As we celebrate Black History Month, the State of Virginia has been thrown into turmoil by revelations that its governor and attorney general had dressed up in blackface in their youth. The scandal is another reminder that the long fight against racism in our country is not over.
Like the infamous dog Cerberus, racism has been the three-headed beast at the door of the underworld of America’s history.
The first head of the beast inhabited our Constitution. Article 1, Section 9, allowing the slave trade up to 1808, and the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3), enshrined the worst expression of racism – slavery – in our Magna Carta.
Rectifying that horrific injustice cost the country 620,000 lives during the Civil War, and almost caused its disintegration.
After the 13th Amendment put an end to slavery in 1865, the second head of the beast appeared. The Jim Crow Laws replaced slavery with segregation, perpetuating racism in the state and local laws of the South.
After two-and-a-half centuries of slavery, African Americans suffered a century of abject institutional discrimination. In addition to that, almost 3,500 African Americans were lynched in the streets of the United States of America during the century after the Civil War.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the untold sacrifice of many heroes, known and unknown, put an end to the racist laws that soiled this great land. It was a long, often bloody battle. Overcoming that injustice required the leadership of one of the greatest human beings this country has ever produced – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It also required the sacrifice of his life.
We are dealing now with the third head of the beast. Actually, we have been dealing with it since the very beginning – the racism enshrined not in the Constitution or the local laws, but in society, in the human heart.
The abolitionist and civil rights movements started in the hearts of people, very often urged by their Christian conscience to fight against the sin of racism.
Racism is probably the most direct rejection of Jesus’ Golden Rule: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Not even war would be a more radical rejection of this essential commandment. Cuban national hero Jose Martí in the 1800s called for a “war without hatred” for Cuba’s independence. Yes, you can fight in a war without hating the soldiers on the other side. But you can’t have slavery or Jim Crow Laws without an all-consuming hatred for your brothers and sisters whose very humanity you refuse to acknowledge.
Having overcome slavery and Jim Crow, racism still lives in our hearts. Saying that you are not a racist is good, but it is not enough. Could we say that we are absolutely above the sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath or sloth? Well, the same is true for racism. Could we say that we have never judged anybody “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”?
We have to fight against racism in our hearts every single day. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white or Latino, male or female, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim or agnostic. It is a battle that has to be fought in each human heart.