The decision by the Alabama Legislature to pass a resolution apologizing for our state’s role in slavery has provoked mixed responses. Some hail it as a step forward in healing a wound from our troubled past. Others see the move as too little to late. Still others want to know why we are apologizing for something someone else did wrong.
I’m among those who see the resolution as potentially being a step forward, so long as we realize it is just a step.
Racism continues to be deeply rooted not just in Alabama, but in our culture. Today this particular form of prejudice is directed not only against African-Americans, but also Hispanics and especially people of Middle Eastern descent. Just as it is untrue that all African-Americans are shiftless and lazy, as I heard my whole life here in the South, so it is also untrue that all persons of Middle Eastern descent are terrorists. Every people group, race and religion has its good and bad people.
Racism is a social pathology. It is a form of collective insecurity. Minority groups are often viewed with suspicion and hatred by majority groups. In the case of African Americans, the suspicion and hate has become so deep it will take more than a mere resolution to get rid of it. It will take repentance, in the biblical sense.
Repent! It’s a common theme with the prophets, with John the Baptist and with Jesus. The word does not mean that we merely feel bad about what we have done. The idea behind repentance is a complete change of mind. In regard to racism that would mean changing our minds about the prejudgments we heap on minorities.
Repentance may include saying “I’m sorry.” And I was taught that is never too late to offer an apology if one is called for. But repentance is more of an interior overhaul. It requires that we intentionally re-think our every thought. It requires that we retrain our brains to see people that we formerly despised as potential friends and always as neighbors.
It has been a source of frustration for me that here in the Bible belt, where we sing “O how I love Jesus” all the time, we have regularly ignored what Jesus said was part of the Great Commandment. We have failed to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Not only that, but we allow a political and economic system to prevail that punishes our neighbor and helps to keep many of them poor.
On that point I offer a modest suggestion to our governor and state legislature–a possible second step. As a show of good faith, that we really mean what we say when we say we are sorry for slavery and its accompanying racism, why not re-write our state Constitution and take the racist language out of it.
True, federal law keeps us from enforcing the segregation ensconced in our state document, but the words are still there.
Let’s take them out as a demonstration that we are truly sorry for the way we have treated our African-American neighbors. Let’s take them out as way of doing penance for centuries of oppression and hate. Let’s take them out as a way of creating new economic opportunities for everyone in our state.
Apologizing for a wrong is always a good thing. What’s even better is working to make the wrong right.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.