Friday, July 24, 2015

Postcards from Detroit, Part Two: Racism – The Struggle is Real

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
#blacklivesmatter #racism #riseupelca
(Part One of "Postcards from Detroit: Let's Tell the Rest of the Story" can be found here: )

Prior to my trip to Detroit for the ELCA Youth Gathering with the teens from the congregation I serve, United in Christ Lutheran in Lewisburg, PA, we completed a preparatory session on racism.  We learned about the levels of individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural racism that we encounter in our relationships and in society.  We discussed the term “white privilege” and the stereotypes we have about certain races.  As a seminary student, I had gone through anti-racism training, and as a pastor of Spirit and Truth Worship Center in Yeadon, PA, I had the honor of serving an African American/African native congregation who taught me a great deal about the challenges of racism.  But I encountered something in Detroit that showed me just how embedded my stereotypes are about non-white people.
On our walk through center city Detroit one day, my youth and I came upon an open-air plaza where tall tables and chairs were lined up and eleven young black boys and girls sat across from each other playing chess – competitive speed chess, complete with timers.  

These girls and boys were upper elementary and middle school-aged, and they had an adult male mentor with them.  We watched, mouths gaping, as they made their moves, slapped the timers, joked and laughed, and whizzed through their games.  One boy, seeing his opponent make a good move against him, shouted out, “The struggle is real!” And we all laughed together. (For more info on the Detroit City Chess Club:

As I was taking pictures of their group, one little boy called out to me, “You want to play?”  While I knew how to play chess, we were on our way to the next event for the Gathering, so I had to politely decline.  “It’s okay, I can teach you!” he offered.  It was an “Aww,” moment – but I felt convicted in my soul.

Why is it that we were so shocked to see young black boys and girls engaging in a game that requires incredible mental skills of logic, strategy, pattern-recognition, and intellectual speed?  Did we not think their brains capable of such feats of intelligence?  Did we succumb to the stereotype that black children are only troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells, training for gang life and criminal activity, and incapable of higher thinking skills?  Were we so caught up in the assumptions that black males are lazy, violent and only interested in sports, and girls only destined to pre-teen unwed motherhood, that seeing them peacefully and joyfully engaging in chess just blew our minds?  And did we think them an exception to the unspoken rule that black people simply don’t have the capacity or interest to engage in demanding brain-training activities?

One of the speakers at the Gathering, Marian Wright Edelman, was a Civil Rights activist and is a lawyer who founded the Children’s Defense Fund.  As she spoke, I pictured those young black girls and boys at their chess boards.  And I began thinking about the millions of minds we wasted in this country by relegating them to slavery, then segregation, then the new Jim Crowe, and the ongoing instances of discrimination in education, housing, jobs, ecological racism, and economic access.  Not to mention the growing instances of violence by police and citizens against unarmed blacks in this country. She has fiercely advocated for policies that enhance the lives and educations of America’s poorest children, noting that the economic and racial inequalities in this country actually hinder all of us – not just the ones denied access.  (The video of her full speech can be found here: 

Yes, chess-playing child, you have taught me.  We all need to be reminded that the minds of black boys and girls are as smart as those of whites.  That they are just as capable of learning and cognitive development as their white counterparts.  And that when we deny them access to education through the myriad of social problems such as inadequate housing, healthcare, nutrition, and the mass incarceration of their parents, we are actually hurting ourselves.  How many potential inventors, scientists, writers, surgeons and artists have we denied ourselves as a nation over the past 400 hundred years by enslaving and shutting out those minds?  Who are the potential engineers, college professors, doctors and well-educated parents and voters we are shutting down right at this very moment? 

In central PA where I live, there is a heated battle over whether or not to allow a low-income housing site to be located in the wealthy, white, privileged, “safe” Lewisburg school district.  Citizens at the meetings blatantly voice their racial stereotypes:  we don’t want “those people” lowering our property values, bringing crime and drugs to our town, and bringing down the test scores of our schools. (See: . Also see

Those people are the chess-playing girls and boys.  By refusing to welcome them and educate them, we are sending away the future of America.  Shame on us.  The struggle is real.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent observations and exposition.


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