Racism Still Divides Black and White America
A Discussion with Tom Skinner
PITTSBURGH—[The featured speaker at this year's jubilee Conference, February 22-24, sponsored by the Coalition for Christian Outreach, was evangelist Tom Skinner. Late Saturday night in the hotel lounge, Mr. Skinner engaged several conferees in a heated discussion about racism in contemporary America. Our thanks to Association for Public Justice member Wendy Sereda for recording about half of the conversation. We are grateful to Tom Skinner for agreeing to let us publish edited excerpts from it here. The questions and comments come from different participants in the discussion. We welcome further response from readers. —Ed.]
Question: Why do so many black Americans experience discrimination today after so much progress in civil rights reform over the last four decades?
Skinner: African Americans made the mistake of buying the message of "the American melting pot under God." African Americans did not realize that America did not intend to include them in that idea. So while the civil rights laws of the 1980s were passed, they never passed in the hearts and intent of the American people.
African Americans let the white majority into their political and economic lives without whites letting African Americans into their lives. Until African Americans build their own economic base by doing at least 35 percent of their business with one another, and saving and investing their money in their own community, the discrimination will never end, Until African Americans elect to public office people who are accountable to the African American community, the discrimination will never end.
Question: But what about changes in the law—after Supreme Court decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education? Didn't those make it possible for you to begin entering fully into the American mainstream?
Skinner: There were only three major Supreme Court decisions that affected African Americans. The first one was Dred Scott, 1857. It said black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect. The next decision was Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896: separate but equal. Third was Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, saying that there should be integration with all due deliberate speed. The only one of those three decisions that America has ever obeyed is Dred Scott—that black folks have no rights which white people are bound to respect. They never obeyed the others. Rather than empowering themselves, African Americans pursued the illusive dream of integration, and it is destroying us.
Skinner: Under segregation we built and were in charge of our own institutions. We ran our own schools, built our own banks, and started our own colleges. Under segregation we did not have to use words like "role models" because that's what everyone was in the African American community. In my neighborhood, Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson were everyday common occurrences on our streets. When integration came, it meant that that those who could afford it and qualified were integrated into white society, while the rest stayed behind. Thus we needed role models. When integration occurred, the black leaders of the black community integrated into the white community. But they were never allowed to hold the same positions of leadership and power that they held in the black community.
Question: Whose idea was integration?
Skinner: Integration has always been a white liberal idea. Integration has always been on white people's terms. It is black folks integrating into white churches, white schools, and white neighborhoods. It is never whites attending black colleges, joining black churches, and moving into black neighborhoods, except to move blacks out. The assumption was that black folks would step up by integrating into white society and the whites would step down by integrating into black society.
Question: But why did white leaders want to integrate blacks into white America?
Skinner: The African Americans who influence and provide leadership for the black community did most of the integrating. Integration allowed white society to pacify and control African American leaders and reap the lion's share of African American dollars through trade.
Question: But didn't we also want to help blacks?
Skinner: The question is, how did you want to help blacks' After 40 years of white help, no African American is qualified to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. After 40 years of integration, no African American is qualified to be the president of a major Christian college in America. After 40 years of white help, African Americans are excluded from the faculty throughout the disciplines of most academic institutions. White people in America still don't know black people. Your Christian periodicals do not tell you of the activity of the Holy Spirit among black people. Your lack of demand for such information helps to create the problem.
Question: But do you know white people?
Skinner: In order to put dinner on my family's table I have to be an expert on white society. I cannot graduate from school without reading white people's literature, studying white people's music and art. I cannot make it without understanding white people's history. Every day that an African American wakes up he has to make judgments about what white people are going to do today simply in order to survive. White people do not have to understand or know what black people are doing in order to survive.
As a result of our expertise on white folks we know them better than they know themselves. In addition, the sad fact is that we know white people better than we know ourselves. We have a far greater capacity as African Americans to love and forgive white people than we do to love and forgive ourselves. We have not made white people the enemy in spite of all that they have inflicted on us. But you keep locking us out.
Comment: I agree with you that the idea of integration behind Brown vs. Board of Education implied that black people couldn't make it on their own—that they couldn't really be human until they were integrated into white America.
Skinner: African Americans once believed the integrationist idea. We traded our independence because we thought the American integrationist dream was a reality. It turned out to be a lie. Now African Americans will have to empower themselves. African Americans will have to take charge of the 300(r) billion dollars that they spend within America on a current annual basis. They will have to take charge of the political process of their own communities. African Americans must take charge of their destiny and sojourn in this country.
Question: But I don't understand how you are locked out?
Skinner: That is absolutely amazing. I find it hard to believe that you live in 1991 and don't understand how African Americans are locked out.
In 1964, African Americans' income was 58 percent of white people's income. In 1991, African Americans' income is 57 percent of white people's income. Nothing has changed in 26 years. Now that's either because white folks have created it or because black folk have brought it on themselves.
African Americans are not sitting around denying themselves an income. It is the system that has locked us out of full participation in the economy. You and your children can still go to Stanford or Harvard, get an MBA, enter corporate America, and have a shot at one day running the company. My children have no such opportunity. They have all the qualifications, but you won't let them in.
Question: But why should success be defined as "entering corporate America?"
Skinner: I use corporate American as an example of being locked out of all the institutions of America. Particularly the economic institutions that have so wide an impact on the quality of life in America.
I define success as the sharing of power in every sector that affects America, and the ability of a people to contribute to what the country they are living in is going to be like. African Americans are not allowed to do this. Simply pointing to individual African American superstars in sports, the military, entertainment, or politics will not do.
Question: What proportion is due to black people?
Skinner: If you remove all the barriers that obstruct us; allow us to show power in the local communities, cities, states, and the country as a whole, equal to our numbers; allow the tax dollars of our communities to produce the best in education and training for our young people, the best in services for our poor and disadvantaged—allow this, and we will do well. We have always done well when the rules of the game are the same for everybody. If we fail in these circumstances, then the failure is ours. Give us that right.
Question: But you're a success, aren't you? You haven't been personally locked out.
Skinner: I am amazed that you think I am successful. Whatever success I have is due to my understanding of white people and my desire to serve black people. Imagine what I could accomplish if the barriers that obstruct me because of my color were removed. In order to succeed, I have to be twice as good as a white person who is doing similar work. When I am allowed to be as mediocre as white people and reap all their benefits, that will be success. I have to be twice as good to reap the same rewards.
Question: So you think all whites are mediocre?
Skinner: How can you be anything but, when you have eliminated all the competition except for other white folks. You've eliminated 30 million black people from the competition. There is not one white person who wants to be president of a major corporation or president of a major university who has to worry about competition from an African American. White people are not operating on a level playing field. By virtue of being white, doors open to you. It's not because you are qualified but because you are white. White people are allowed to bankrupt their financial institutions and get the taxpayers to foot the bill to the tune of one trillion dollars. That is mediocre.
There is a fear that if African Americans are allowed into the system on an equal basis, allowed to learn the rules of the game and everyone plays fair, that we would win. Whenever African Americans are allowed in and to play by the same rules, we succeed. But, those who own the system are allowed to change the rules of the game at will. They operate informally through their "ole boy" network that African Americans are not allowed to be part of.
Question: Can you talk about justice here? What is justice for black people?
Skinner: We have been talking about justice. African Americans have been talking about justice for 370 years in this country. Having been denied justice for so long, we have become experts on the subject.
The law should be distributed equally to all people. Not blacks getting a sentence that is twice as stiff as a white person committing the same crime. We should all be disciplined and judged by the same set of standards. Justice means that all of us should have the same access to all the resources that God created in the earth, that no one should go lacking because of his or her sex or skin color or religion. That's what justice means.
Justice means that the rich and the poor should be judged alike, that no person would be poor because of conditions created by the larger society. If people are poor, it should be that they choose to be poor. Most poor people in our society do not choose poverty. More than 75 percent of all poor people work every single day. We must eliminate conditions in the society that create poverty. The same quality of health services, education, housing, nutrition, and clothing available to white children should be available to black children. Right now it is just not so!
Question: Why? How so?
Skinner: When America builds school systems in middle and upper middle class white communities, they are equipped differently then those made available to children in the black community.
Comment: But that's not the case just with blacks. There are poor white people too.
Skinner: Don't confuse racism with classism. Many whites may be poor because of classism. I would like a situation in America where black people are poor for the same reasons that white people are poor. African Americans are poor predominantly because of racism. Poor black people get hit for both race reasons and class reasons. The only tools that African Americans have for establishing justice is to affect the bottom line of the white majority. If you affect white folks where it touches their pocket books, they will make some changes. White America does not make changes for moral and justice reasons.
Comment: I agree that this is still true in some respects today, but I'm an attorney and I don't think the law and legal system are biased any longer against black people. Everyone—black, white, rich, poor—gets the same treatment in my office.
Skinner: But the legal system is prejudiced against poor people and black people. If, for example, you look at each step along the way in the criminal justice process, from picking up a suspect to the final step of sentencing and incarceration, the American Bar Association has proven that a black person is far more likely than a white person to be picked up and then moved along through all the steps toward incarceration. If you have money, you are more likely to get adequate legal representation and to beat the system.
A poor person is given a public defender who has a case load of 25 other clients and meager resources who goes up against a district attorney who has a staff of 25 people assisting him or her on the case and the full resources of the taxpayers. It is very difficult to beat that kind of system.
Just because the law says something, it does not mean it is reality. The law said "separate but equal." We know it was separate be never equal. The law said "universal suffrage." It was not until the 1964 voting rights act that we were able to get the federal laws to make the local officials allow this. Complete voting rights are still not the reality in every part of this nation. The law is not reality.
Question: Is there a parallel here to what America is doing in the Persian Gulf? Are we there only because of our bottom line?
Skinner: Yes there is. We're in the Persian Gulf for economic reasons. For almost 150 days the price of oil was out of whack. This brought relief to the five states in America that are oil states and that have the worst Savings and Loan problems--California, Colorado, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.
American companies will receive contracts of over 80 billion dollars to rebuild Kuwait. Bechtel and Company, the same company that former Secretary of State George Shultz came from, won the contracts to rebuild the bridges in Kuwait and Iraq the day the cease-fire was announced.
Saddam Hussein used to be on our payroll. Most of his weapons we sold to him for economic reasons.
The defense contractors in America must replace all of those weapons and equipment used doing the war. Fighter planes at 30 million dollars per. Tomahawk missiles at one million dollars per. Patriot missiles at $800,000 per. The bottom line is the name of the game.
When some of us said, "Let's build low income housing for the homeless," the country said there is no money. But we have found $500 billion to bail out the Savings and Loans. When we said, "Let's provide basic health service for every poor person in America and feed the hungry," the country said there is no money. But somehow we found $80 billion to fight the Persian Gulf War.
Question: But don't you think there is a difference between Christians and non-Christians in all of this? You talk about all whites and blacks as if they're the same?
Skinner: For African Americans there is no difference between white Christians and white non-believers on matters of race, bigotry, and prejudice. In fact, the more a white person claims to be a Bible-believing Christian, the more likely he or she is to be distant from African Americans—more distant than a white non-believing liberal. That is the reason African Americans don't buy the line that "Jesus is the answer.' African Americans don't believe that white Christians who love Jesus act any differently towards them than do white people who don't love Jesus. The most segregated institution in America is the church. The most segregated hour in America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning. Less than one percent of the students at white Christian colleges is African American.
For over 300 years in this country, white Christians were committed to a theology that said black people were cursed by God and relegated to their condition of servitude. It is the same theology that prevails in South Africa today.
White American Christians are more committed to America and the American dream than they are to the Kingdom of God. So when it comes to racism, Jesus does not seem to make a difference.
Question: So what happens now? Where do we go from here?
Skinner: White America always follows the money. If African Americans want justice, they must spend the majority of their 300 billion dollars with themselves. African Americans eat 52 percent of the peanuts eaten in America, but they own no peanut farms or factories. African Americans eat 55 percent of all potato chips eaten in America, but they have no potato chip factories. African Americans eat six hundred million dollars worth of candy, but they own no candy factories. This must change, and white people who love Christ and are of good will must help.
African Americans must pool their resources, take control of their own educational institutions, take responsibility for their children, and do business with one another. The impact of this effort will be so positive and so great that it will attract the majority just so they can do business with such a prosperous community.
White society only understands power. When you have power, the system will always talk to you.
In white America things are decided informally—in the country clubs, in conversations that take place behind the scenes. That's the way America is, and we are locked out of it, so we have to figure out how to take care of ourselves and not depend on the myth of integration into a white American dream.
[Read responses to this interview from two readers: "Racism in America: Responses to Tom Skinner"]