and partisan rancor of the day and start being the church. It is time we really stand against all forms of discrimination and educate ourselves about how prevalent it is!