Black and white hands clasped
Source: Frerieke/Wikimedia Commons

In late October 2019, at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, former First Lady Michelle Obama said she “can’t make people not be afraid of black people.”

Continuing, she said, “I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t explain what’s happening in your head. But maybe if I show up every day as a human, a good human, doing wonderful things, loving my family, loving our kids, taking care of things I care about — maybe, just maybe that will pick away at the scabs of our discrimination.”

I appreciate very much what our first lady said but, if I understand her right, I disagree. The fear we white people have of black people is mostly our problem, not her problem, not the problem of people of color in general. In my work against racism and for racial reconciliation, more and more I see people voluntarily segregating themselves. And that leads to white people fearing black people.

For example, at Sister Helen Prejean’s first reading of “River of Fireon Aug. 10 at the St. Rita Catholic School Cafeteria, I saw not one African American in the gathering of at least 150 people. Maybe this would not be surprising if only Catholics knew about the reading, but the reading was promoted in depth in The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate by Susan Larson, the popular host of “The Reading Life.” Sister Helen has done more to stop the culture of death sentences than anyone in our country, most by far handed down against African Americans. Yet no black people were in the audience. Why not?

Then, on Dec. 14, I attended a very large celebration of the life of Jarvis DeBerry and a fundraiser for him as he faces a very expensive medical operation. The celebration was at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. Jarvis is a hero among both whites and blacks as he always has written the truth as he sees it, clear-eyed, in his hundreds of columns for The Times-Picayune. A Pulitzer Prize winner and the recipient of many honors, he was not kept on as a columnist when the Advocate bought The Times-Picayune.

What surprised me most at the celebration with more than 200 attendees was the fact that only a handful of attendees were white; most of them hung out at the back of the large Ashé room.          

As a clergyman I see this segregation by choice in the three churches I attend. In white and generally liberal Trinity Episcopal, out of some 2,500 members, the congregation is pleased if ten black people show up on any Sunday. In my home church now, St. Luke’s Episcopal, with the best singing and preaching anywhere (not from me), I am usually one of only three white people in the congregation. During the main service at the third church I claim, Christian Unity Baptist, I am usually the only white person there among the 250 attendees. People of different colors are more than welcome in all three churches, but all seem voluntarily segregated.

I recently attended a funeral of a very liberal and close friend in Philadelphia and was surprised that there was no person of color among the 200-or-so friends and family members who came to the service. Later that day, some of us visited Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation art museum that features some of the best African-American art anywhere. Of the 300 or more visitors that day, I saw only five African-American visitors, other than the staff.

In the city of New Orleans, which is almost 60 percent black, just 22 percent of students at Tulane University, fewer than 1 in 4, are “students of color”. Last year at Southern University at New Orleans, only 54 of 2,356 students were white. Even the University of New Orleans, which last year was ranked the most diverse college in the state, had a black enrollment of just 17 percent (UNO later reported that its fall 2019 freshmen class was 25 percent black, the highest in nearly a decade).

Why does such voluntary segregation persist, even among liberal whites and blacks? To answer this question, I believe, is to answer Mrs. Obama’s concerns.

We segregate ourselves because we are not the kind of friends who like to hang out with one another. We may work well together and we may support each other politically. But we do not often visit one another’s homes. We don’t frequently dine together, just for fun. We don’t watch movies together with long discussions afterwards. We don’t walk together in our city’s splendid parks. We may sit near each other at Saints games, we may even cheer together, but we are not likely to know our fellow Saints fans of other colors.

And when we are not social friends, it is all too easy for us white people to believe that the crime we see on television or read about says who those other people are. We would not include the blacks we know in this “black criminal” view, but we let crime news distort how we feel about people of color in general. Maybe it is our subconscious that makes us fear black people. No matter whether Mrs. Obama succeeds in her good work, no matter how many blacks succeed in their own good work, we white folk will fear black people, because we do not know each other as friends.

Some 30 years ago, Trinity Episcopal Church invited Integrity, the Episcopal gay and lesbian support group, to meet regularly at Trinity.  And remember, even in New Orleans, people were not nearly as accepting of gay and lesbian people as our city is now. Once news got out in The Times-Picayune about Integrity meeting at Trinity, the rector, the late Rev. Hill Riddle, expected a lot of angry phone calls and letters. Instead, the congregation was generally quite supportive. Why?

Because just about everyone who was part of Trinity claimed gay and lesbian people as their immediate or extended family or their friends. I mention this because we have not developed that kind of friendship across race lines and few of us white folk have relatives who are persons of color.

So then, how do we make friends? We do it the same way we make friends with people of the same race: sometimes for companionship and support during hard times, sometimes just for fun. Do whatever you like to do with other friends. The more that kind of time together happens, the less white people will fear black people. Why? Because, after all, we are the same people.

Here is some hope. After Hurricane Katrina, two New Orleans United Methodist Churches combined: First United Methodist Church (historically white) and Grace United Methodist Church (historically black). With the insightful and determined leadership of Pastor Shawn Anglim, the churches became First Grace UMC, dedicated to seeking the “welfare of the city” in their strong ministries. First Grace has brought together people from all backgrounds and races, not only in their worship and community service but in and through “the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.” In so doing, those same people have become friends for life.

Now here is more hope. My grandson, Ethan Smith, is in the 4th grade at Morris Jeff, a public school where students not only learn but also become friends across all barrier lines and the teachers become friends. At his last birthday party in July, at Audubon’s Cool Zoo with its 750-foot “lazy river,” Ethan invited his best friends and their parents. When I showed up, half of the friends and parents were white and half were black. All the third graders were swimming or splashing in the lazy river, having the best time pushing each other out of the way so they could finish the adventure first.

The Rev. William Barnwell Credit: William Barnwell

Rev. William Barnwell’s recent book, “Angels in the Wilderness,” was named Book of the Year in the Indie Book Awards inspirational non-fiction category. He tells more about his ministry to Angola inmates in a previous book: “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted: Stories from Kairos Prison Ministry International.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at