Subtleties of racism - through a child's eye

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These words are from a middle-class, reasonably well-educated, old, white man to others of his sort. Others who care to listen in are cordially welcome.

Last summer, I had an experience with the sadness of racism - not the well-rehearsed and discussed stories of housing, job, or educational discrimination, or the awful statistical truth that a young black male is more likely to wind up in jail than in college in America.

The problem with all this information - indeed, with the entire issue of white racism in modern America - is twofold. First, we've heard it all before, and we're no longer really listening. Second, we've prepared our equivocating replies. Most of us have stories about folks who have pulled themselves up from poverty by their own bootstraps, or about our Irish grandparents who rose from oppression to power, or a Greek great-grandfather who started out with a vegetable cart and wound up king of the wholesale produce business in Trenton, N.J., or wherever. Then, spoken or unspoken, come these words: If they could do it, why can't more black people? All it takes is a little hard work, desire, discipline.

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But one June morning, I witnessed a profound explanation of why so many blacks can't thrive in white America. I was driving back to Milwaukee from Waupaca, Wis. In the back seat of my car were two African-American girls from my church congregation - Lakisha and Cassandra, I'll call them. I was bringing them home from their first time at summer camp.

Lakisha was 7; Cassandra, 6. The first 30 miles were consumed by the girls' telling me of the wonders of camp. They swam and paddled a canoe and made new friends. Even the food was good; there was as much of it as they wanted, and wasn't their cabin counselor wonderful!

A note of tiredness crept into the girls' voices as they began to unwind, and I fully expected slumber to come soon. It did, but first came this:

"There weren't enough black people in camp for me," Lakisha said to Cassandra. "What do you think?"

"Nope. Me neither," Cassandra replied. "I had a lot of fun, but I didn't really feel - well, you know - comfortable."

They soon fell asleep, and now they're back living their lives. But I haven't been able to stop their awful agreement from echoing in my heart.

Six and seven years old; members of an integrated church; indeed, riding in the care of the white pastor of that church; coming home from summer camp where they had had a whole lot of fun, and yet.... And yet, they were oppressed by too many white people.

Are any of us jaded enough to imagine that the problem is theirs - I mean, that these two little girls are their own cause of the problem they have? What is there about the white world that makes black children uncomfortable? Why, even in the middle of a time intended as pure fun, are they uneasy and, as Cassandra said later, "a little bit lonely"? Is there anything this white guy up in the front seat can do to make their world more welcoming? What does it mean that some people could read this whole account of Lakisha and Cassandra's experience and still not "get it"?

I've taken these questions to our congregation - and now to you. Lakisha's and Cassandra's lives will be materially affected by whether - and how - we reply.

*David Trembley is co-pastor of Broken Walls Christian Community, an inner-city congregation in Milwaukee, Wis. He is co-author of "Pray With All Your Senses" (ACTA, 1997)

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