During college, I volunteered for the youth ministry at a church. Every year at the volunteer Christmas party, the two white guys who worked for the ministry dressed up as “black guys from the hood” and performed an entirely unoriginal and unfunny skit that exploited negative black male stereotypes for laughs. I remember looking around the room full of volunteers, seeing the delight in their eyes as they laughed loudly at the racist jokes. I also remember feeling discouraged that a predominantly-white group of Christians (who were supposedly my friends) were laughing at white guys impersonating black guys in extremely unflattering ways. When I asked the pastor (the staff guys’ boss) about the skit, he agreed that it was offensive. But he failed to confront the issue; the skit was performed every year for the multiple years that I served as a volunteer.
The church taught me that racism is acceptable as long as it’s carried out in pursuit of laughs.
“Everything I Know about Racism I Learned in the Church” by Christena Cleveland. Be sure to read the entire post over at her blog. I’m looking forward to hearing from Christena at the Mosaix Conference in November.
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.
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.
One of the CCDA plenary sessions last week featured a couple of professors and practitioners speaking about a theology of reconciliation. The focus throughout the conference was on reconciliation between peoples. There was much about their talk I appreciated but there was also a theme that ran throughout that seemed contrary to their purposes. I thought I may have misinterpreted them until a follow-up conversation with a couple of folks who also took issue with this theme. I’ve thought about it a fair bit since the conference and think I know what was troublesome.
The speakers were very direct about the importance of Jesus Christ for the work of reconciliation. They made this point repeatedly and, in my opinion, rightly. Those of us who are Christians engaged in the life of reconciliation ought to be clear about the source of our thought and practice. For the Christian there is no genuine reconciliation outside the person of Jesus.
Things get interesting when we consider just what Jesus has accomplished that leads to reconciliation. For the speakers it seemed that this could be summarized with the language of Galatians 3:26-29.
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
This is a crucial passage for any theology of reconciliation though its interpretations vary. For the conference speakers this passage seems to indicate that Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection lead to a oneness that minimizes the distinctions (and divisiveness) of difference, including ethnic and racial differences. As one friend said after the session, “They weren’t advocating for color blindness, but it’s easy to see how someone could get there.”
So while the presenters were far more nuanced than are many who talk about the divisions that exist within the Church, their theology could to lead to a sort of color blindness that obscures real and important cultural and historic particularities.
There are plenty of reasons why this colorblind theology is damaging. Here are two: First, for churches working towards reconciliation within their congregations there will always be a tendency to lean towards the dominant culture. Korie Edwards’ very important book, The Elusive Dream, documents in detail how this plays out in every aspect of an intentionally multi-ethnic congregation. When the particularities of culture are subsumed by some so-called common Christian culture we will inevitably move towards whichever culture is dominant. Hence Edwards’ disheartening conclusions that multi-ethnic churches, despite their diversity, are actually white.
Second, when we lose the ability to talk about the real difference that exist within different cultures, ethnicities, and races we also lose the ability to identify the disparities and injustices that plague some and bypass others. I was recently talking with a friend who has taught sociology courses at a local college. She has noticed that most of her students of color are able to talk about injustices they’ve faced. But notably, rather than making connections to their race or ethnicity they individualize these ugly experiences. In other words, while race continues to be a significant marker of societal achievement these students have internalized a colorblind view of the world that hinders their ability to see the racialized systems that hinder their success.
As I said, the conference speakers were absolutely right to point us to the centrality of Christ for reconciliation. But rather than obscuring the real differences that exist within our humanity, the person of Christ actually makes these differences real and important. The vision found in Galatians is not one where difference no longer exists but where, in Christ, they lose the ultimate power to divide and destroy.
Mark Noll, in his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, describes a Christology that legitimizes the differences inherent in our world.
The implication can be stated succinctly: because God revealed himself most clearly in a particular set of circumstances and at a particular time and place, every other particular set of circumstances takes on a fresh potential importance.
Rather than whitewashing race and ethnicity, Jesus Christ calls out these differences as the location for God’s salvation. Thus in Acts the nations hear the Gospel proclaimed in their own languages at Pentecost and the Jerusalem council eventually agrees that Gentiles need not first become Jewish to join the people of God.
In Race: A Theological Account J. Kameron Carter points to Christ’s “Jewish flesh” as the particularity that makes impossible assimilation, “the violent processes of extending the accomplishments of whiteness to nonwhite flesh and to immigrant groups.” That is, within a society (and a Church) that requires conformity to the dominant cultural norm, Christians have access to another way of being.
To be in Christ…is to be drawn out of tyrannical narratives of identity (and the social orders they uphold), such as modernity’s narrative of racial identity generally and the pseudotheological narrative of whiteness particularly, and into the identity of Israel as preformed in Christ’s Jewish flesh.
In his sermon at the CCDA conference Rev. Ray Rivera called himself “a reconciler with contradictions.” By this he seemed be recalling the many times that reconciliation has meant conforming to the dominant culture. ”Reconciliation to what?” was a question he asked repeatedly. I’m not sure the theology provided by the conference speakers provided the framework to answer this question well. And while I suspect theirs is the typical perspective it’s important to know that it’s not the only one. Christ is our universal savior whose salvation is worked out within the particularities of culture and history. Our work of reconciliation must reflect our Savior.
Richard Johnson and I are blogging our way through The New Jim Crow. We’re rotating between chapters, posting reflections and the questions this important book is raising for us. Check out our posts on chapters one, two, three, and four. This is my final contribution; Richard will wrap things up with his thoughts on chapter six.
Borrowing the book’s title, chapter five provides a helpful overview of Michelle Alexander’s central argument – that mass incarceration today functions in a similar manner to the Jim Crow laws of a hundred years ago – while acknowledging the differences between the two systems. In the author’s view, both systems are “structured to lock [those caught in the system] into a subordinate position.” And it is African American men who, like their grandfathers, are disproportionately affected by Jim Crow’s latest iteration.
Alexander divides this insidious system into three parts: the roundup, formal control, and invisible punishment. The roundup refers to the strange combination of laws that, as we’ve already seen, allows for massive racial profiling and disparity in the War on Drugs. Formal conviction is the time drug offenders spend in prison which is more “than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.” Once released, ex-offenders face a series of laws that make reentering society incredibly difficult thus inflicting a secondary and invisible punishment.
Alexander chose my city, Chicago, to demonstrate how the system works. Consider the following:
- Despite roughly equal drug use among whites and blacks, “about 90% of those sentenced to prison for drug use in Illinois are African American.”
- The total population of African American men with a felony conviction “is equivalent to 55% of the black adult male population and an astonishing 80% of the adult black male workforce in the Chicago area.”
- In regional Chicago, those sent to prison for drug crimes annually “increased almost 2,000%” between 1985 and 2005.
- Of 98 occupations that require a license in Illinois, “57 placed stipulations and/or restrictions on applicants with a criminal record.”
- As in many other cities, in Chicago “young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college.”
“Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.”
While these statistics may seem as dramatic as they are disheartening, Alexander proves there is nothing new under the sun by showing the parallels with mass incarceration and other forms of the “racial caste system.” To take but one example, mass incarceration, like its predecessors, defines “the meaning and significance of race in America.” Under slavery being black meant to be a slavery while Jim Crow defined blackness as the mark of second-class citizenship. And what does it mean to be black (especially a black man) in America today? Tune into the local news most any night and the answer becomes clear: to be black is to be a criminal.
The tragic case of Trayvon Martin’s recent death is but the latest example of how this plays out in real time. For those who experience this story as an anomaly witness the response by some of the graduate and undergraduate students at Howard University in their video, Am I Suspicious? Here is a group of intelligent and ambitious young men who are very aware of the deficient and debilitating stereotypes they will face regardless of their degrees and accomplishments.
Michelle Alexander has convinced me. Undoubtedly there is more to be said and nuances that will be made by other students of our racialized society. But until someone can demonstrate a credible alternative to the massive racial disparities in the mass incarceration system I’m not sure we’re left with another option. How do we respond? How do people of my Christian conviction respond? How do those of us who are, seemingly, unaffected by the system respond?