A few years ago a white Christian artist invited me out for dinner and asked me to analyze a project he was working on. He wanted my racial expertise. The project was an intriguing artistic presentation on how human beings engage differences. He hoped I could help him focus the work on racial differences. I genuinely liked the project, and I liked the white man sitting on the other side of the table from me. But I was hesitant to agree to his request.
I certainly could have fielded his questions and lectured him on the finer points of race and racism, but I needed to know that he was as invested in the conversation as I was. So I asked him, “Are you willing to do some reading on your own?” He was open to the idea. After I gave him a reading list of memoirs on racism written by white people that included Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound, Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, and Tim Wise’s White Like Me, I explained: “If you want to meet up after reading the books and share particular questions and comments related to your work, then I’d be happy to have a conversation.”
This was not the first time a white person has asked me about race in a casual setting. Some of my white brothers and sisters who are waking up to racial injustice for the first time do not understand why I will not engage their seemingly innocent question: “Why is racism still a problem?” In these informal contexts I often become aware that, while white inquirers acknowledge that racism is a problem, their ignorance makes meaningful conversation impossible.
For example, while at a white Christian family’s dinner party where everyone was white except for me, one of the hosts began speaking about the small number of Black people in our city. Without carefully considering that my immediate company was likely ill-equipped for a meaningful discussion, I began sharing statistical data concerning the 75% of white US citizens who have zero Black friends. I also mentioned that there are many places white people can go in the US where they never need to interact with Black people, including the very town in which we lived.
My hosts began to protest at the suggestion that predominantly white spaces still existed in the US. Then, I asked them to guess the percentage of people in the US who are white. As happens when I ask my graduate students the same question, their answers ranged from 30% to 45%—few ever guess that the percentage is over 50%. When I asserted that 65% of the US population is comprised of white people (this number excludes Latinx people who identify as white) my Christian hosts scoffed. I told them to look it up. It didn’t take long before one of them corrected my misinformation by shouting, “Wrong! Actually it’s 63.4%.”
It was a light-hearted moment that relieved some of the tension in the room. But I was troubled. By not understanding something as basic as the racial demographics of the United States, my hosts would be hard pressed to understand or empathize with my Black experience of navigating white spaces in our town.
I’ve taught courses and workshops on race and racism in predominantly white institutions for more than 15 years. At this point in my career I should not be surprised when white people demonstrate little knowledge about race in America given the interactions I’ve had. Still, I find myself stunned at their lack of knowledge because the information is so readily accessible. I find myself stunned that white people are still asking: “Why is racism still a problem?”
Recent iterations of the question remind me of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 16. The parable tells of a rich man who has died and has been assigned to Hades where it is so uncomfortably hot that he asks Abraham for Lazarus, a poor man who used to beg at the rich man’s gate, to be allowed to “dip the tip of his finger in cold water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” When Abraham refuses his request because, “In your lifetime you received good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted and you are here,” the rich man makes another request. He doesn’t want his five brothers to receive the same fate. So he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his family: “Let him warn them, so that they will not come to this place of torment.” But Abraham refuses the rich man, saying to him: “They have Moses and the Prophets. Let them listen to them.”
This parable can teach us lessons about the role Black folks should be asked to play in educating white folks about racism. In life, the rich man did not feel any need to seek resources from Lazarus because he was poor and despised. Yet, it was Lazarus who, even in his poverty, possessed something the rich man desperately needed—salvation.
When speaking of racial privilege, white people in the US remind me of the rich man. With the power of political leadership and historically unearned rights, white people have professed to need Black people for very little (in spite of a long history in America that demonstrates that white society needed Black labor to build the economic wealth and infrastructure of the nation from its earliest days), except as a source for an answer to the question that arises during racial crises, “Why is racism still a problem?” In those moments, they turn to their Black friends, family members, politicians, classmates, and colleagues for salvation.
I have heard this question asked with greater frequency since white supremacist groups swarmed upon Charlottesville this summer. In their bewilderment, some white folks have expected their Black friends to alleviate them from the burning agony of their ignorance of racism. I refuse to engage such questions in depth in these settings. In my professional life I have spoken out and will continue to do so. In casual settings, however, I wish only to respond, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
If white people do not know why racism is still a problem in our society, it is because they have failed to value voices of those who testify to the realities of racial injustice everyday; they have failed to research answers to the question with as much passion as they have asked it. Moreover, many hold to their persistent belief that racism is a problem of the past, of individual hearts, or of isolated incidents when instead, racism is the evil of white social systems and institutional structures.
I am critical of the expectation that white people place on Black people to educate them on racism, especially when they have access to so much knowledge in books, movies, museums, art, music, and news. Those of us who are terrorized by racism on a daily basis also have jobs and families that we must attend to and need spaces of relative racial peace. We are the Lazaruses, the ones who have learned to thrive in spite of our daily struggle against the social inequities caused by racism. To ask Black people to take on the responsibility of educating white people who demonstrate very little investment in the struggle is to place an extra burden upon people already burdened by racism.
I choose not to answer basic questions about racism because they have been answered many times over by Black intellectuals, from historical voices such as Zora Neale Hurston, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde, to contemporary voices like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and James Cone. Everyone with internet access has the capacity to find more information on race today than at any other time in human history. If white people haven’t listened to the insights of other experts, then I’m convinced that they won’t listen to me either. As the parable concludes, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
A month after our first conversation, I met again with the white Christian artist who asked me to help him with his project. This time he came prepared with a pad of paper full of notes and comments. He chose to read the list of authors that I suggested—Wendell Berry, Lillian Smith, and Tim Wise. He was feverish with comments and insights about the texts he read and their relationship to his project. We had a meaningful exchange which we decided was only the beginning of many more that we’d like to have in the future.
He still has questions, but none of them include, “Why is racism still a problem?” because he has taken it upon himself to learn why racism is not a thing of the past. He has committed himself to seeking the prophets of our past and present and he has listened to them. For my part, I look forward to our next conversation.