The Untouchables (called Dalit today) were in the sewer of the East Indian caste system. They continue to be trapped in persistent poverty and despair. Even the shadow of a Dalit was considered a defilement. As repugnant and horrifying as we know this is, the land of the free and the home of the brave has established and sustained a caste system for centuries. The following story is a heartbreaking illustration of the sewer-level caste Black people have occupied and in many ways still occupy. It comes from the book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.(pages 121-122)
One day in 1951 in the town of Youngstown Ohio, a little league team won a baseball championship. On that team was a Black boy named Al Bright. To celebrate, the coach decided to have a pool party and picnic at the local swimming pool. Al’s parents weren’t allowed to attend this celebration, even though they were invited as other parents were. The coach apparently had forgotten that people with black skin could not swim in the same water as people with white skin. Of course, the coach did not have to think about such things as race. He and most of the team were part of the dominant culture that had the freedom to go anywhere and do anything they wanted in relative peace and safety. They did not have to live in the skin of an untouchable.
Al sat behind a fence away from the pool area and watched his teammates splash and play on that steamy summer day. Sometimes one of the boys would come to sit with him, but that boy had the freedom to return to the refreshing water, which he did, and continue his good time. I imagine that Al stared with tear-soaked eyes and a broken heart. He was allowed eventually to get in the water, only after everyone got out. He was put on a small raft and told he couldn’t even touch the water with his littlest finger or they would have to empty the pool and refill it. Al floated around for a small amount of time while everyone else watched. When he was taken out, they all returned to the water. Al went back to his spot for the rest of the party. Later the coach asked him if he wanted a ride home. He turned it down and walked home alone, clutching his championship trophy. What do you suppose he was thinking? Feeling? He was humiliated in front of his peers. It was a painful wound he didn’t understand. He was the innocent victim of a lie.
Thankfully, there are no more segregated swimming pools (that we know of), but the practice of segregation remains. My parents bought a house in 1968 in an all white neighborhood. Little by little, though, the white families moved and were replaced by Black families. Why did the White people move? They believed the myths of low property values and the so-called inherent criminality of Blacks. There are no such structures of inequality and hate in God’s Kingdom. The beautiful life of Jesus reveals God’s tender love in a world crushed by harsh religion. He was not afraid of touch:
“Large crowds followed Jesus as He came down the mountainside. Suddenly, a man with leprosy approached Him and knelt before Him. “Lord,” the man said, “if You are willing, You can heal me and make me clean.” Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” He said. “Be healed!” And instantly the leprosy disappeared.” (Matthew 8:1-4). Just then a woman who had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding came up behind him. She touched the fringe of His robe, for she thought, “If I can just touch His robe, I will be healed.” Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, “Daughter, be encouraged! Your faith has made you well.” And the woman was healed at that moment.” (Matthew 9:20-22).
His followers are admonished to walk even as He walked. It is the power of love and truth lived in our lives that will destroy the strongholds of racist beliefs.