On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom it is appropriate to note that Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “The most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning.”
It remains true that our faith practice in America is still largely segregated along racial lines, but so too are the communities in which we live and our educational endeavors. One thing, however, that is completely integrated is our commerce. Though the 1964 Civil Rights Act guaranteed all Americans the freedom to live, learn, work, and worship in the places of our choosing, the only places that most of us actively choose to interact with those of other races and cultures are in the workplace and the marketplace. Is this the major triumph of the Civil Rights movement— that we can work together and shop together but still don’t feel comfortable enough with people different from ourselves to actually live together? What are the effects of this limited integration and how do we overcome them?
The desegregation that resulted from the 1964 act could have resulted in integrated neighborhoods, as communities that were previously off-limits to minorities opened up, but the reality is that the changing of a law does little to change people’s minds. White flight ensured that little actual integration occurred in neighborhoods. This trend has shown signs of a reversal as whites move back into cities but the promise of integration is still distant as gentrification forces many lower-income, largely minority residents to follow the same path out of town that white citizens used in prior decades, albeit for vastly different reasons. In a similar vein, though there are signs that minorities may be catching up, there remain broad gaps between the races in educational and economic achievement.
Ironically, economic and educational issues, which are the most visible and easily measured of all race issues, are probably the least worrisome of the effects of limited integration. Both issues can largely be overcome with smart policy choices that improve how and what children are taught. The more intractable issue is that, though we all call ourselves Americans, we continue to live in profound misunderstanding of each other. Our separated lives lead us to cast aspersions on those who are different from us, because we refuse to know them in the intimacy of our personal lives. As much as our communities, churches, and schools are intimate and personal, commerce is impersonal. We need know little about someone to effectively work with them or to purchase something from them. And since most of us spend the majority of our time away from our homes in acts of commerce where we encounter little racial conflict, we may be lulled into a false sense of racial understanding.
It is this false sense of understanding, brought on by the continued segregation of the intimate settings of our society, that leads to racial tension. Because we aren’t racists and we don’t personally know anyone who is racist, it becomes easy to assume that racism is a problem that exists only in niche communities. It becomes easy to justify the killing of an unarmed teen when we have no intimate knowledge of people like him. It becomes easy to justify the profiling of an entire group of citizens when we, cloistered behind the metaphorical walls of our very real enclaves, know no one in our inner circle that has been stopped and frisked. We may have no problems doing business with these Others, but we will not live, worship, or learn with them because outside of the strict and sterile confines of the marketplace where there exists a common set of rules, those Others might be dangerous. And how would we know otherwise if we refuse to know them in the intimate spaces of our lives?
America will remain a land full of racial tension until Americans gather the courage to take on the remaining tasks of integration. We must take the progressive and generous attitudes that we have about engaging in commerce with people of different races and do the hard work of applying them to the intimate areas of our lives. Let’s not allow the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement to be limited to our commerce. Let our churches, our communities, and our schools become willingly and lovingly integrated. Until we can accomplish that we will continue to suffer the violent and divisive consequences of our limited integration.