I’ve taken a break from a lot of my normal online haunts during Lent and have surely missed a bunch of interesting articles and bits of news, though I’ve not generally been aware of missing anything. Thankfully a friend emailed me Ta-Neshi Coates’ op-ed in The New York Times; I wouldn’t have wanted to miss “The Good, Racist People”. In it, Coates recounts a recent incident that took place in his neighborhood deli during which an employee frisked Forest Witaker after accusing him of shoplifting. There’s nothing uncommon about stop and frisk in New York City where the deli is located but it’s less common that the person being profiled is a world famous actor. After recognizing Witaker the owner apologized. What Coates picks up on in his piece is the same owner’s claim that, “it was a ‘sincere mistake’ made by a ‘decent man’ who was ‘just doing his job.'” According to the owner, the incident wasn’t the result of racial profiling but was the sort of mistake anyone could have made. We white folks often don’t see prejudice and racialized assumptions at work in these sorts of scenarios because of how we think – or don’t – about racism. Coates writes,
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”
Racism, for many of us, is localized within an individual and an unsavory, morally corrupt individual at that. Certainly not “decent” people like ourselves. Anyone other than a hooded Klan member who is acting prejudicially probably just misspoke. Or is having a bad day. I’m reminded of a anthropologist friend who avoids the word racist in his classes of mostly white students for fear they will tune out, assuming themselves to be beyond such ugly assumptions and behaviors. Coates goes on, nodding toward the slippery and invisible (to some) forms that racism takes today, forms that are no less destructive for their cultural camouflage.
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
On one hand, racism continues to play it’s wicked part within the American story. On the other hand, most of us within the majority culture don’t think we play a part in this story; someone out there may be racist but it’s certainly not me. It’s impossible for both of these to be true.
As a Christian I think about whether American Christians – and I mostly have in mind white American Christians – think any differently about these things than our secular neighbors. Unfortunately, it’s probably a safe assumption that we don’t think differently and more carefully about systemic racism. But it shouldn’t be this way. In fact, there are at least two obvious attributes within Christian belief that can begin forming us into something other than “the good, racist people” of Coates’ op-ed.
First, Christians believe in sin. We really believe in sin, meaning that our rebellion against God plays out in our lives and our neighborhoods; in our hearts and our culture; in the individual and the system that individual functions within. Given the history of our country we shouldn’t be surprised at the ways the sins of racism have been assumed into our cultural assumptions and habits. When we deny the prejudice that flows through the veins of our country and instead limit racial injustice to the occasional despicable individual we betray our too-small view of sin and its prevalence.
Second, Christians believe in grace. We really, really believe in grace. Without grace there is no ground on which the Christian may stand. Our ongoing dependence on God’s grace means that we don’t have to justify ourselves. Specifically, we can readily admit our complicity and corruption within systems and structures that are often in conflict with God’s justice. As a white man who lives by grace, I’m able to acknowledge (when made aware) my blind spots and prejudices. In fact, I need not be surprised by them given the reality of sin in our world. Why wouldn’t I be affected by our injustice world? And why wouldn’t I be glad for every chance to lean again into the grace of God as I repent and am forgiven?
I know firsthand that these two attributes of Christianity are more easily stated than lived. Even so, there seems some reason to hope that the good, racist people Coates has rightly become weary of need not be our default identity.
“Is this a safe neighborhood?” It’s a question Maggie and I can expect to hear when friends from out of town visit our home in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. In fact, our neighborhood is quite safe. The nearby presence of the University of Chicago ensures the streets in our neighborhood are regularly and obviously policed. Our son plays in the park across the street and we walk for groceries and other errands at all hours of the day or night.
Despite the safety of our specific neighborhood, the question is not surprising. Gun violence and murder is well-known in our city; the news from the south and west sides of Chicago is grimly portrayed on a nightly basis. Last month the young Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in a park one block from where our church gathers for Sunday worship.
Talking about this violence can seem futile: conversation does little to honor the dead and wounded nor are most of us interested in the long, complicated discussion about the systemic and historic causes for the bloodshed. It’s easier to turn away or propose simplistic solutions.
It was refreshing then, to listen to This American Life’s two-part series (part 1 & part 2) on gun violence in Chicago. For five months reporters – including the legendary Alex Kotlowitz – spent time in one high school that has experienced far more than its share of death. The perspectives from administrators, students, parents, teachers, and support staff go a long way toward a more nuanced and humble conversation. Their stories invite the rest of us to pay close attention.
Now, this is what I had a chance to talk about when I met with some young men from Hyde Park Academy who were participating in this B.A.M. program. Where are the guys I talked to? Stand up you all, so we can all see you guys. (Applause.) So these are some — these are all some exceptional young men, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. And the reason I’m proud of them is because a lot of them have had some issues. That’s part of the reason why you guys are in the program. (Laughter.)
But what I explained to them was I had issues too when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. (Applause.) So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me, and we had that conversation about what does it take to change. And the same thing that it takes for us individually to change, I said to them, well, that’s what it takes for communities to change. That’s what it takes for countries to change. It’s not easy.
Out of everything he said at the public school down the road from our church and home, it was these two paragraphs from President Obama’s speech that grabbed my attention. I noticed not because the President said something new but because he acknowledged the systemic injustices that are rarely mentioned in public. So much of the commentary about the violence in our city ignores the surrounding circumstances not to mention the troubling history that has led to this constant crisis. And while he just barely eluded to it, the President is right about the systemic inequity that provides a safety net for some while leaving others to fend for themselves.
The day before the President delivered his speech at Hyde Park High School, Chicago Public Schools announced the list of 129 schools that are on the preliminary list of schools to be closed. Most of these are on the city’s south and west sides, in the neighborhoods that already lack much of the safety net the President referenced. And so it goes.
The New York Times reports today that the over 500 killings in Chicago last year were primarily gang members killing other gang members. The Times frames the story as — surprise! — racism.
In fact racism isn’t mentioned explicitly in the article, the focus instead being on the segregation in our city. But by so quickly and cynically employing that blunt word, Dreher does the thing we white people often do around issues of race: he quickly dismisses the author’s premise as too simplistic and offers instead his own read of the situation. No matter that plenty of smart people have shown the connections between segregation, poverty, and violence in Chicago.
As disappointing as his quick disregard for these connections is his alternative explanation for the violence plaguing predominately African-American neighborhoods. “The problem'” he writes, “is rooted in the breakdown of the family.” Two things are especially bothersome about this explanation, typical among certain commentators and pundits. First: The neighborhoods profiled in the Times piece are filled with families, churches, mosques, block clubs, and other community organizations doing everything possible to protect and empower the family. I meet community leaders and clergy all the time whose social values are at least as conservative as those of Dreher.
Second: Are we to understand that only African-American families are breaking down? Is gun violence so much less in the predominately white Chicago neighborhoods because white people are better at keeping families together? I doubt this is what Dreher has in mind, though I’m not sure how else to interpret his point. Far more relevant to the murder rate are the resources available in the white neighborhoods. These families also experience family turmoil – though external pressures are less than in poor neighborhoods – but have access to the resources that help keep families together.
More could be said about Dreher’s too-simple analysis such as the history that led to our current segregation and the barely visible systems that keep old dividing lines in place. Again, I appreciate much of what Dreher writes and will continue to follow his blog closely while hoping this sort of analysis remains the exception.
We welcomed a guest preacher at New Community this morning, so I took a few minutes before his sermon to reflect on the violence of this past week before we spent time in silence and prayer.
Early on a Sunday morning in September 1953, four members of the Alabama Klu Klux Klan placed dynamite under the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. A few hours later, when the church was full, the bomb exploded killing four girls, ranging in age from 11-14. Three days later Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stood before their families and community to eulogize the victims. Towards the end of his sermon he said the following,
Life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
For many families in Newton, Connecticut, the past few days have been as hard as crucible steel. The sheer magnitude of this crime threatens to overshadow the unique grief of each parent, each grandparent, and each friend. What happened in that school on Friday was demonic, an expression of a present evil we would prefer to ignore but cannot avoid. This week we are reminded that our enemy knows no distinction between race or class or geography. Like a lion, he prowls around looking for someone – anyone – to devour.
So while our country mourns the lives devoured in Connecticut, we, the reconciled people of God, cannot overlook the lives devoured in our own city. 488 lives taken so far in Chicago in 2012, many of them young men and young women. Our nation is shocked that such evil would be visited upon Newton: an affluent town, 95% white, that has known only one murder in the past decade. But we, the reconciled people of God, must know and speak aloud that murder and violence anywhere – including the neighborhoods within our city where outsiders crassly expect such things to happen – that any such violence is an act of profound injustice, a stench to a holy God in whose image these children are made.
Reverend King was right about the bleak and difficult moments of life and he was also right about the God who walks with us, “who lifts you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.” This is what we remember during Advent: that the Son of God, for our salvation, stepped into the grief of our world. So we do not need to rush past this pain. We don’t need to medicate our lament with distraction or entertainment. The man of sorrows who bore our sin allows us to stop and grieve. The same one who ensures our hope and our future, the one on whom all evil was brought to bear, the one whose body could not be held by our ancient enemy, death, He grants the courage this morning lament this present evil age. He is our example of righteous living for the advancement of God’s kingdom. And He too gives us the hope that one day, such grief will be a fading memory and nothing more.