"Whatever you do, don't tell the group you're not a racist," a person warned me in advance of our "Sankofa Journey" to the Deep South. I took that advice...

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“Whatever you do, don’t tell the group you’re not a racist,” a person warned me in advance of our “Sankofa Journey” to the Deep South.

I took that advice to heart, though in my heart, I was pretty sure I wasn’t a racist. Our journey together as a group was all about a path toward racial righteousness. I was on board with that. The Kingdom of God should reflect people of all races and color — not facsimiles of the Swedish-American culture I grew up in.

My paradigm of racism was formed early in childhood. I actually glorified African Americans — as I would later tell my Sankofa friends — due mostly to my interest in sports.

My favorite athletes were black. They were, in my opinion, “more humble by nature.” I felt sorry for the oppression and discrimination they endured under the thumb of the white man.

Blacks were the underdogs, and I pulled for them. I rooted for the predominantly black Texas Western basketball team that upset an all-white Kentucky team in the 1966 national championship game. (The new film “Glory Road” tells the story of this team.) I despised the Alabama Crimson Tide, the flagship athletic program of the South and the poster child for the last bastion of deep-seated racism in the U.S.

Deeper than black/white

I was naive. Who am I to say I’m not a racist? I’m white.

That thought first occurred to me early in the trip when we were asked to reflect on some questions.

One of those questions was, “How much time do you spend thinking about your ethnicity?” My answer was, “very little.”

My African-American roommate, in his late 40s, would have a dramatically different answer to that question. He’s thought about it a lot. The society he was raised in forced him to think about it a lot.

We traveled by bus from Atlanta to historic sites of the civil-rights movement in Alabama. We spent much of that time on the bus watching videos. Some were about the sites we were about to visit, such as the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the story of the events leading up to “Bloody Sunday” in Selma.

The one video, however, that probably shook the white folk on the bus to the core was “The Color of Fear.” It was about an encounter group of men of various ethnic groups and a couple of Anglos discussing issues of racism.

It became obvious early in the video the “white guy” who claimed he wasn’t a racist actually revealed his racism every time he opened his mouth. He patted himself on the back for hiring Hispanic workers, saying he treated them well. He often referred to the African-American and Asian men in the room as “you people.”

One of the African-American men finally went off on the clueless white guy.

“Whites talk about themselves as human beings, as if it means the same thing,” he said, his voice rising with anger.

Then he looked at the white guy, and said something that hit me right between the eyes:

“You don’t have to think about your whiteness.”

I saw too much of me in the clueless white guy. How could I know what it was like to be black? I’ve never walked behind a white couple in downtown Seattle and felt nervous looks for fear I would rob them. I’ve never been told, “I’m a credit to my race.”

While I could try and wash my hands of my forefathers’ treatment of African-Americans, I am not off the hook. I am the beneficiary of white privilege. The African-American man used an analogy of a parking garage to compare the difference between the two races:

“You’re driving out of the parking garage with the spikes down, in the right direction,” he told the white man. “We’re driving into the parking garage with the spikes up, going the wrong direction.

“You’re asleep. You are not aware of your consciousness of privilege.”

Sites reflect feeling

There wasn’t much time for sleep on this trip. When we weren’t visiting historic sites in Alabama and Georgia, we were processing what we saw and felt.

It wasn’t always a pretty picture.

Some African Americans were optimistic about the future for reconciliation between the races. Others weren’t as hopeful.

“I just don’t see any hope,” one member of the group said one evening, breaking into tears. “My father saw so much racism in his life, and he’s bitter. I’ve seen a lot of it, too.”

We stopped our group-sharing time at that moment and a couple of us prayed for him. Prayer would be a very powerful experience on this journey toward racial righteousness.

There was so much to see. So much to absorb. Frederick L. Robinson III had this to say about the trip:

“Being able to see the history of the civil-rights movement in the South, and walking the streets where it all happened, gave me a greater appreciation of what my people went through to secure what freedom I have today,” he said in an e-mail interview. “I was awakened to the denial I’ve lived in all these years being born and raised black in the Northwest. …

“This trip helped me understand not only that the hatred of some whites kept me and my people back, but reminded me that there were whites of all backgrounds fighting in the struggle with us.

“Sankofa made me aware of the healing that needs to take place in my heart because of racism, but I can now celebrate the greater love shown to me all my life by Christ through people of all races and cultures.”

I need healing, too, for my apathy and my ambivalence. How often have I been indifferent to African Americans and their struggles? Will I be willing to march with my African-American brothers and sisters against injustice, as some whites did on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma?

Why do church congregations, for the most part, remain ethnically homogenous? Closer to home, why have I never entertained an African American in my home?

I do not have easy answers to these questions. Sure, we’ve made progress. Legislation years ago gave African Americans the rights they deserved. But that doesn’t mean things are OK.

Legislation alone will not solve racism. You cannot legislate the heart.

That’s where God comes in. That’s where the church comes in. Racism is not just a disease of the South. It lives in the Pacific Northwest. It even lives in the church.

And if the church won’t help heal that disease, who will?

Rick Lund: rlund@seattletimes.com