Most of us have been plagued by the “origin sin” of racism, which has been a burden on our conscience since before our nation was formed. Throughout our history this disease of racial prejudice has cursed our nation and prevented us from reaching the lofty ideals of human equality on which America was founded. This sin compromised the Declaration of Independence and almost divided the nation in 1776. The problem was not resolved by the Civil War or by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but many equal rights laws were passed as our nation sought to do the right thing and to follow its conviction that “all men are created equal.” Yet the sin of racism continued as a blight on our individual and national life, and the whole world was facing the same struggle.
I was born into a normal middle class New England family, where prejudice was the accepted norm and was “caught” and taught from earliest childhood. The racial attitudes were so subtle (and accepted) that one was hardly aware of their cancerous presence. The discrimination was explained away with the words, “that’s the way it is.” This song from South Pacific shows how racism infiltrates our family life: “You’ve got to be carefully taught before it’s too late, before you are 6 or 7 or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate: people whose eyes are oddly made, people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate and fear; it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.” And that’s exactly how it happens.
The roots of our own family’s white racism go back several centuries. In the late 1600s Capt. Samuel Chester (in our family tree) from New London, Conn., was part of the infamous Triangular Trade or West India Trade. Molasses was imported, made into rum, rum was sold to buy slaves, slaves were sold, and more molasses was purchased: “Molasses to rum to slaves,” the dreadful inhumane trade triangle. Two centuries later, my great-grandfather’s brother, John Dorchester in Texas, though not a secessionist, held slaves in order to run his plantation — it was a necessary part of the economy. He graciously gave his name to a handsome black servant, who was affectionately known to us all as Uncle Jim Dorchester. Thus our heritage of racism as a family, like so many other families, has deep and severe roots.
During my ministry as a member of the Conference Staff in New Jersey in the turbulent 1960s, I witnessed the frightening results of this disease of racism, when the entire nation and much of the world was igniting in racial rioting and wanton destruction, especially in the year 1968. The proud black community could endure no more subjugation as second-class citizens, and they burst their bonds of their long-time suppression. It was a time of uncontrolled rage.
I was there when the Central Ward of Newark went up in flames, destroying hundreds of substandard homes; when three Plainfield policemen were murdered in the line of duty, when Paterson erupted in rioting and was under curfew. The wife of our inner city Methodist pastor in Newark was raped in her own parsonage, and three of my tires were slashed when I met with the select committee to elect the first black mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson. At the time, Newark had an 80 per cent African-American population and not one black representative at any level of government.
This crisis was an American tragedy, admittedly, and all of us bore some responsibility, but our story is not complete. Just 40 years later the American people experienced a moment of transcendence, a sublime moment when we overcame our sin of racism and transcended our highest expectations of ourselves, when God ignited the spark of divinity within us and reached down to touch our human hearts to uplift our nation and our world. This extraordinary moment of transcendence occurred on Nov. 4, 2008, a date which will live in history and was for me a spiritual milestone in my life.
On that day we all went to the polls in our national election and we broke the color barrier by electing Barack Obama, a brilliant young Christian African-American of multi-cultural background, as President of the United States of America, the highest office in our nation and the most powerful office in the world. We cast our votes, not to overcome our sin of racism, but for a wide variety of reasons, including the crisis in our economy. The outcome was a divine miracle, and unbelievable moment of national conversion, and a reaffirmation of the true greatness of America. Our vote on election day 2008 has altered the course of American history, and it represents new hopes and possibilities for the whole world.
I am not naive enough to think that in that moment of transcendence our racism has disappeared. Would that it were so! The only cure for our inherited and deeply ingrained original sin of white racism is a new heart and a new mind and a new spirit. It is called conversion, when Jesus Christ takes over our lives and makes us new creations by the grace of God. Yet even then the old prejudices and sins can creep back into our lives, and we have to struggle with Satan again and again, even as Jesus did.
When we overcome the demons of racism and discrimination within us, we are able to live out the dream for which Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others have died: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and we judge a man by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin.” This is the ultimate meaning of our presidential election on Nov. 4. It was indeed a gift from God and a moment of transcendence for all of us and a transformational moment for the world. Alleluia, praise the Lord. Amen.
The Rev. Douglas F. Dorchester is a former longtime resident of Oak Bluffs who moved to Cape Cod in 2002. This piece is an excerpted version of one he wrote for the Bourne United Methodist Church newsletter.