Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Let's Talk About Race...(Part 2)

No one wants to admit that they notice race in this country.

America is home to a nation full of White people who insist that they are "color-blind." We love to pretend that we've opened the doors of economic and social success to all comers---as long as they speak "proper English," dress the way we think they should, and are properly grateful for being allowed to enter, of course.

No one wants to admit to being either poor or rich in this country, either.

America is also the home of the vast "middle class." When Americans are asked to define their social class, most of them choose "middle class," including over a third of those whose annual income tops $150K.

We define ourselves as "middle class" when we aren't because we like to think that we're just "regular folks"--not wealthy people who perpetuate our economic advantages at the expense of others.

We paper over issues of class and race because we have an almost unshakable belief in America as a meritocracy, where all those who are willing to work hard can succeed.

I hate to put it this bluntly, but "meritocracy" is as "real" as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Those who start out with advantages (e.g., stable family, safe living environment, sufficient income, health care, good schools) enjoyed predominantly by White, middle/upper-middle class Americans continue to build on those advantages for the rest of their lives. Individual efforts and choices will certainly play a role---but, let's face it...the deck is stacked from the beginning.

If you are White and middle/upper-middle class, you and I were BORN on third base. Let's not be disingenuous and convince ourselves that we hit a triple...

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Folks in academia talk a lot about "White privilege." It basically means that the social structure rewards White people, and enables them to live in a world where their race is not an impediment to anything.

(If you really want to understand something about "White privilege," read this article by Peggy McIntosh---if you dare. It's 20 years old and, sadly, her list of privileges that attach to Whiteness are as applicable today as they were when the article was first published.)

For example, if you are White, you probably went to good schools that had plenty of experienced teachers, sufficient supplies, extracurricular activities, etc. You have probably never had any trouble getting credit. You have probably had good health care from the day you were born. If you are out of your 20s, you very likely own your own home.

If you are African American (or Hispanic), none of these things is a given. The gaps in income, home ownership, and educational achievement persist, and---in some cases---are widening.

Them what has, gets, people. To deny that is to be willfully ignorant. And White people has.

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There are well-to-do African Americans, of course. Getting ahead is not impossible---just less likely and far more difficult.

And there is a price to pay for doing so. You will always be held up as an example of the possibility of success---White people who don't want to change the system will point to you when they want to deny that racism keeps anyone from succeeding. You will be the only data point some people choose to accept.

Meanwhile, infant mortality rates for African American infants are 3.5 times higher than for Whites. One third of African American children live in poverty (compared to 10% of White children), and high-achieving African American students are losing ground in the educational race. If you are Black, on average, you will die 5 years earlier than a White person.

Those statistics are not from decades ago. They are the latest numbers the United States government and reputable research organizations have to offer.

From birth to death, being Black is a disadvantage.

So remind me again how race is no longer a factor in this country? And remind me again why the Reverend Jeremiah Wright--a Christian within the long and honorable prophetic tradition--has no business being angry?

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You see, I view the thorny, contentious issue of race through the lens of faith. And my faith tradition reminds me that God, in both the Word made Flesh and in scripture, has shown a decided preference for the poor and racially downtrodden (think both Jews and Samaritans)---as well as a decided intolerance for those who store up grain in their barns while others go hungry.

God also seems to have a preference for people who lay it on the line--who speak the truth, despite the costs to themselves. Isaiah---who, according to tradition, was put inside a hollow log by the evil king, Manasseh, and sawed in half in retaliation for his preaching. Jeremiah---who, legend has it, was stoned to death by his fellow Jews in Egypt for calling them on their sins. Paul--who is alleged to have been beheaded in Rome for preaching the Gospel.

Jesus himself said some pretty harsh things during his time on Earth. Calling people "vipers" and "whited sepulchers" (an interesting turn on the question of color BTW!) is not "nice." I love to focus on the compassionate Jesus as much as the next person---but you've got to admit that Jesus shook people up by his strong rhetoric. In fact, it got him killed.

I think strong rhetoric around race is way overdue---and I think the Church should be screaming from the roof tops about 400+ years of systemic discrimination against people of color in America. We should all be angry about the fact that the Church has, time and again, been an apologist for racism and a refuge for people who refuse to admit their complicity in a system that limits opportunities based purely on skin color.

According to Louie Crew, noted civil rights leader Aaron Henry was once asked whether the church had been a light during the struggle for justice. `The church a light?' he said...`Yeah, a tail light.'

When it comes to race, we Christians have a lot to answer for. We have been the tail light, rather than a light to the nations.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis.

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As I read your comments, this series is morphing. It may end up being shorter than 5 (or longer!), so I'm going to take the numbers off the posts. We'll just chat until we don't have anything more to say...

Thanks,
Doxy