by David Fleer
from an address at Rochester College, Oct. 15, 2005
(before an audience that was about 50% white and 50% minority)
January – April, 2006
Hurricane Katrina created a desperate situation for the people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and provided us an opportunity to come together to help our neighbors.
Because of Katrina many of you were present with congregational gifts and individual donations on Sunday September 11, 2005 during an hour of prayer and offering when more than thirty congregations from the Detroit metropolitan area and across Michigan came together to help victims of this natural tragedy. African American and White Christians united to donate more than $115,000 to the hurricane relief effort.
In the weeks following we have heard glowing comments about the day’s experience of diversity, passionate expressions approving the demonstration of unity with statements like, “I cried at the sight of the stage filled with Black and White Christians,” or “I didn’t think I’d see the day,” or “God showed up.” We saw God’s tremendous work amongst us.
Today, we have a double hope. On the one hand we hope the momentum continues, that the coalition of Black Churches and White Churches holds. On the other hand, we hope we can now begin talking about the “racial divide.”
On September 11th, when 730 Black and White Christians gathered for an act of ministry, Brother James Thompson said, “This disaster has brought out the best in us. At the same time it has caused us to look straight in the eye of some other problems that have been festering for a long time.”
Thompson, of course, was referring to the deep United States racial inequalities that Katrina uncovered. This deep racial divide showed itself in the Southeastern states, but is also found through out the entire country, in our metropolitan region and even in our Church of Christ fellowship.
I am grateful that JC Thomas, director of Diversity at Rochester College, for the last year has been planning and preparing for today when we can begin discussions about racial reconciliation.
So, I thank you for your presence, knowing that you have a heart for reconciliation, knowing you are here to listen and to talk. It seems that God has now created an opportunity for us to begin to build the bridge across the racial divide by talking with one another in honesty and love, which is asking a lot. To speak of white apathy and black anger in a spirit of love and honesty is to have some lofty goals. But, today we have lofty goals.
Honestly, we can no longer ignore 250 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow and what has happened over the last generation to create even further separation. The time has come to address black anger and white apathy and begin bridging the racial divide.
Thirty-seven years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial division, misunderstanding, and discord remain. Our dream is that we will put down the weapons of racial destruction, that we’ll stop shooting and cutting one another with our words and acts. We came together because of Hurricane Katrina. Ministry always provides opportunity to bring people together … for a season. But, real healing addresses the underlying causes of our divide.
My topic this morning is White Apathy. The most honest speech I know how to present is not to talk about White Apathy as if it were dead or inanimate or silent. White Apathy is alive and can speak and speaks often and is often outspoken. But White Apathy is most comfortable among its own kind, with its white friends, and in white groups and in white churches.
I welcome to the podium White Apathy and encourage White Apathy to speak honestly, with clarity and openly about those things spoken only in segregated company.
“I am White Apathy and as White Apathy I wish to first make perfectly clear that I am not a racist. In my life I have known blacks and have worked with Blacks, went to school with Blacks. Some of my best friends are Black. We have had Blacks in our home. Once we had a Black woman clean our home and she became very close to our family. My office is down the hall from a Black man. I am not a racist.”
To which we say, That’s okay. We’re not saying you are a racist. We’ve heard your stories about your white father when he was in the Air Force, 1952, stationed somewhere near Baton Rouge and how he drank out of the colored water fountain–showed them. We’ve heard the story of how your grandmother was very respectful to Black bums, treated them no different than white bums back in the Depression. No one is calling you a racist. We just want to hear your opinions on the racial divide.
White Apathy says,
“My opinion? I think things are getting better between Blacks and Whites. I see it especially on television. Football games, for example, you see Blacks on the field, on the sidelines and in the stands. Up there in the stands seated next to one another, Black men and White men, complete strangers, both yelling “somebody hit somebody” splashing high fives–black and white strangers–high five-ing at a touchdown. Watch the game at home and you will see commercials with black and white together, men in sports bars or couples, surrounded by beer and chips in a living room before a full screen TV watching football, together as fans. Things are getting better, I say.”
To which we say, this gathering of fans, cheering like Romans in the coliseum, is a different picture than what we find in one of our churches on Sunday morning. We consume unleavened bread and grape juice, not chips and beer. We don’t root for the physical elimination of the opponent’s quarterback, we speak of a kind and gentle savior. And, we don’t worship together. If you attend tomorrow’s Lion’s game at Ford Field you will experience more racial diversity in your section of the stadium than you will tomorrow morning in church. And this is symbolic of the dilemma in which we find ourselves today.
We say: Did you know that the rest of the country is integrating at a rate double that of the Detroit metropolitan area? Did you know that there are fewer integrated neighborhoods in Detroit than there were twenty years ago?
White Apathy asks,
“You want my opinion about the Racial Divide?”
Yes, we say, we want your opinion about the Racial Divide.
White Apathy asks,
“You want me to be honest?”
Yes, we say, we want you to be honest.
White Apathy says,
“Okay, I’ll be honest. As far as I can tell, racial tension dates back to the riots of 1967 and the election of Coleman Young in 1973. Worst thing that ever happened to Detroit. Look, Detroit dug a hole. It can dig itself out.”
To which we reply, roll back the clock to the days before 1967 and racial tension existed. Duke and Harvard researchers recently collaborated on a project to measure segregation in American Society. Their findings: In the year 2000 Detroit was the most segregated city in America, as Detroit had been the most segregated city in America in 1990, as Detroit had been the most segregated city in 1910; a separation and tension dating back to the city’s first race riot which occurred in 1833 the second race riot in 1863 and the third race riot in 1942.
White Apathy is often unaware of Detroit’s racial history. In 1900, one in three of Detroit’s citizens were born outside the United States. A diverse population, the Polish settled in Hamtramck, the Chinese near Third and Michigan, the Irish in Cork town and African Americans in the lower east side, Black Bottoms. Race relations deteriorated during this era and by 1926 more than half the people killed by the Detroit police were black, an astonishing percentage when Blacks made up only 8 percent of the total population.
About that time a developer wanted to build homes for whites near Eight mile and Wyoming. The Home owners Loan Corporation refused to grant federal approval for mortgages because the homes were too close to a Black Neighborhood. The solution? The developer built a six foot high wall a half mile long, with blacks on one side and whites on the other. After the wall went up, the Federal money came through and the houses were built.
Racial tension in Detroit has a history. It existed before the 1967 riot. In 1942 Life Magazine was observing the conditions in Detroit and Life’s headline read: “Detroit is dynamite.” A prediction that came true at the Sojourner Truth Housing Complex providing better housing for African Americans in Detroit, when tenants tried to move a large crowd of whites blocked the entrance and fights broke out. More than 100 were arrested. All but one was Black. When Black families attempted to move out of Black Bottom they were greeted with arson, salted lawns, floodings, or wrecked porches all to signal there was a high price to pay for crossing the racial divide.
Another riot erupted in 1943 after whites attacked Blacks on the Belle Isle Bridge. In 36 hours 34 blacks were dead. City leaders “investigated” and placed blame on older Black residents who “should have socialized the blacks coming up from the South, taught them proper deference to whites.”
Newspaper reporters and the NAACP came to a different conclusion, saying that there was discrimination at every level in Detroit, that living conditions were quite horrible because of segregation, that recreation opportunities were limited because of segregated parks. That same year Attorney General Francis Biddle suggested that city leaders solve the problem of racial violence by preventing blacks from moving to northern cities.
The 1967 riot that has defined Detroit for decades was fueled by an anger that had been brewing and bubbling for a century and a half.
White Apathy responds,
“All this is history and has nothing to do with me. I wasn’t alive in 19whatever. Don’t blame me for something other people did long ago. The Racial Problem is not my fault. You mentioned Martin Luther King, let me quote Rodney King, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ We’re not going to get along if we keep digging at old wounds.”
And we say, We’re not saying you are responsible for the riots of 1833 and 1863 and 1943. We are saying that we, all of us, are ACCOUNTABLE. This history has everything to do with you and me.
White Apathy says,
“I have enough trouble of my own. I live in a good neighborhood but I’m weighted down with financial troubles, mortgage payments and kids in school, and trouble at work, our church has its own troubles. I don’t have time for another problem. Let someone else take care of it.”
To which we say, “Didn’t God reconcile us to Himself? And did not God commit to us the word of Reconciliation? Who said that? Paul did, in II Corinthians 5”
White Apathy says,
“I knew I should have kept my mouth shut. Speak up and it only gets you in trouble.”
No, no, we say. Thank you for speaking so honestly. This is the beginning. We hope you have listened in honesty, too.
Now White Apathy leaves the podium.
This is a start, White Apathy talking like it did, saying what it always says, but here, in our midst.
Perhaps we should take comfort that we are just learning the alphabet of reconciliation. An alphabet that will one day give us the vocabulary to create the sentences to form the paragraphs, to possess the language to frame the conversation so that we might begin to speak with and listen to one another about the matters that have divided us for so long.
To build a bridge takes more than ministry opportunities, although ministry opportunity helps.
To build a bridge takes a grammar of honesty and love; truth telling and repentance; forgiveness and reconciliation. We build that grammar by starting the alphabet.
May God bless our work together.
Vice President for Church Relations and Professor of Religion and Communication at Rochester College where he develops and nurtures the college’s relationships in Churches of Christ and its broader constituencies.
Fleer created, directs, and hosts the Rochester Sermon Seminar which annually draws over 200 attendees from more than 30 states and provinces and 20 Christian fellowships.
He created the committee, and helped craft the vision, and now works with the Director of Diversity, JC Thomas, Jr., to stimulate essential dialogue and cooperative ministry programs for racial diversity amongst African American and Caucasian Christians in the racially segregated Detroit metropolitan area.
David and Mae, Fleer’s wife of 30 years, have three sons: Josh (27) who is completing two MAs in Journalism and Religion from Pepperdine University, Luke (25) who earned a BA in Psychology from Rochester College and now works as recruiter for the college, and Nate (15) is a high school sophomore, active in theatre.
The family shares common hobbies, including collecting license plates, visiting major league baseball stadiums, enjoying Midwest cities, and recreational exercise.
Fleer’s most recent publication, Like A Shepherd Lead Us: Guidance for the Gentle Art of Pastoring, which he edited with Charles Siburt is due out January 27.