By Rev. Susan K. Smith,
A friend of mine called this week, a black male, a pastor, charged with inspiring and encouraging his huge congregation even in the midst of this election.
He was weeping.
“It is so hard,” he said. “Who do the ministers talk to for encouragement? The hatred, the name-calling, the outright racism …it is too much.”
“And,” he said between stifled sobs, “Trump may well win. What then? How do we keep our people going?”
The sentiment of my friend is one that I have heard repeatedly. That, and cries from young African Americans, despondent over the unabashed racism of Donald Trump and his millions of followers. What I hear all of the time is, “Trump isn’t really the problem. He is who is is. What the problem is all of the people who follow him. How can they do that?” The young African Americans, many of whom have been in the streets fighting for justice in cases of police shootings of unarmed black people, and who have been working to find a way to curb mass incarceration of black people, wonder what will become of their work. And repeatedly, I hear them say, “I cannot even think about bringing a child into this world. I don’t want to bring a baby into this world when I am not sure at all that it would be treated fairly and with justice.”
Another friend called and voiced concern that if Trump gets into office, the corporations that are behind him will fund efforts to use people who are in prison, mostly African American, to fund projects to fix America’s infrastructure. Yes, there will be jobs, he said, but jobs for people who will never be free…and rich, white corporations will continue to get rich off the backs of black people.”
Though African Americans hold onto hope, it is by a thin thread. The African Americans with whom I have talked have looked with dismay at the way the end days of this campaign is going. They are not overjoyed with Hillary Clinton; many hold a grudge against her husband not for his fling with Monica Lewinsky, but for his pushing through his 1994 anti-crime bill. One friend, also a Christian minister, said resolutely, “I don’t like Trump but I cannot vote for Clinton. My baby brother is in prison because of Bill Clinton’s crime bill. I can’t forget that.”
African Americans who are pulling for a Clinton victory also recall and remember that she called a segment of African American young people “superpredators with no conscience.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/02/25/clinton-heckled-by-black-lives-matter-activist/) They acknowledge that it is not a given that her policies will work for the betterment of black people in this country.
But these Clinton supporters believe that she is better, maybe safer, than is Trump. While Trump supporters say they want him because he “is not a politician,” many say they want Clinton because she is a politician, skilled in talking with foreign heads of state, skilled at the art of compromise, skilled in the workings of America’s government, such as it is.
There is a theological crisis for some African Americans, however. Since being in this country, held under the nailed coffin of white supremacy, African Americans have had to call on God in a different way than have their white counterparts. Though the God of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament called for justice, mercy and love, what African Americans often felt from white America was just the opposite. African Americans had to wrestle between what they heard about as being God, and what they were dealing with. White Christians seemed unable and unwilling to see them as human beings, precious in the sight of God. Theologian James Cone said that Reinhhold Niebuhr, a respected “progressive” white theologian, was a prime example of how white progressives fell short of understanding the plight of African Americans. African Americans, said Cone, had to “trust and cultivate their own theological imagination” because the prevalent theology, white theology, left the cause of justice and equality for black people on the periphery of theological discourse. Niebuhr, notes Cone in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, lifted up the founding fathers as being “virtuous and honorable men, and certainly no villains.” (p. 38) Cone also quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, who criticized the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” and said, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.” (p. 39)
It feels like, with the creeping possibility of a Trump victory, that African Americans will again have to endure injustice, to wait more years for the dripping poison of white supremacy to run out. In that waiting, African Americans will have to call on their God, a God that is different from the God of white supremacists, who certainly seems all right with racism (and sexism), and seems to sanction it. Absent of the presence of their God, African Americans would have evaporated under the strain of the racial injustice which has been a bellwether of this country for generations.
African Americans, many of us, find ourselves asking of God, “How long?” In this election, we also ask God to answer us, as did many of the psalmists in the Hebrew scriptures. This God seems to be the God of the ruling class, not the God of the underclasses, whom God says matter. Even if Clinton wins, the prayer and spiritual journey of African Americans will continue its tortuous course; Clinton will still have to work with a Congress which has not been interested in the rights of African American and promises not to change much should she win. Many in the Republican-dominated Congress are much more interested in the lives of unborn fetuses than they are in the lives of people who live and work among them on a daily basis. But should Trump win, or even if he loses, the masses of “good, Christian people, certainly not villains” will be on the loose, spewing their hatred and flexing their muscles fueled and strengthened by white supremacy.
African Americans will yet again have to call on a God that is different from that of white Christians in order to survive …and then to thrive. The answer to the question, “How long?” seems a long way from being answered.