"Some are guilty. All are responsible."
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Didn't post much this weekend, my dad was in town. Here's a story I learned from my dad.
Dad used to practice law in New Jersey. Years ago, he was researching a title deed in North Plainfield and found that the buyers back in the 1920s had signed a "restrictive covenant."
Such clauses were common in America for much of the 20th century. They were not strictly legally binding, but they played an important role in the mosaic of formal and informal discrimination that has prevented — and still prevents — African Americans from building equity and from "competing" on a level playing field.
Much is made of the income gap between black and white Americans. The wealth gap is even wider — and far more damaging. (For an insightful and in-depth look at how and why, see Dalton Conley's dynamite book Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth and Social Policy in America.)
Ethnic and religious restrictive covenants have been used to discriminate against many groups in America — blacks, Jews, Irish or even Catholics. This particular deed, in North Plainfield, specified that the buyers promised never to resell the property to "Negroes."
The property was in the same neighborhood as Hydewood Park Baptist Church, where my family attended. So Dad checked that deed and, sadly, found that our church too had agreed to a "restrictive covenant" when it acquired the property in the '20s.
Dad made a copy and showed it to our church's pastor — a man named Donald Urey. He responded agrily and defensively. What's your point? That was a long time ago! It's not like I signed that, and we certainly wouldn't today, so why dig up old dirt?
Pastor Urey believed that the past was past, and didn't concern him. But as the Big Book says, "You may be done with the past, but the past isn't done with you." Hydewood sat a block and a half from the border with Plainfield — a predominantly black city, made famous by the Kerner Commission. Yet our congregation was as white as the walls onto which we projected the lyrics to praise choruses.Years later, Hydewood had a new pastor. Dad showed Pastor Fletcher the old deed from the '20s. He didn't get angry, or defensive, just deeply sad. And then, after a thoughtful moment, fearful.
"It makes you wonder, doesn't it?" he said. "You wonder how Christians could do such a thing. And then you wonder what it is we're doing today that will cause Christians to look back decades from now and ask 'How could they have done this? How could they have thought this was right?'"
I'd like to tell you that there's more to this story. That something at Hydewood changed. But it didn't.
Yet I still think the different responses of these two pastors is significant.
Hydewood Park Baptist Church is a small, peripheral player in America's epic history of discrimination. As the heirs of that history, we must choose how the past will be allowed to shape our present and our future.
Pastor Urey's response — self-righteous anger and a defensive exemption from the sins of the past — is easy to find wherever this history is discussed. It's the I-didn't-own-slaves-so-get-off-my-back argument. But Pastor Fletcher wisely saw the danger in this stance. What right have we to condemn our forebears for uncritically accepting the sins of their time and culture if we are uncritically accepting the sins of our own? By the same measure we judge, we can expect ourselves to be judged some day.
White guilt is the bugbear of southern strategy Republicans — who reject guilt and therefore reject responsibility. It can also be the self-congratulatory hairshirt of northern liberals — who embrace guilt, and therefore do not embrace responsibility.
But I'm not terribly interested in talking about guilt. I'm more interested in responsibility. That quote from Rabbi Heschel could probably be amplified:
"Some are guilty. All are responsible. And nowadays, most are guilty of refusing responsibility."