This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which effectively nullified legal discrimination on the basis of race, and put an end to the Jim Crow laws that had mandated segregation for so long. Pastor John, you grew up in South Carolina in those tumultuous days — the 1950s and 1960s. Now, you’re 68 years old. What has changed in these past 50 years? How different is the racial landscape in America today?
Not everything has changed. Human nature is still what it is. Not everything has changed relationally, but there have been stunning changes, many for good, some for ill.
Ten Trends 50 Years Later
As I gave thought to this question, I wrote down ten things. Let me see if I can just bullet them for people to think and pray about and celebrate when appropriate.
1. The United States has a black president.
Number one has to be that the president of the United States is black. If you had told plantation owners 150 years ago or members of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s or white southerners I grew up with — including me — that this would be true, none would have believed it.
It is astonishing and wonderful in itself, quite apart from any moral or philosophical differences we may have with President Obama. The President of the United States is black, and he couldn’t even drink out of the same fountain with me in 1959 at Kress Five-and-Ten Cent Store.
2. It is against the law to require segregation.
De jure segregation is over; racism has been successfully stigmatized — it is against the law to require segregation. It was not when I was growing up. In fact, the laws enforced segregation: Couldn’t go to the same restaurants. Couldn’t stay in the same motel room. Couldn’t go to the same schools. Couldn’t drink from the same drinking fountains. It was appallingly demeaning.
And, just as significant as the overturning of these Jim Crow laws is the fact that today, you can’t publicly celebrate racism without incurring almost universal disapproval. You could when I was a kid. Now this doesn’t mean it is gone, but it does mean that God in his providence has willed to erect this cultural dam against the river of human pride and hate, to hinder its public expression and, in the process, even make many millions of people feel that it is reprehensible. That is an amazing, not only legal turnaround, but attitudinal and cultural turnaround.
3. Black people have made some gains.
Educationally, economically, vocationally, medically, and politically, the gains have been great for blacks. And the remaining gaps are great. 75 percent of black adults, for example, had not completed high school 50 years ago. Today, it is 15 percent. 3.5 times as many blacks, ages 18 to 24, are enrolled in college today compared to 50 years ago. Five times as many black adults hold a college degree today as did 50 years ago.
But on average, blacks remain twice as likely as whites to be unemployed and earn less than two-thirds the income of whites. There are many kinds of gaps that still exist that are all out of proportion to the population percentages.
4. Families are more unstable across races.
Family stability has gone backward across the board — whites and blacks. One indicator in all our communities is that the out-of-wedlock births have sky-rocketed in the last 50 years. This has led to astonishing and painful and disruptive fatherlessness in many of our communities.
For all the gains, few things can make up for the loss of solid home life — whatever the race. And it is more broken, more fragile today than it has ever been in American life across the ethnic spectrum.
5. Black Americans are experiencing more conscience crises.
The Democratic Party, where for decades most African Americans have felt at home, is now so morally compromised with the approval of homosexual intercourse and child-killing that blacks with biblical morality are put in a crisis of conscience they never had before.
It has been maddening to many blacks that political and media leaders have tried to make the approval of homosexual intercourse equivalent to the approval of black civil rights. It is a turn of affairs that would have been inconceivable 30 years ago. And how that is going to shake out ethnically and politically I do not know, but it is a remarkable and regrettable turn of affairs.
6. Global multiculturalism has emerged.
Another remarkable development over the last 50 years has been the emergence of global multiculturalism, along with the multiplication of black cultures in America. In other words, less and less should we think in binary ways, like black and white. And there are two reasons for that. One reason is that the whole world, with its endless array of cultures and ethnicities, is at our doorstep, and the world is vastly more diverse than we ever thought it was.
Another reason is because of the proliferation of black sub-cultures in America today — so that you get people like Touré writing a book Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness? saying, “There is no such thing as black anymore; there is only multiple black cultures.” According to these writers, the united front that you could think of in the 1960s is no more, politically or socio-economically.
7. Racism still runs rampant.
There is still deep and persistent racism that hates this kind of diversity and hates this kind of multiculturalism in America. White supremacists are still here. Just last week, one of them went on a rampage and tried to kill three Jewish people —and wound up killing three white Christians. But he was a Ku Klux Klan chapter founder, and that is 2014 we are talking about, not 1914.
So there is now — there always will be, I presume — evil in the human heart breaking out in these kinds of expressions.
8. Spiritual renewal across ethnicities is growing in its expression.
There are wonderful outcroppings of theological and spiritual and church renewal in all of the ethnicities, including some remarkable expressions of it in black culture, like Christian hip hop or Reformed African American Network (renamed “The Witness”) or The Front Porch. These are the kinds of things that I am most excited about that would not have been imaginable 50 years ago.
9. Churches are unsure about multiethnic movements.
Thousands of churches — black and white — remain ambivalent about what to do about multiethnicity. They don’t even know if it is worth addressing. They don’t know if it matters. They are uncertain. A lot of pastors are just uncertain what to do about it. Is it a central biblical issue? If so, what should I say about it? What should we do about it? And given where we live, it doesn’t seem to have the same cloud as it does in Memphis. There is just a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of pastors are paralyzed by these questions.
But I hope and pray that that is going to turn around, because it is a major issue. And I think we are seeing a wonderful movement — like the movement we have talked about — where both black and white and other ethnicities are encouraging themselves to be multiethnic.
10. God opened John Piper’s eyes.
John Piper was once blind, and now I see. To me, that is the one that comes closest to home. The 1960 14-year-old John Piper and the 2014 68-year-old John Piper are not the same person racially. The self-absorbed teenager who was more concerned about his complexion than segregation and racism has been shown mercy and today has repented and turned to walk in the light of Revelation 5:9 and celebrate what God is doing in the kind of triumphs that have come in the last 50 years for the sake of racial and ethnic diversity. God is kind.