Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize this week, gaining well-deserved attention for the decades of cultural commentary he has brought the world through his writing and music.
One aspect of Dylan’s music that stands out to me is his cultural sensitivity, calling out racism in all its insidiousness.
As a white, Christian, female seminary student, I am striving to call out my white privilege and that of other white Americans. I realize that it is not enough for me to have African American friends and family; I have to be actively involved in the work of deconstructing systemic racism.
White Americans need to remove our blinders when we look at society. In one of Dylan’s most famous songs, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, he provides a cynical commentary on racial injustice in America. The song refers to a heinous hate crime committed by white Baltimore socialite William Zantzinger against an African American hotel barmaid named Hattie Carroll. Carroll lost her life; Zantzinger served just six months.
The song was written in 1963, yet its words are just as piercingly relevant in 2016 America. Then as now, America is a racist country with a degraded doctrine of human nature.
European settlers came here to take land away from Indigenous people, slaughtering them in the process.
A newly formed United States wrote the denigration of African Americans into its founding documents (The Constitution, Article 1, Section 2).
Christians are also complicit in systemic racism. Scripture has been used to justify horrific acts. But scripture also makes clear what God asks of us in the ongoing work of becoming more decent human beings: “…do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
White Americans have to face facts:
America is not a just place for non-white people.
America is not humble when it boasts of its greatness in God’s sight.
Issues of race are uncomfortable for white Americans. Like our presidential candidates, we prefer to deny implicit bias even exists. We flee from the shame we feel about our privilege.
Yet, as Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, says, “The guilt should be felt, it’s real. We can’t run away from it.” The only way to fight systemic racism is to work together to dismantle the systems that created it.
The good news, according to Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite, is that “the power relations some have constructed, other people can reconstruct.”
We can educate ourselves and our children (start here) about racial injustice.
We can get involved in grass-roots organizations working to dismantle unjust systems.
As a white, Christian seminarian, I call on white Christians to show up for racial justice.