How to Discriminate Against ‘Those Other People’

Mixed-race-churchThis is not a good story, and I apologize in advance.

In between my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked the call-in desk for the Seaboard Railroad ticket office in Birmingham. Located downtown on 20th Street South, this was an attractive office with pleasant people.

The year was 1960 and during the heyday of Jim Crow laws. The police commissioner in the city was named Bull Connor, a man destined to make headlines a couple of years later when he turned the fire hoses on blacks (and maybe a few whites; I’m not sure) protesting the harsh laws and customs in our city.

My job was taking reservations over the phone. My instructor, a pleasant fellow named Andy, said to me, “Now, we have a little system here. It goes like this.”

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When someone called for a reservation in a Pullman car, their race or skin color did not matter since they would have private accommodations. However, if they were taking the less expensive alternative and going by coach, it did matter.

How we segregated the whites and the blacks was this.

“You are to ask the caller, ‘Is that Pullman or coach?’ Now, if they say ‘Pullman,’ all is well. However, if the answer is ‘coach,’ and the caller is black, they will not say ‘coach,’ but ‘corch.’”

“If they say ‘corch,’ assign them to the back car.”

It was a pronunciation thing. I was raised in the coalfields of West Virginia and on the farm in rural Alabama, and this was my first acquaintance with how a racial group might pronounce a word differently.

Anyway, that’s how we did it in 1960, how all the whites ended up in one train coach and all the blacks in another. (Did other railroads have similar tactics? I have no idea.)

And, so you will know, I did not question the system. It was just “how things were.” Bear in mind, all over Birmingham, restaurants still had rear entrances for “colored,” separate drinking fountains were everywhere, and the blacks still sat in back of the bus. To some today, that sounds like the Middle Ages, but it was not all that long ago.

In The Advocate, columnist Michael Barone takes on the racial discrimination, which he says is occurring in California universities’ admissions offices. His source is Ruth Starkman, based on her experience as a “reader of applications to the highly selective University of California, Berkeley,” from something she wrote for The New York Times.

What is happening in that university, and others like it, she says, is college admissions people are circumventing the law that, since 1996, has prohibited taking race into account in admitting students to schools in that state. They do this by adding one more factor into the mix, called “holistic” or “the bigger picture.”

On the surface, it looks noble. Admissions directors are looking for other factors than simply high grades: socio-economic environment, achievements in other areas, community service and such.

The results were another story, said Ruth Starkman. The admissions people were using the criteria to discriminate against well-qualified white people, Jews and Asians. It was affirmative action all over again.

Now, I’m a Baptist preacher and have no knowledge of any of this firsthand.

I wanted to comment on discrimination, whether it’s white against black, black against white, or something else altogether.

It’s wrong.

Just as we had ways in 1960 to recognize minorities over the phone and assign them to one train car, the admissions people have apparently worked out their own system for taking in some racial groups and barring others. And, truth be known, I would not be surprised to hear that some traditionally Caucasian schools practice the same anti-black and anti-Hispanic tactics as the California universities.

In that fascinating chapter, Leviticus 19, so loaded with injunctions against mistreating outsiders and newcomers, the poor and the vulnerable, God issues a point-blank command to treat everyone—high and mighty, low and needy—alike, by the same criteria.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” found in verses 18 and 34, was elevated by our Lord to the second greatest commandment, ranking below only loving God supremely (from Deuteronomy 6:5).

The fascinating thing about Leviticus 19 is right smack-dab in the middle of all those commands about taking care of the poor and the outsiders (vv. 9-10, 13-14, 17, 33-37), the Lord stops reverse discrimination dead in its tracks by saying, “You shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great.”

One extreme is as wrong as the other.

Do churches discriminate against minorities who enter their premises to worship?

I have no personal knowledge of that happening. And yet …

I know how it happens when it does happen.

  • The church is agonizingly slow to make Brother Elrod a deacon just because he would be the first minority in that position and “we’ve never done it that way before.”
  • Members have a hard time engaging in conversation with Sister Elrod without mentioning her race.  “Oh, we’re so happy to have you people worshipping with us. You know, you’re the first—how do you describe yourselves? African-Americans?—to come to our church.” Get that? It’s “our” church, and the Elrods are still outsiders.Meanwhile, the Elrods would enjoy being welcomed in the same way you would anyone else.
  • Members are hesitant to invite the Elrods to join them for after-church fellowship in a home. “We thought they might feel uncomfortable” is the excuse.
  • Officially, the Elrods and all other minorities are welcome in that church. It’s the informal, relational, casual areas where subtle discrimination takes place. And, just as we did in 1960, good Christian people laugh it off, say it’s how things are and that time will take care of these things.

I was preaching a revival in a tiny southern Mississippi town where, as usual, the Baptists had the largest congregation. Among the sea of white faces stood out two black people, a husband and wife, who seemed to enjoy the service and to blend in with the people around them. As I do in all such gatherings, I was sketching people before and after the services. When this couple sat before me, they said they were from New Orleans and had moved there in the upheaval following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

I lowered my voice, smiled and said, “What’s it like being the only non-whites in this congregation?” They burst out with large beautiful smiles and said, “It’s Mayberry!” And we all laughed.

Good for them, I thought. They looked past skin colors and worshipped with brothers and sisters in Christ. Apparently, the whites are learning to do the same.

It takes courage on both parts. I wish I’d had courage in 1960.

One final word: The leaders of the church should take the lead in welcoming first-timers of any group into the church and taking extraordinary steps to make sure they are fully assimilated into the congregation. Congregations take their cues from their leaders, and if the pastor and worship leaders are quick to welcome the untraditional guest and courageous newcomer, they will follow suit.

But whether the ministers go out of their way to bring these new people into the life of the congregation or not, church members should step up and do so. In particular, the older members with the longest history in that church can have a great impact by welcoming them, inviting them to lunch, calling them by name and treating them like anyone else.

The day may come when we will not notice someone’s skin color. But we are a long way short of that at the present time and must learn to deal with our own attitudes and “bring them into subjection to Christ.”

“You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:15, 18).

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

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