“How long? Not long!” But when?
By Dave Gustafson, President & Founder, St. Louis Reconciliation Network
It was a little more than 58 years ago that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of his most memorable speeches, now known by the title, “How long?” The setting was Birmingham, Alabama, in the immediate aftermath of among the most horrific acts of violence that had been perpetrated against his followers. In his moving speech, Dr. King exhorted his listeners to faithfully persist and resist in the same non-violent manner that had won so many earlier battles.
The pressing issue of that day was securing the right to vote, which had been denied to African Americans for far too long. He dissected and laid bare the cunning gaslighting strategy being followed by powerful Southern Elites, by which they confused poor Southern Whites into blaming Southern Blacks for their economic plight, rather than opening their eyes to the evil economic system of inequity that was hiding in plain sight.
Dr. King’s speech built to a thundering crescendo of “How long?” questions, to which he repeatedly answered “Not long!” – each time affirming that God’s hatred of evil systems would ultimately prevail – resulting in their complete expulsion from our society. As I re-read his speech, in light of the Affirmative Action decision, I found myself wondering whether Dr. King would have been surprised to hear that such systems still persist, 55 years after his assassination.
Of course, we have just been given an answer to the “How long?” question by a 6-3 majority of our Supreme Court. They answered, “No longer needed!” for Affirmative Action, one of the key attempted remedies of past evil. But is this really true? Has it been left in place long enough?
In agreeing with the majority, Clarence Thomas, one of the court’s two African Americans, wrote a lengthy separate opinion focused on the idea that justice should be colorblind, and concluded as follows: “While I am painfully aware of the social and economic ravages which have befallen my race and all who suffer discrimination, I hold out enduring hope that this country will live up to its principles so clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States: that all men are created equal, are equal citizens, and must be treated equally before the law.”
Is God colorblind when it comes to justice? We are told so in Deuteronomy 10:17-19, “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality, nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien (non-Jew) by giving him food and clothing. So show love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” And so should we.
But God is not colorblind in all things. Indeed, He created humanity to be diverse when it comes to ethnicity and race, a diversity that persists even our ultimate glorified state. This diversity adds to the celebratory scene of which we are given a glimpse in Revelation 7:9, “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the Lamb, clothed in white robes ….”
This eternal celebration of diversity can be experienced now. I have seen it happen in certain church settings and elsewhere in society. Having been created by God, I would argue that diversity is an essential beneficial quality of society that justifies continued societal effort to maintain, certainly including our higher places of education.
I recently returned from a large science conference in New York City where there were exactly ZERO African Americans participating in an event that included more than 300 experts. The only exception was the small food service staff, who were majority African American. This is wrong, and continues to hold us back. For instance, this scientific group aspires to address diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in the world’s food systems. But how can these really be addressed when one of the most afflicted ethnicities is not even participating in the conversation?
I won’t name the organization here, except to say that it has failed to directly engage in any of the important food policy issues that plague African American communities: urban food deserts, obesity, diabetes, etc. I would argue that this failure is directly tied to a lack of diversity among this highly educated scientific community – one of the many domains in which the wrongs of segregation have yet to be righted by Affirmative Action.
Accordingly, I would emphatically answer “Not yet!!” to Dr. King’s “How long?” question. Judge Thomas appeared to leave the door ajar just a crack when he wrote: “… universities wishing to discriminate based on race in admissions must articulate and justify a compelling and measurable state interest based on concrete evidence.” I would argue that racial diversity is indeed a “measurable state interest” that is sufficiently compelling in its intrinsic value, having been created by God. An education system that results in the continued exclusion of African Americans from many of our institutions of power and influence is an evil that must be overcome.
What does all of this mean for St. Louis and the many other US cities still plagued by racial strife? The struggle obviously continues. We are trying to do our part here at the St. Louis Reconciliation Network, with a mission to heal our region’s broken race relations by harnessing the potential collective power of our diverse faith communities. But we need your help. Please consider joining us by becoming an Ambassador for Reconciliation. Together, we shall overcome!
David I Gustafson, Ph.D., is an independent scientist who uses modeling to help food systems meet human nutr
ition needs in more sustainable ways. He recently retired to his hometown of Spokane, after spending most of his adult life in St. Louis, where he is still an active member of One Family Church, in addition to his Board role at the St. Louis Reconciliation Network.