Race: The Skeleton in America’s Closet

Tali Hairston

By Tali Hairston, Director of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development

The conclusions drawn from racial incidents in America come quickly and often with undeniable passion. The rarer moments within racial matters is when someone creates a moment of pause that alters the mental landscape of how many imagined or consider race.

President Obama created such a pause when he sought to reframe the Dr. Henry Louis Gates and police Sgt. James Crowley situation as a “teachable moment” in July. This triggered a litany of reflections when one of the oldest proverbial skeletons slipped out of the nation’s closet.

What is inferred by the president is that his election did not signal an end to all things racial. Rather, America is at best more racially conscious and less resistant to new paradigms related to race. What we clearly lack is strategic engagement and the intentional effort needed to truly address race in America. This leaves us with two basic options, which were demonstrated in this situation:

  1. We either choose to ignore the issue of race, believing that if we do so racism will fix itself.
  2. Or we wait until the next race-based conflict and react vociferously with insight and passion, hoping to change someone’s mind or at best give them a piece of ours.

Reconciliation and Race

For the Christian community, I argue both these reactions are not in line with Christian mission and witness. From the perspective of an African-American male — with an Irish family name; living in an Asian community; working alongside Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Gentiles for reconciliation and community development — the issue of race has grown more complex by our lack of missional intentionality.

We engage race like a couple in a struggling marriage. Problems are addressed only while emotions and sensitivities are running high. When the current issue de-escalates, we go back to our churches, neighborhoods, TV shows, and hobbies. This assures we will not be equipped as a nation, or as Christians, to properly engage “the other” when it most matters.

Moving Beyond the Pipe Dream

How much money has been invested in turning the racial tide? What institutions produce marketplace materials that counteract the million-dollar radio and TV personalities who so easily fan the flames of racial ignorance? Christian mission and witness has always demanded intentionality, resources, planning, time, leadership, collaboration, prayer, and hope. If the church could be a witness at this level, maybe change wouldn’t feel so much like a pipe dream.


Author Tali Hairston has guided the Perkins Center at SPU since its founding in 2004. He is leading Seattle Pacific in a comprehensive initiative born out of a dream and a partnership between SPU President Philip Eaton and the legendary reconciliation advocate Dr. John Perkins.


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