Experiencing Racial Prejudice and Institutional Cowardice: The Deafening Noise of Silent Bystanders

An african american friend of mine from Messiah College, who has continued to live in central PA after college recently had a terrible racial encounter with an individual, followed by silence, apathy, and inaction by the establishment that he had visited. While I do not have time or energy to post every racial encounter I hear about (it would be a full time job), I felt particularly compelled to pass his experience forward to you because of the institutional response. Now, I will be clear, every institution has the right to ignore and not respond to racial prejudice, however, when they choose to take that less humane response, I believe it is Christian duty to expose the darkness, shaming both the original perpetrator and the non-action of the business. Marcus is one of the nicest, genuine, and coolest folks around. I applaud his decision to not respond with violence or other abusive words. His nonviolent stance, stands in stark contrast to the violent language of the individual and the business’ silent acceptance of such behavior in their establishment. We can not control what others do in our space, but we can certainly control how we respond to such behavior.

Here is his experience that he passed on to me yesterday (March 13, 2012) at TJ Rockwells in Mechanicsburg, PA.

I went to eat at a local Mechaniscburg restaurant TJ Rockwells yesterday evening. I ended up walking out without finishing my dinner because I had the most racist incident of my life happen to me. I was sitting with 3(white) friends eating a sandwich, when a gentleman yells, “there is a nigger in here.” He proceeded to call me a nigger a few times. Then he kept staring me down as I was trying to simply eat my dinner. My friend walked up and politely asked him if he called me that (just to make sure) and the guy says, “yes, I did”. He was rude to my friend and one of the servers tried to make my friend leave for standing up for me. My friend was very calm and we spoke to the manager who said he would talk to the guy. He did go speak to the guy and after talking to him (outside) he never came back to me to share about his conversation or to even offer an apology. I did see the gentleman eventually leave and his friends in the bar kept staring at me and said, “He’ll be back.” I didn’t want trouble so I left and called the owner, whom is at the Etown establishment. We explained the story to both the hostess and a manager at the Etown establishment and are expecting a phone call tonight. 

I spoke with the owner and he seemed like a decent guy but his explanation of the managers actions were not enough. He told me he spoke with the manager and he (the manager said) he did not apologize to me because he did not do anything wrong. He said it was the customer who made those comments to me so he saw no reason to give me an apology. This is not an acceptable reason to me and it saddens me that the owner has accepted this.

I am doing my best to share my story & inform people of what has happend to me. I will never eat at this restaurant again.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

3 thoughts on “Experiencing Racial Prejudice and Institutional Cowardice: The Deafening Noise of Silent Bystanders

  1. Drew:

    You may remember the some of the incidents that took place on campus when we were in school, particularly the one with Josh. While I don’t claim to know what it is like, I’ll relate a story about racism to you and your readers.

    When I was in third grade, I heard a new word from another kid at school. I thought it sounded funny, so I kept saying it to myself on my way home that day. When I got home, I said it near my dad, who told me to never, ever use that word. He tried to explain the hate, ignorance, and history of the word to me, but it would be many years before I understood him more fully. Of course, it was the “N” word.

    As an ignorant child, I didn’t know what it meant. But as an educated adult I do know what it means, if only dimly and as expressed by others, like your friend.

    I hope your friend will find the strength and courage to work with the community, such as this restaurant owner, to educate and combat this sort of behavior.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Chris. And yes, I do remember the whole racial tension that happened sophomore year because of Josh’s KKK hood. This stuff is very personal and sensitive, and hopefully we can begin moving forward as people who show each other respect, despite our own ignorance or awareness. For you as a “ignorant” child as you stated, you didn’t know better. What is said is when adults intentionally use the word (or imagery in other cases) with total disregard. Or in this case, seemingly wanting to offend, intimidate, or hurt my friend.
      I know for fact that it is my friends intention to work with the owner and business, so it doesn’t reoccur. However, I am not sure it is the responsibility for the offended to do so, we ought to be thankful when people are brave enough to do so. The onus is on all of us to be having conversations with one another that promote respect. And it is on all of us to respond when we are present while anyone (since we are all created in God’s image) is being dehumanized in any fashion, not just racially. My prayer is that the church would start being the Church and would lead in this area like we are supposed to.

  2. Correction…

    I’ve lived in Mechanicsburg for about 8 years now and have experienced worse than that several times in different places. I disregarded all the rumors about how much racism there is in Mechanicsburg, PA. It’s a shame, I moved here because of how nice this place appeared to be overall and some cops around here are even worse than the ignorant youngsters harassing me in all different ways to make me leave the place because of my background. These police officers around here take turns to follow me block-to-block since they see me until I leave the area, from the street where I live in to the grocery store, restaurant, gas station, bowling alley, or theaters, then back to my house.

    I went to a bar in Mechanicsburg downtown and some guy purposely pushed me with his arm while passing by me and said “and say something”. I got up and asked him what was his problem and the manager who witnessed it asked the bouncer to walk me out, instead he picked me up and threw me out the door all because I said “I haven’t do anything wrong, he is the one looking for trouble and you saw it”. To top it off they called the cops on me, not only that, when the cops were questioning me and telling me I would have to come with them the guy and five other walked outside saying out-loud “WE DODN’T FEEL COMFORTABLE AROUND YOUR KIND, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, THIS IS OUR HOME-TOWN N*GG*R” and all the police officers did is tell me to ignore them and that since they lied about me being the trouble-maker they would take me home to make sure I didn’t stay there.

    The way I see it since the cops tolerated their prejudice behavior and handled the situation the way they did, all they should do next time is call the local authorities and make them aware of the n*gg* presence and the cops will gladly get rid of him/her for them. The only reason I haven’t move out yet is because of my job, but hopefully after I pay everything off I will buy a house in FL and leave.

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