The laws changed, but racist attitudes and actions still prevailed. (Judith Roberts)
The Protestant Reformation was a world-transformation event that began back in Germany in 1517. We seem to always need to re-form something about ourselves and the world around us. Judith Roberts, author of this guest blog, writes eloquently about a neighbor’s efforts to reform his assumptions after her family moved in next door to him.
She shares an eloquent account of her moving into a neighborhood where she knew, even as a child, she wasn’t welcome. I celebrate Reformation #501 by helping Judith reach more people. It seems peculiar to me that we accept dogs, cats, horses, and other animals in all sorts of colors, temperaments, and pedigree lines; but we cannot seem to do the same for humans. It’s time we have a Reformation of attitudes about people who don’t look, talk, dress, act just like us.
Thank you Judith for telling your story and sharing it here. This article was first published in Gather magazine (www.gathermagazine.org).
By Judith Roberts
My parents migrated from Mississippi and Alabama; fleeing physical danger, psychological terror and socio-economic oppression under Jim Crow segregation. My mom came north for a college education; my dad for employment in a family mechanic shop. Their experiences were germane to the many other stories about the mass exodus of blacks, the Great Migration. More than 6 million blacks left the south, migrating north in the hopes of a brighter future. My parents met in Connecticut, married and started a family.
For generations, black families were blocked from owning homes in all white communities. Banks, real estate developers, agents and neighborhoods did everything they could to discriminate against non-white families. By the 1970’s when my parents were looking for a the Fair Housing Act of 1968 had passed. It was finally illegal to discriminate because of skin color, race, sex, religion, familial status or national origin.
New Laws Can’t Change Old Attitudes
The laws changed, but racist attitudes and actions still prevailed. Intentional programs were implemented with the goal of integrating people of color into all white communities. The day we purchased our house my family loaded boxes, furniture, toys, and clothes onto my uncle’s truck. I was so excited. We drove five miles north of Hartford to our new home. I played outside, watching all the white families pass by. No one spoke. No one stopped to lend a hand. No one waved. I was only five, but I knew we were unwelcome.
Linda, Frank (not their real names) and their family lived next door. A few days after we moved in, a big for-sale sign went up on their front lawn.My parents, unphased by this overt act of racism didn’t treat them differently. My dad, a jack-of-all-trades, gave Frank a helping hand from time to time. My mom connected with Linda about raising kids. A retired Jewish couple found Frank and Linda’s charming house the perfect fit for them. Just before the first neighbors moved, Frank came at our back door. My mom invited him to sit at our kitchen table. Peering into the room, I could see he was crying.
A Mover’s Remorse
Years later my mom told us that through his tears, Frank expressed remorse for rushing to put his home on the market because we were black. My parents witnessed firsthand what the Fair Housing Act could not legislate—personal attitudes and actions of racism. You can hold institutions accountable, but you can’t legislate hate and racism away. It’s the hard work that can only happen through relationships. It wasn’t until Frank saw my dad as a father just like him, as a man that served his country, as a person with talents and most importantly as a man.
In Luke, Jesus meets Zacchaeus, a man despised by his own peoplefor collecting unfair taxes for the Roman empire. Being short in stature, Zacchaeus literally goes out on a limb of a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Jesus sees, calls and invites Zacchaeus to a meal of bread and wine. Those in the crowd sneer at the invitation saying, Jesus “has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” By the end of the meal, Zacchaeus has a change of heart. He repents and says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Internalized Oppression; External Discrimination
Both Frank and Zacchaeus participated in keeping inequality in place. Frank’s racial prejudice towards my family caused him miss out a new friendship. Zacchaeus worked for the Roman Empire that occupied Palestine and economically oppressed his own people. Internalized oppression happens when we have negative thoughts and beliefs about our own identity and our people. Discriminatory practices and unfair treatment (because of class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.) are maintained by individual acts of complicity and collusion– through attitudes, beliefs and actions.
Jesus aligned himself with the society’s marginalized in society–while sitting and supping with the most despised like Zacchaeus. Jesus crossed every boarder and boundary to reveal the truth of God’s love for us all. Jesus showed Zacchaeus how he prospered from the pain and loss of others. Through his relationship with Jesus, Zacchaeus turned away from his former actions. It was through Frank’s relationship with my parents that Frank turned away from his prejudicial beliefs. Not all repentance leads to big actions like Zacchaeus. It might lead to little choices or actions we make every day that ultimately lead to justice, fairness and equity for all of us.
About Judith Roberts: Judith E. B. Roberts, serves as Program Director for Racial Justice for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is mother to Julian Barlow. She enjoys Zumba, puzzles, and cooking.