Dylan, Racism, and White America

President Obama presenting Bob Dylan with Presidential Medal of Freedom
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).

Attempts to right the wrongs in the past have had limited success. We went from slavery to Jim Crow, and from Jim Crow to mass incarceration (The New Jim Crow).

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 kind when it uses symbols and words of hate.

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.


2 thoughts on “Dylan, Racism, and White America

  1. Jessica, I love Bob Dylan but was not familiar with this song or the incident that inspired it, so thank you for sharing this. Of course, I wish so much your post were just about admiring Bob Dylan, but it is not. Your strong and unflinching statement that racism is no less pervasive in this country than it was in 1963 needs to be heard, understood, and acted upon. I hope it will be. Thank you for the links you’ve provided that offer further evidence for this, as well as the ones offering direction for those who want to bring about change. They are helpful and appreciated.


  2. Jessica
    Good post. Another thing to do is to make friends with someone outside your own race. Not just classmates, but friends who listen and share one another’s story’s. Changes come from the heart; for where your treasure is there too shall be your heart. If we really listen and share life with another, we will quickly find a place for them in our hearts, and then we can we begin to see our privilege vs. their lack of privilege and be concerned enough from the heart to advocate for real change. Just one black womans opinion!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s