Category Archives: Civil Rights

Treating a whole population with suspicion always ends badly


I’m currently reading Spectacle, the telling of the story of Ota Benga, a Congolese man held captive in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo and placed on display in the zoo’s monkey house. This tragic story reveals our ugly history where Americans, by-in-large, believed in the superiority of the White races. But in chapter five, the author talks about another incident, The Brownsville Affair, during that same year. It is this affair that I wish to highlight.

The Brownsville Affair

In late July of that year, there was an altercation between a black member of the infantry division and a white man. The white man was killed. A mob ensued and when it was over, three more lay dead. Fast forward a few weeks into August and suddenly a bartender (white) is killed. The suspicion is instantly laid on the infantry, despite their white officers reporting that every infantry member was in his bed at the time. Evidence was planted to try to incriminate the men. When the men were interrogated, they denied any involvement and of course could not say who had killed the bartender.

But the people of Brownsville continued to accuse the men. And the decision was made to castigate them all for a so-called “conspiracy of silence.” The decision went all the way to President Theodore Roosevelt who signed the order having 167 men dishonorably discharged as punishment for a crime they did not and could not have committed. Here Pamela Newkirk recount Roosevelt’s comments

Despite pleas from black leaders, including Booker T. Washington, Roosevelt would sign the order denying the men–who had been deprived of legal counsel or a hearing–back pay, pensions, and eligibility to serve in the future. Roosevelt, considered a racial moderate for his time, unapologetically defamed the innocent men, saying, “Some of the men were bloody butchers; they ought to be hung.”

Not until Nixon, did this injustice be made right (and then the “justice” did not include any form of restitution.

The Trajectory When We Dehumanize others

Notice the trajectory:

  • One person of a group (a minority group) does something wrong.
  • Later, another ambiguous thing happens and blame is laid at the feed of an entire population.
  • Facts are not sought out but evidence is created and “justice” delivered because “these people” are butchers.

Is it any wonder that such minorities don’t feel particularly warm feelings when thinking about national pride. How could they? We’d like to think we are well beyond the years that we would place a human in a zoo to be gawked at. Indeed, we are. We’d also like to believe we are well beyond the years where we would demonize and be suspicious of an entire population of people. We are not there yet. There might be people who are butchers among the innocent. So, let’s ensure they don’t remain among us and accuse them of a conspiracy of silence for not pointing the guilty out. Let’s keep them all out just to be sure.

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On having substantive conversations about race relations


Maybe it has always been this way, but it seems harder these days to have substantive conversations about race relations. I think the same struggle exists when you try to talk about sexual identity, gay marriage and anything else that is a hot button issue today. Does it seem that way to you?

In the realm of race relations, we have dueling images (Baltimore burning v. images of a black man being beaten by police), dueling sound bytes (Baltimore mayor portrayed as giving permission to rioters “space to destroy” property v. Franklin Graham’s “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else, Listen up” comment) and dueling diagnoses (racist cops v. thug culture). These seem to generate much emotion and quick reaction but little in the way of deep conversation and understanding.

Who should we blame?

It is easy to lay blame at the feet of ideologically-focused cable “news” programs. Their incessant demand for sound bytes and finding “breaking” news requires that they pump up anything that might be controversial to keep the viewer on the channel. But the only reason these stations need to do this is because of the proliferation of choices from where we get our news. If the show doesn’t deliver, we’ll find our news elsewhere on the television or, more likely, online.

We could also blame twitter and other micro-blogs that allow us to make a point in less than 140 characters. These formats provide “data” but without context enable us to believe we have facts when we only have a single data point.

But in truth, we need to lay most of the blame at our American culture’s feet. We want sound bytes. Like fast food, we want ready-to-consume information pre-packaged and simple. And we are an increasingly angry culture, angry and feeling lost in a sea of divergent opinions. Maybe this is because the comfort we once had living in a homogenous society where everyone appeared to think and believe like us is no longer present.

What can we do?

First, let’s be honest, in some settings and with some people, we may not be able to have substantive conversations about race. The environment may not be right, the other person(s) may not be interested or able due to their pain. In these cases, let us follow the advice of Solomon and remember there is a time to keep silent (Eccl 3:7a). Of course, if  you do remain silent, remember not to gossip about it later.

When we do decide to try dialogue, let us endeavor with God’s help to do the following:

  1. Be quick (first) to listen. Our temptation is often the opposite. We have much to say and we want a hearing. Follow the admonition of James to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (Jas 1:19-20).
  2. Listen to the story behind the opinion. Sometimes we jump to debating facts, especially when those facts are part of the other’s experience. We may be quick to dismiss experience as anecdotal. Yet, the story of pain, confusion, and racializations are worthy of our attention because we are listening to the life and challenge of an image bearer.
  3. Give the best interpretation of what was said. When emotions run high, it is easy to react to things we hear that sound wrong to us. When trust is low, it is likely that we will provide the worst possible interpretation rather than the best. 1 Cor 13:7 reminds us that love “believes all things.” So, give the best possible interpretation of what was heard. If you aren’t sure what the person meant, ask, but do so without thinking you already know the answer. Assume your partner has truth to tell you.
  4. Avoid equalizing pain. Sometimes we fear giving credence to another’s opinions for fear of negating our own opinions. It is quite fine to acknowledge systemic abuse against one people group in one sentence without needing to equalize pain by pointing out an opposing fact (even if it is true). When we try to equalize, our dialogue partner will likely believe we have just negated their point.
  5. Avoid using some impersonal extreme case you heard to make your point. While extreme personal stories need to be listened to and cared for, we can be tempted to tell of an extreme case or fact to make our point. Remember, there are fringe stories but these fringe stories rarely tell the main problem. However, if you believe the other side is using an extreme case, don’t jump on your dialogue partner but listen for substance that you can agree with.
  6. Be willing to confess corporate sin. Both Nehemiah and Ezra confess sin that is not really their own but owned by all of Israel together. Be willing to own and confess the sins of your “people” even if they are not your own sins.
  7. Underline shared truth and shared goals. While you may disagree on most things, be on the lookout for where you can agree and highlight shared truth or goals.
  8. Finally, determine one way to move the conversation to action. Dialogue and understanding are good. Action is better when we work together. Find one thing you can do with your dialogue partner.

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Orbinski on humanitarianism, dignity, and hope


 

Two days ago I had the privilege of meeting and hearing Dr. James Orbinski at the 2009 Frobese Day, an educational conference held at Abington Memorial Hospital each year. Dr. Orbinski is the former head of Medicins Sans Frontiers (Drs without Borders), current head of Dignitas, professor at U. of Toronto, author of An Imperfect Offering, and central figure in the documentary, Triage. Of interest to me was his work in Rwanda during the genocide.

On a personal note, I found him very engaging. When I was introduced to him, he didn’t do the usual handshake and move on. He really engaged me about Rwanda and what work we did and plan to do there and gave a number of encouraging comments that went above and beyond the call of duty. I guess that is one of the characteristics you need if you are a person who goes into distressed areas. You need to connect to the people, figure out what they need and what can be done, and then do it.

First, an assortment of observations presented:

  • There are about 6.8 billion people in the world. Some 3.8 billion, or about half, subsist on less than 2 dollars a day
  • 1.1 billion go to bed hungry each night. This number grows by about 100 million each year
  • Nearly all famines are the function of political conflict rather than acts of nature
  • There has been a 24% increase in food prices in impoverished areas. One of the key causes is the increase of developing biofuel. Food is more valuable if it can be made into fuel.
  • The World Food Bank is begging for about 23 billion dollars to feed this number of poor. It can’t get it. But, 13 TRILLION dollars has been recently expended to prop up a collapsing international economy.
  • In 2000, it cost 15,000 (a year, I think) to provide an individual in Africa the antiretroviral meds needed to survive. Today, with political pressure, it costs 99 dollars
  • The drug companies say that it costs 1.6 billion dollars to bring a drug from a new chemical to market (through research & Development). While they do not reveal how it costs this much, it is clear that part of the costs they factor in is the income they expect to make on the drug. So, if you expect to make 10% on your investment, can you really consider that a cost to develop a drug. Apparently, they do
  • A recent nonprofit just released three new drugs dealing with neglected diseases in Africa. The costs to bring these drugs to the market was 100 to 300 million dollars. And, the companies selling them are indeed making a profit

A couple of his key ideas:

  • Dignity cannot be granted; it must be acknowledged via engaged collaboration and solidarity
  • Solidarity is not pity but active compassion
  • Hope is not some naive utopian dream, it is “what we do”
  • We all need to be political. The first act of politics: speak the truth; The second act: listen
  • The worst form of suffering is suffering alone
  • We must see it, acknowledge it, give voice to the voiceless and thus allow for dignity even if we cannot solve it
  • Optimism and Hope are two distinct concept. Optimism is confidence that one’s actions will work for the best. Hope is confidence that the action you are about to undertake is the RIGHT one no matter the outcome
  • We need those with daring ideas, with visions of possibilities. That is all there is. Hope, is in his estimation, in himself–that he will do the right thing.

While I do not agree with his definition of hope, I do agree that we need more people to move from insight (that a problem exists) to action (that I can do something of value in a hopeless situation). Folks like Orbinski certainly put many of us to shame.

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Does “Zero Tolerance” work?


The December 2008 edition of the American Psychologist takes up this question when their task force on the matter publishes the article, “Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations (pp 852-862).

What did they find?

1. “…despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions. Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.” (abstract, p. 852)
2. Zero tolerance is based on several assumptions that the authors found wanting

a. school violence is at a crisis level and increasing still. No (is this because of the policies?)
b. Zero tolerance increases consistency of discipline and sends a clear message. Not found in the data.
c. Removal of violent children will create a better climate for those who remain. Data suggests the opposite, schools with higher suspension rates have lower climate ratings.
d. Swift punishment is a deterrent. Not borne out in the data. Opposite may be.
e. Parents are overwhelmingly in favor of the policy. Mixed data here at best, depending on whether your child is a victim or offender.

3. Impact on minority and disabled children? The assumption was the zero tolerance wouldn’t be a respecter of persons. Data suggests disproportionate discipline of students of color not based on poverty or wealth. The suspicion is that teachers may need some help breaking down cultural stereotypes.

There’s a lot more in the article but I’ll stop here. Interestingly, the policy was created to be more fair across the board. The article suggests more wise implementation with more options for psychological care (no surprise there) rather than immediately going to the juvenile justice route. Either way, the problem has to do with wisdom. If you give administration options (akin to Judges discretion with repeat offenders) some will use it well, others not so much. If you make rules, they work well in decisions IF making the decision the same way every time is the goal. But of course, no one really wants that since wisdom dictates different responses. But then underlying prejudices will come back into play. However, it appears the policy doesn’t really address prejudice and stereotype anyway.

Is there a better solution?

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Multiethnic Churches II: Some background facts


Before considering a theological apologetic for multiethnic churches or some solutions, let’s first consider some background: 

 

Changing Demographics. The racial profile of near suburban communities are changing (those communities just outside of cities). In my community there has been dramatic change. In the last ten years, nearly 2,000 African Americans have moved into my town while some 4,000 have moved into a neighboring town.  Approximately 15,000 people of color live within 15 minutes of my church (not counting those that live just across the city line one mile away). While we have attracted a few interracial couples and African immigrant families, Black families have not shown up in significant numbers, and those that have may not stay long or become members. 

Lest we become too excited about the presence of interracial couples in predominantly white churches, we should consider why they say they attend these churches. Apparently, these couples find white churches an uneasy, but tolerable, fit. It is hard for either spouse to be a minority but it is less hard for the African American spouse, as they are more used to living in a white world. 

 

Economic Differences? Although census data provide excellent data regarding the change of racial profile of a region, the economic status of new arrivals to a community is a bit less clear. One African American church planter suggested that there are 3 general categories of African Americans in a diversifying suburban community: Upper Class, Blue Collar, Lower Class. The upper class, from his perspective are those who have been in the suburbs for some time and are primarily seeking status in work, house, and church relationships to prove their arrival. He suggested that these folks would be unlikely to attend a White middle-class church, as there would be little status gained in doing so. The middle or blue-collar class folk are those who may also have been in the area for some time and are working hard to maintain their home, and family relationships. The lower class consists of those recently out of poverty and out of the city environment.  He suggested that these individuals would be most inclined to return to church in the city in order to give a sense of familiarity and “déjà vu”. 

 

Worship Culture Differences. It is sobering to note that 97 percent of African Americans and 99 percent of Whites attend racially segregated churches. Some of the reasons for such a divide have to do with church culture differences. The Barna report, African Americans And Their Faith, sheds light on the multifaceted nature of Black worship and faith. People of color are much more likely to feel connected to their church when they perceive it to be a place of refuge, a place that understands and supports them in their struggle against subtle but very real forms of oppression. Would they find such a refuge in a predominantly white church? Would they hear words that communicate an understanding of what it is like to live in their world? Further, African Americans spend twice as much time at church than whites and are inclined to see the church as their extended family. On the whole, they seem less interested in small group bible studies at private homes and more likely involved in small groups that focus on specific ministries (e.g., music, child care, diaconal, etc.).

 

Racism, Stereotypes, Prejudice, Ignorance and the Church. Issues of racism remain at the forefront of minority life. While the more obvious and violent forms (e.g., baseball bats to bodies, burning crosses) are rare, the subtler forms of racism (e.g., institutional) and prejudice are alive and well. First, few whites understand the power of white privilege: the ability to move about in the community without being noticed or suspected of crimes, the ability to have one’s identity be based on more than skin color. Organizational prejudice (e.g., glass ceilings, suddenly filled jobs or apartments, etc.) continue. 

It is fair to ask whether Caucasian churches participate in this kind of behavior? The evangelical church, while not supporting racism and even speaking out against it (though maybe rarely), participates in institutional racism when it remains ignorant or silent about the current painful experiences people of color face. It participates in institutional racism when it individually repents of prejudice but ignores the need for corporate social justice so sadly missing in our society.[1]Dominant culture individuals tend to see reconciliation and justice through the lens of individual behaviors. But when the church ignores people of color in its own community while sending ministry teams to needy individuals in the inner city it may send a message that minorities aren’t in this community but only “over there.” The church participates when it treats minorities as strangers when they have attended the church for some time. The church participates when it sends foreign missionaries to training schools to learn how to contextualize the Gospel but seems unaware or unwilling to engage ethnic minorities living next door. Neglect of race issues, whether from ignorance or from seeing it as not pragmatic or important is a sin and minimizes the fact that the church should be a visible testimony to “God’s wisdom of making Jew and Gentile one creature in Christ.”[2]  Prejudice exists in many White churches today because of the inherent power of being in the dominant culture coupled with the sin if complacency and indifference.  In short, we white folk just don’t have to be concerned about race and racism. 

—-
Next week we will look at some theological encouragement to reconsider the value of multiethnic congregations.


[1] For an historical and sociological review of the Evangelical response to racism, see Emerson and Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America published by Oxford in 2000.

[2] Ware, p. 28.

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Race and Culture in America at the turn of the Century


My wife is working through her 3rd book on Teddy Roosevelt. This one (Theodore Rex) is about his presidency. Teddy was a many of many firsts. First president on a submarine; first on a airplane. But he was also first to dine with a black man at the White House (there had been plenty of servants in it, but not as invited guests to dinner).

Any guesses on who he had?

Booker T. Washington.

The reaction was pretty horrendous from some sectors in the South. He was called all sorts of names. The papers had headlines such as, “President has darkie to dinner” and much worse. A senator from the good ole state of SC stated that they would have to kill 1,000 Black men in order to put Blacks back in their place (the Black presses had the audacity of seeing this one event as a sign of hope). Another suggested he should invite Booker T’s son for Christmas so he could have him marry his daughter because he so much wanted the races to mingle or mongrelize.

But before we put Teddy on a pedestal. He also believed in the common view of the day that Blacks were behind whites by several hundred thousand years in the evolutionary process. While some like Booker T could ascend, most were only good for service roles. Throughout his presidency, he didn’t change this view. While he did see the need to stop lynching he didn’t think they should vote.

If it helps, he also thought the Irish were also a bit behind in the evolutionary process.

It doesn’t. While we’ve come far from the public and shameless racism and prejudice, we’ve got many miles to traverse in dealing with the subtle and pernicious forms of prejudice still active. I’m sure we’ll continue to see these come to the surface as Obama is the presumed Democratic nominee. 

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Race matters: Obama’s speech in Philadephia


MSNBC provides this transcript of Obama’s speech today. As you likely know he is under fire for comments his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, made in sermons over the years. This speech is quite masterful as it rejects Wright’s characterizations but recognizes the reality that is behind his angry judgments about American politics, racism, injustice, and place in the world. He shows the parallel with white anger for being held accountable for the sins of our early fathers. In both cases, impolite speech is understandable but not helpful. He says,

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze

What should we do? He tells us to take responsibility for our lives, reject victim mentalities, insisting on justice for all, acknowledging the legacy of discrimination, rejecting cynicism, working together as opposed to for our own good alone. 

He’s right.  When we see hyperbole, we must acknowledge the truth at the center. Fact: we have been arrogant snobs in dealings with other countries. It shouldn’t surprise us that if we kick the dog, the dog bites back. Fact: The country wants equality as long as it doesn’t cost anything. We keep complaining, but until we all agree that my neighbor’s struggle is my own, we won’t see much change. 

He’s wrong.  Trying harder and being truthful about racial reconciliation progress is good, but it is not enough. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, the breaking of our pride, the demand that our individual identities take precedence over that of God’s humble servants, we’re not likely to make much more progress. Legislation helps curb our sin, but it does not stop the seed of racialization. Only the Cross does that. Isaiah’s prophecy is that God is going to discipline his people so that cannot put their trust in man–whether he is bad (e.g., Ahaz) or good (Hezekiah). He lays us bare then He brings us into Zion so that we know that it is His power and holiness that makes us his people.

One final note from his speech. See how he explains why he doesn’t reject a friend who has said stupid things. In my mind this is how we ought to talk about each other instead of throwing them under the bus in order to get what we want:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

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Langston Hughes’ “Negro Mother”


I confess that I’m not much a fan for poetry. I didn’t get much exposure to it despite my love for reading. I guess I liked stories that were fleshed out much more. However, this week, I read this beauty of Langston Hughes to my children. I share it here with apologies to the person who holds the copyright.

The Negro Mother   

Children, I come back today
To tell you a story of the long dark way
That I had to climb, that I had to know
In order that the race might live and grow.
Look at my face–dark as the night–
Yet shining like the sun with love’s true light.
I am the child they stole from the sand
Three hundred years ago in Africa’s land.
I am the dark girl who crossed the wide sea
Carrying in my body the seed of the free.
I am the woman who worked in the field
Bringing the cotton and the corn to yield.
I am the one who labored as a slave,
Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave–
Children sold away from me, husband sold, too.
No safety, no love, no respect was I due.
Three hundred years in the deepest South:
But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth.
God put a dream like steel in my soul.
Now, through my children, I’m reaching the goal.
Now, through my children, young and free,
I realize the blessings denied to me.
I couldn’t read then. I couldn’t write.
I had nothing, back there in the night.
Sometimes, the valley was filled with tears,
But I kept trudging on through the lonely years.
Sometimes, the road was hot with sun,
But I had to keep on till my work was done:
had to keep on! No stopping for me–
I was the seed of the coming Free.
I nourished the dream that nothing could smother
Deep in my breast–the Negro mother.
I had only hope then, but now through you,
Dark ones of today, my dreams must come true:
All you dark children in the world out there,
Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair.
Remember my years, heavy with sorrow–
And make of those years a torch for tomorrow.
Make of my past a road to the light
Out of the darkness, the ignorance, the night.
Lift high my banner out of the dust.
Stand like free men supporting my trust.
Believe in the right, let none push you back.
Remember the whip and the slaver’s track.
Remember how the strong in struggle and strife
Still bar you the way, and deny you life–
But march ever forward breaking down bars.
Look ever upward at the sun and the stars.
Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers
Impel you forever up the great stairs–
For I will be with you till no white brother
Dares keep down the children of the Negro Mother.

This poem first printed in 1931. This edition published in Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America. Edited by J.A. Emanuel & T.L. Gross (Free Press, 1968). 

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Black History Moments


Since February is Black History month, and since most of us know so little of our shared history I thought I’d do a weekly spot highlighting a important but little known factoid…so here’s on one Percy Julian… Continue reading

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The downside to rehearsing hero stories


Connecting the themes of Monday (MLK) and Tuesday (seeing your future), I’ve been thinking about how we romanticize our heroes and their lives, how we rehearse certain parts of our heroes’ lives and neglect the parts that are more like our own experiences. I’m not talking about ignoring their flaws but rather about the ways we ignore how difficult their lives were and the fears they must have experienced. We see the success (e.g., significant civil rights progress), remember how brave a particular hero was (MLK willing to be jailed despite opportunities to be bailed out), but forget the day-to-day fears they faced. What might become of me? Am I doing the right thing?

Did MLK know what was going to happen to him. One of his last sermons certainly hinted that he might not “get there” with the audience. And why not, he’d been stabbed, beaten, bombed, threatened daily for years. But I suspect there were days and nights of fear, worry, and second-guessing. There had to be days of wanting to go someplace to be safe and not ever bothered again. His challenge was knowing that since he felt God’s call to stay and fight was that God would be good enough and give enough “manna” for the next day.

I think we often rehearse the strength of biblical characters as well and at times neglect their fears. We see in much of David’s poetry that would suggest he spent many a dark night fearing that he would not be protected by God. It is easy to think about David’s courage with Goliath, his righteous response to Saul’s attempts to kill him, his joy in dancing before the Lord, but sometimes forget that he, like us, struggled to know just what God was up to in his life.

Thinking about their struggles not only increases my compassion but encourages me to keep waiting on the Lord in hope and faith for whatever he chooses to bring my way.

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