The Color Line

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken February 3, 2002

When it comes to race relations in the United States, I am generally an optimist. I can afford that luxury, of course, because I belong to America's ethnic majority—at least for the time being. But no matter how far we still have to go, it must be said that we have come a long way. We have come a long way from the Tulsa race riots of the 1920s, from Negro League baseball in the 1940s, from Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s, and even from the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Minorities have more opportunities and Americans generally have greater exposure to other cultures than ever before.

I may be an optimist, but I am also a Calvinist, and that means that I believe in total depravity. I am not surprised, therefore, when race relations take a step backwards, as they often do. Every time it seems like we are making some progress, something happens to remind us how far we still to go. We hear an ugly racial slur, we sense a racist undercurrent at a child's sporting event, or we read about an act of racially motivated violence. And then we remember that we belong to a fallen and divided race.

One leading indicator of racial attitudes in America has always been housing. Where people live, and with whom, tells something about how well they get along. Preliminary figures from the 2000 U. S. Census are pointing to a somewhat unexpected result.

As everyone knows, our country is becoming more and more ethnically diverse. Yet as far as housing is concerned, it remains as segregated as ever, if not more so. Despite the fact that many minorities are moving to the suburbs, the color lines are still being drawn. Professor John Logan, who directs the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, concludes that although we “might have thought the black civil-rights movement or the rise of the black middle class or changing racial attitudes surely by now would have made a difference,” the truth is that “the color line is still very strong.” Whether we are black or white, yellow or brown, we are choosing to live with people of our own kind.

Racism is one area where actions have a way of speaking louder than words. Many people say that they are more accepting of people from other ethnic backgrounds. They also say that they are seeking to have more diverse friendships. Yet when it comes to deciding where to live, they tend to stay in their own communities. According to one journalist, the census suggests “that four decades of efforts to integrate communities have largely failed. While other research suggests that racial attitudes with regard to housing have lessened, actual settlement patterns remain rooted in the past. Children of the early 21st century will likely grow up isolated from people of other ethnic groups—much as the children of the early 20th century did.”

This kind of segregation used to be the result of overtly racist housing policies. As W. E. B. DuBois thoroughly documented in his landmark study, The Philadelphia Negro, the practice of real estate redlining helped turn many Philadelphia neighborhoods into ghettos. During the early decades of the twentieth century, banks and other lending institutions drew boundaries around certain urban areas, refusing to issue loans for property within those boundaries. All of the neighborhoods were black. Those policies have long since been lifted. However, even when people have more freedom to choose where they want to live, they are still following the lines.

This should remind us that racial reconciliation does not happen on its own. It requires us to make intentional choices about what we do, where we go, with whom we associate—even where we live. Unless we decide to cross some of the usual boundaries, we will always stay within the lines.

One place where that ought to be happening is in the church. The Bible says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This verse does not obliterate real social distinctions based on ethnicity, class, and gender. Yet it insists that we have a fundamental unity in Christ that keeps those distinctions from dividing us. God's Spirit is at work to bring us together in Christ.

This raises a very practical question: What kind of relationships are you forming? How does your life demonstrate the truth that God is making one new people in Christ? This is not simply a black and white issue, because skin color is not the only thing that divides us. We are divided by culture, by education, by economics, and even by social class. These barriers can only be crossed by the love of Christ working in us to help us know and care for those who are different from us.

We are also divided by nationality. How many internationals do you know? How many do you know well? How many of your friendships cross ethnic and cultural boundaries? What about your dinner invitations? Are we spending time together in contexts that can lead to genuine friendship and fellowship?

Tenth is a more diverse church now than at any other time in its history. We have a remarkable opportunity to know people from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We already worship together, which is a foretaste of heaven, when people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” will gather at God's throne (Rev. 7:9). But we can do more than worship together. We can also know one another. We can care for one another. And we can love one another, showing the world that there is no color line in God's kingdom.

[Census analysis and quoted material come from Laurent Belsie, The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2001].

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