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The State of Race

Last week I watched a peculiar parade. I saw police arranging long, white barricades at the end of my block, so my dog and I decided to take a walk and find out what was happening. From beyond the crest of a hill on Sumter Street, we could feel the roll of bass drums and hear the staccato brass of a marching band.  In a moment, floats appeared over the horizon, candy was tossed, and there were smiles all around.

But that’s not why it was a peculiar parade. Two things were odd: as I looked around, I realized that I was the only white person standing among the crowds on the sidewalk. Hmmm. The second thing: no white people in the parade. It went on, an hour of high school marching bands (8), floats (20), politicians (close to election day), and little girls in leotards (countless) twirling chrome batons with scuffed rubber tips. And no one in the parade was white. It was a Black parade on a sunny South Carolina Saturday morning.

So what’s up? Were white people not invited? If they were, did they not want to come? It turns out that the parade was part of the homecoming day celebration for Benedict College, a Historically Black College in Columbia. The race lines had been drawn years ago. The University of South Carolina was a “whites-only school” when Benedict was founded in 1870, about five years after Confederates signed the surrender at Appomattox. The racial barriers were formalized as  “separate but equal” was declared by the US Supreme Court, later lived out under Jim Crow law. So what I was watching last week was something of a racial habit, perhaps on a good day it could be called a “tradition.” The Benedict parade was an example of humans sticking to what they are used to: Separate but equal,as they do their thing and we do ours. Old habits die hard on both sides.  

Some have said that race issues are over because we have a Black President. I think the fact that President Obama is in office is a step forward, a beautiful reflection of America beginning to live up to its ideals. But I also recognize that, in a way, he is a compromise. He’s a Black man with a white mother. He’s a Harvard graduate. He’s a college Professor who lived in an upscale Chicago suburb, a far cry from the broken neighborhoods where he did his community  organizing. President Obama is not just a victory for race relations, but a representative from the gray area between white and black, a step between separate but equal.  

Maybe that’s the real victory we can see in President Obama. He represents an America willing to step beyond racial habits into a new space that represents our greater shared ideals. A compromise does not mean race relations have changed dramatically, the Black parades in America continue in many forms. But perhaps having a compromise will lead to more, as others step from their Black and White racial habits into the shifting grey space that lies between. 


The issue of race weighs heavily on my mind. When we lived in New Orleans we were surrounded by diversity and culture of various origins. Now we live in Kentucky where you can count the minorities in my children's entire school on two hands. However, God is doing something amazing! In the last year, my husband has gotten together with several other pastors from various churches in our county to form a joint worship service once a quarter. These churches are so very different: urban & rural, white & black, baptist & pentecostal...The thing they have in common is that they all love God and want to reach out to the people of our community with that love. Our services are some of my favorite times of the year...filled with music ranging from gospel to southern gospel, hymns, piano, drums, guitar...harmonicas... Dancing, drama, and "rhythmic interpretation" for those of us who can't dance...( =
I always come away from these times feeling like I've just experienced a little taste of heaven. Because heaven is surely filled with every sort of diversity imaginable and we're not going to be separated and arranged into our own little "neigborhoods" up there. I think it's a good idea to start practicing living like that while we're still living here on earth.

Thanks for a beautiful comment, Stephanie! Very encouraged by your real-life experience.

The issue of racism has been running around in every corner of the world. But unless, people will realize that no matter what color of skin we have, we are the same, we are all human beings. - Michael Courouleau

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Mark has been working in higher education for over 15 years. He has served as a professor, a dean, and a college president. He has consulted and taught in over thirty-five countries.