By Mike Coyner
Last week while visiting my daughter and family for the birth of our latest grandchild, Alec Adrian Peace, my almost 5-year-old grandson Austin and I were playing “shadow tag” outdoors. Then Austin changed the game and started doing what he called “running away from my shadow” – which is something from a video game he had seen. Of course the whole point of the game is that we cannot run away from our shadow – it is always there, even if we can’t see it on a cloudy day. When the sunshine comes out, the shadow is always there – no matter how fast we run from it.
I feel the same way about racism in America. We can try to fool ourselves into thinking that the shadows of the evil of slavery and its subsequent racism have gone away, or we can actually try hard to run away from our shadows – but the shadow of racism is always with us. That does not mean that present-day white Americans are “guilty” of the slavery and racism of the past. But it does mean that we all live with those shadows, and our current reality is always shaped and impacted by that past.
Slavery was a terrible, horrible, evil thing for African-Americans – something that still shapes and defines the identity of every African-American through the current reality of racism. Every African-American is aware everyday of those shadows. But Anglo or white Americans (of which I am one) can overlook or ignore those shadows. We can fool ourselves into thinking that is ancient history. We can overlook the resulting white privilege which we accept as normal or even worse as “deserved.” We can think that “I am not a racist” and thus try to run away from the shadows of our American history.
But those shadows are always there.
The horrible shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, can seem like “someone else’s problem” and we can delude ourselves into thinking, “That could not happen here.” The arguments over the Confederate flag can seem like a silly argument that we excuse as “Southern pride” or as “history.” But the bright light of day and the eternal Light of God always reveal to us those shadows. They are real. They are a part of our American landscape (and many other countries as well).
If we cannot run away from our shadows, what can we do? We can be honest. We can listen to one another. We can practice the Presence of the One who helps us overcome evil. We can seek and secure justice and fairness for all. We can stop running from our shadows and face them – until they no longer plague us. Maybe it will take another 100 years. Maybe justice will only come, as Abraham Lincoln said so long ago, when every drop of blood shed by the whips of slavery is replaced by the blood of martyrs for justice. I don’t know.
I do know that we cannot run away from the shadows of our past.
Coyner is bishop of the Indiana area of the United Methodist Church. This column originally appeared at Indiana United Methodists.