Sunday, July 24, 2016

Tim Kaine Appears to be an Extremely Unusual White Guy

Regardless of what you think of the Clinton-Kaine ticket, let's acknowledge this much: Tim Kaine seems to have an unusually impressive record of pursuing racial justice and reconciliation. Before he entered politics, Kaine was a lawyer specializing in defending victims of housing discrimination. A longtime resident of Richmond, Virginia, Kaine attends a predominantly Black church. Ok, you say, he's an ambitious guy coming up in a majority-Black city. Showing his face in a Black church is an easy political win. But he's been a member there for decades. It's where his children were baptized.

And speaking of the children. Kaine's three kids went to predominantly Black Richmond Public Schools. It's hard to overstate how unusual this is for a White parent of means. It's just not done. As is typical of American cities, Richmond's public schools are much less White than the city. While 40% of the city is White, only 9% of Richmond Public Schools students are White. Kaine is an outlier in his city and in the nation.

In his work, his worship, and in the education of his own children, Kaine appears to have consistently demonstrated a commitment to racial justice. The point here is not to parrot Clinton campaign talking points. But the unusual ways Kaine has structured his life should be pointed out. This is not normal behavior for White Americans with options, much less for someone on a presidential ticket. Have we ever had such a major national political figure who has done so much in both their professional and personal lives to walk the talk?

Don't get me wrong; this is not heroic behavior, and I don't mean to play into a White savior complex. Middle-class people of color deliberately stay in poor communities all the time and people don't often notice. So this isn't heroism, but it is decency. Indeed, it's the kind of behavior one would expect to be commonplace if White Americans actually believed what they say about race. And it's the kind of profile that would be normal for White liberal politicians if they actually believed their self-righteous declarations.

In this period of violence and racial strife, there's been a lot of talk about the need to come together. Coming together for real involves fewer pleasant platitudes and more hard-edged changes in the structures of our lives. If the demands of racial justice don't affect White Americans housing and schooling choices, then we're still investing in the advantages of Whiteness rather than sharing. I'm sure there are skeletons in Kaine's closet; in particular, there are some unsavory details related to gifts he accepted while governor of Virginia. But with respect to racial reconciliation at least, Kaine seems to offer an unusual and positive example to White Americans.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Breaking News: Black People Are Ordinary People

A few days ago, I described a centuries-long crisis facing African American communities, a crisis that must be resolved if Americans are truly going to come together. This is a crisis of White supremacy, and dismantling it is the only sure foundation for peace.

This is all true, but I'm uncomfortable with what I wrote--or rather, what I didn't write. This crisis does not define African American communities. Amid oppression, the banality and beauty of daily life goes on. 

I honestly think that many White Americans would be surprised to discover that African Americans are ordinary people. Partly because of the vast social distance separating most White Americans from Black Americans, we often talk about each other in terms of abstractions and media narratives. All too often, there is no human connection available to provide accountability in these conversations. In the White American imagination, at the end of the day, whether or not Black people are simply people is an open question.

When well-meaning Whites, seeking to dramatize injustice, describe Black neighborhoods as "war zones" or refer to a "crisis", we can reinforce stereotypes and negative assumptions that White Americans already harbor. Our words might awaken some people to a righteous cause. For others, our words provide more ammunition for the ongoing suspicion of Black humanity. As Daryl Michael Scott observed, there is a long history of sympathetic people portraying African Americans as fundamentally damaged (by White racism). While this may provoke pity in some, its corollary is contempt.

Housing and school segregation leave many White Americans in a state of extraordinary ignorance about their fellow citizens. They see discussions of crime on tv and hear about protests in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge. So it's easy to lose sight of the fact that most African Americans do not live in inner cities and are not poor. Even worse, lack of meaningful social contact means that many Whites don't see, and can't even imagine, the ordinary rhythms of everyday life.

They don't see the strong bonds of community in many Black neighborhoods, neighbor caring for neighbor. They don't see the communities where everyone on the block knows the kids on that block and takes responsibility for their well-being. They don't see the parents working themselves to the bone so that their kids can have a better life. They don't see the people volunteering in the schools. They don't see the dozens of ordinary actions that build community between people--here, let me shovel the snow in front of your house, there, let me get those groceries for you.

And they don't see the hard work of overcoming obstacles and discrimination. The persistence of the mom who gets up early to take that long bus ride to work. The creativity of the dad who manages to earn money doing odd jobs even though nobody will hire him full time. The desperation of trying to find decent housing or a safe school for your kids. They don't see the psychological resources that resistance to centuries of oppression has produced.

Because we don't see this, because we're so disconnected, we get instead absurd discussions about how Black people supposedly don't care about and protest crime in their own communities. We get offensive advice about how Black people need to take responsibility for America's failures. Beneath this lecturing from the sidelines lurks that persistent doubtful question of the White American imagination: are Black people really just ordinary people with the same aspirations and hopes as me?

Most White Americans have probably never thought to ask a different set of questions. What if Black people are doing everything right, and the results are what we see today? In other words, what if the problem resides not in Black communities but in American institutions?

Some of the quickest people to take issue with the the simplicity of this hypothesis would be many African Americans themselves, for whom narratives of self-criticism and self-help are pervasive. If you think Black people aren't taking responsibility, it's a pretty sure sign you don't actually know Black people.

It is perverse for me to posture as an interpreter of Black communities to a White audience. That's not my intention. Rather, I invite White people to take it upon ourselves to break out of our self-imposed isolation. Some of us who are White are aware of how segregation harms people of color. But we are often unaware of the damage it does to ourselves. Be brave enough to ask yourself how often you actually have meaningful conversations with people of color. Be brave enough to read a little history and let the evidence guide you. Be brave enough to be honest about what you know and don't know. And be brave enough to be a nonconformist in your White community. I wish more White people would stop and ask themselves why they have so many strong opinions about people they don't even know.

For those of us who want to change White minds, it is not enough to speak of the problems African Americans face. The broader message is the extraordinary resilience and perseverance of a people trying to build freedom and community even as the country around them tried to tear it down.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Amid Racial Tensions, Can Americans Come Together?

After the murder of five Dallas police officers last week, there is a palpable turn in the national climate toward rhetoric of reconciliation. The President asks us to seek empathy and mutual understanding and citizens share social media memes of police officers and citizens being nice to each other. The media frames its stories around the need to "come together" and find "common ground."

These rhetorical efforts are necessary and good. They represent a nation stepping back from what feels like the brink. (It's not, but it can easily feel like it is). In moments like these it is the responsibility of leaders to call for calm and emphasize what we have in common. As the President did Tuesday, leaders should also remind us that we've seen much worse, and have come through it. In a tense environment, responsible leaders offer perspective and breathing space. They do not add fuel to the fire. Instead, they mourn lost life and carefully try to balance the competing claims of all Americans. The essential task at hand is to avoid a deepening spiral of violence. This task the President performed admirably this week.
President Obama in Dallas
Now it is our job to be more honest than a President can afford to be. Reading his speech carefully, it seems clear the President is under no illusion that trying harder to understand each other will in itself produce the change we need. I wish all Americans had the same clarity.

Talk of coming together is often little more than cheap sentiment signifying nothing. Like anyone who isn't a sociopath, I fully support peace, empathy, finding common ground, and coming together. But if our goal is clarity of thought rather than delusion, if our goal is to actually solve problems and save lives--that's what's at stake!--then we must boldly speak against sentimentality masquerading as problem solving.

The problem is state failure. As we speak right now, Black Americans face crisis-levels of economic distress, educational neglect, violence, poor health, poverty, and discrimination. This crisis is immediately obvious to anyone who simply takes White expectations of state services and general well-being and applies them more broadly. This crisis congealed hundreds of years ago, and has continued uninterrupted ever since. It is not of Black Americans' own making. They did not start any of this. It is a crisis of White supremacy.

The appropriate question is not and has never been why African American communities often suffer  from higher levels of poverty and crime. The more honest query is how a people has accomplished so much in the face of centuries of systemic racism and neglect. The American state's failure to protect life and liberty for certain classes of its citizens continues to the present day. The great question at hand, then, is how to excavate this system and tear it out by the roots.

The intractable problem is that many--probably most--Americans refuse to admit this. And in this thick haze of self-delusion and irresponsibility, they venture forth to praise the police and the way of life they defend.

Please read me carefully. It is right and peace-producing to praise police officers who do their work with integrity and care for human life. It is wrong to defend the broader systems in which police are forced to operate. The police are themselves caught up in forces bigger than themselves. The American system produces racialized poverty and violence, and then polices it capriciously, offering neither the presumption of innocence to the upstanding, nor the likelihood of punishment to the guilty.

Americans who defend this system seem universally to think of themselves as people who oppose racism and violence and stand for justice. That may be how they see themselves, but we are under no obligation to join them in their delusions.

So we must be clear-eyed about what reconciliation rhetoric is doing in the contexts in which it is deployed. Often the rhetoric is so empty of any tangible content, so slathered in sentiment, that supporters of systemic racism are its most eager users! But memes about friendly police officers won't change the way DA offices work. Calls to respect authority won't abolish private prisons. Trying harder to understand each other won't reform use of force standards. Thanking police officers for their service won't end the war on drugs. And asking young Black men to never make a mistake--never a wrong move or word--won't remove the suspicion from an American public that is more interested in containing than empowering them.

We do need to come together, that's true. But you need only look around your neighborhood, I'd wager, to see that most White Americans might not really want to come together. Coming together would mean trying to level the playing field. It would mean desegregating the schools. It would mean making residential zoning work for the poor instead of incumbent homeowners. Guaranteeing the vote. Providing quality and accountable policing in poor neighborhoods. It would mean treating the condition African Americans face as the crisis that it is, for as long as it takes. It would mean getting serious about reparations. Coming together would mean all these things and more.

I feel compelled to be honest. I'm not sure most White Americans want to come together. I don't think most White Americans want to deal with the crises affecting their fellow citizens. They want to make sure the crisis doesn't spill over its borders. They want to see it contained. That brings us back to the police, doesn't it?

I say all this not because I'm a morbid pessimist but because history is a hard teacher. Looking to our past, we might say there were two epoch-making moments when Americans came together and resolved their differences when chaos threatened. The first was the Constitutional Convention. The hard-won compromise provided the framework for an enduring political union and national prosperity. The second was the end of Reconstruction. After 700,000 deaths in the Civil War and years of aftershocks, it is astonishing how quickly Americans got back to the normal arts of political compromise, paving the way for the United States to emerge as a global superpower.

Both of these compromises were at once essential to national prosperity and devastating to African Americans. The Constitutional framework set up a functionally pro-slavery federal government that enabled three generations of newly created southern states to spin out a cotton kingdom across the continent on the strength of an internal slave trade of extraordinary brutality. The compromised end to Reconstruction signaled the end of state-sponsored efforts to ensure equal rights for Black Americans. The South could have its mob rule, and White Americans would pretend they lived in a Republic.

There is a more recent example. We might speak of the period after the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s as a coming together moment. Nixon's "silent majority" was as much rhetorical device as reality, but there was a distinct turn away from the crisis of White supremacy. As Americans turned toward conservatism, they defeated the civil rights movement and left old problems to fester.

We could come together now, as we have in the past, only in order to contain a crisis rather than solve it. The same people always end up bearing the brunt of these false periods of peace. This is why Black Americans and everyone who cares cannot stop protesting. We don't want oppressed people to sit down and be quiet. We want to remove the oppression. We don't want peace without justice, because in the end that leaves us with neither.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Introducing the All Lives Matter™ Bible

Christians believe that God loves everyone. And we believe that in some mysterious way we all bear his image, giving each human being an irreducible dignity and worth. We believe human beings have a basic unity in that we are all loved by God, and all in need of him. These beliefs describe only the starting point for Christian social ethics, not their application. Indeed, precisely because we believe human beings are undifferentiated in dignity and worth, we take special offense and are moved to action when we see that worth trampled on in specific times and places. Our general concern for all is the basic context in which our special concern for oppressed groups is expressed.

Ordinary Bible translations are full of examples of God's particular concern for groups that are oppressed, marginalized, and lacking in social power. God loves us all, but his calling card is his work on behalf of the most vulnerable. As a result, the Bible often makes distinctions between groups of people occupying different social positions, with God casting himself as the defender of those with less power. Here in the United States, some Christians are uncomfortable with these passages and are reluctant to apply them to our social context.

So I'm thinking, what would the Bible look like without its consistent message of God's special concern for the oppressed and judgment for oppressors? What would the scriptures look like if we read them in the same way many Christians are "reading" their own society?

Let the satire begin.

I'm proud to introduce an all-new Bible translation that will assure modern American readers that God loves everyone and never takes sides. It's called, The All Lives Matter™ Bible. In its pages, old scriptures will burst forth with new life to comfort a new generation of privileged Christians.
A Satisfied Reader of the All Lives Matter™ Bible
Hear the words of the Apostle James as he asks us, "Has not God chosen [some random people] to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? Later on, James appears to warn the reader about something, but the All Lives Matter™ text resolves the passage with pleasing ambiguity: "Now listen, [everyone], weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you." 

Be inspired by the words of the Apostle Paul as he set out on his missionary journey: "All they asked was that we should continue to remember [everyone equally], the very thing I had been eager to do all along." Paul's perspective on the Christian life comes through clearer than ever as we read about how he had no social privilege to give up and so described following Christ as ["a piece of cake."]

Of course, among the highlights of any Bible are the profound parables of Jesus. And here the All Lives Matter™ Bible does not disappoint. Be encouraged as you read the Parable of the Good [Man of No Particular Ethnicity]. And be shocked all over again as you read about Jesus's subversive behavior, as when he talked to the [Genderless Person of No Particular Ethnicity] at the well.

And who can forget Jesus's challenging words when he declared, "[I'm sure there are some people out there, from no group in particular, who are] hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean."

In this Bible you will read about how Jesus offered table fellowship to everyone equally, and no one in particular was scandalized by it. What the translation lacks in theological specificity it more than makes up for in comforting spiritual bromides. Anyone tempted to apply their faith to specific social problems will be reassured that vague expressions of goodwill are enough.

The All Lives Matter™ Bible also offers readers strikingly original translations of beloved Old Testament passages.

Timeless Hebrew proverbs come alive for the modern American reader, vaguely reminding us to be nice to each other: "Whoever oppresses [anyone] shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to [anyone] honors God." And the Psalms of David give privileged readers the affirmation they need that God is on their team no matter what! "A father to [everyone], a defender of [everyone], is God in his holy dwelling."

Even the Torah appears here as you've never seen it before. Feel the grandeur of God's commands to the people of Israel: "Do not oppress [anybody]; you yourselves know how it feels to be [nobody in particular], because you were [something or other] in Egypt."

Because the Hebrew prophetic tradition is considered especially offensive to many American Christians, the translators have made the difficult choice to excise a few chapters, such as Isaiah 10 and Isaiah 58

In the 2,000 year history of the Christian Church, we've never had a Bible like this before. But with so many American Christians feeling uncomfortable, and with so much loose talk that could encourage introspection and social engagement, it's time Christians had a place to turn where they can be assured, All Lives Matter. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Revisiting the Gospel and White Evangelicalism

I'd like to revisit my last post. In particular, I received some helpful pushback from a current professor at Moody Bible Institute for what he saw as my unfairness toward Dwight L. Moody. He had some good points to make. And, it must be said, he knows much more about Moody than I do. He noted that Moody associated himself with a variety of progressive causes, founded an integrated school in Massachusetts, privately expressed displeasure with segregation, and was supported by some Black southerners. Including all of this in my last post, I think, would have strengthened the argument I was trying to make.

If people read what I wrote about Moody and Edwards and Whitefield and concluded, "Wow, I didn't realize these guys were so monstrous; let's disown them," my post had the opposite of its intended effect. Rather, for White evangelical readers in particular, there is an urgent need to embrace the totality of our history and inheritance. The point is not that Moody was horrible. The takeaway ought to be that I have little reason to assume I'm any less blind than he was. It's probably just blindness about different things.

When we pay attention to what Black Christians were saying in Moody's time and others, we can begin to see that our inheritance is a distinct brand of White Christianity, with its own foibles, idioms, and blind spots. This is less a shocking indictment than an obvious reality of any human community of faith. We are culturally located. We are not the normative group by which other Christians can be measured. There is no fault in having never heard the sordid details I shared in my last post. But we can know the outlines of our own tradition. We can become students of our own community, knowing some of its errors and biases, including, especially, its idolization of Whiteness and American nationalism.

Some Christians seem to be concerned that we might focus on the negative side of past heroes to the exclusion of the good they did. I understand this concern. But the much greater danger is that in ignoring their sins, we will repeat them. When we build up people of the past to mythical status, we encourage a culture of arrogance and unwarranted self-satisfaction. Scripture doesn't do this. The so-called heroes of the faith in the biblical narrative are usually presented as scoundrels and cowards, the better to emphasize the grace of God.

Ida B. Wells, 1862-1931
Let's return to Moody. How are we to interpret his disapproval of segregation? Does that make his segregated meetings better? Or, indeed, does it make them worse? That Moody did what he did in service of the Gospel, as he understood it, is precisely the point. His belief that individual conversion would ultimately undermine segregation was not just naive; it was a view his privileged position made easy, and a luxury that many Black Christians facing questions of life and death felt they couldn't afford. Moody's understanding of the gospel was narrow, culturally specific, and White. In refusing to speak and act publicly against the anti-Christian society of the American South and the greatest social evil of his time, Moody compromised the Gospel.

Consider the contrasting fortunes of Moody and Ida B. Wells. Moody toured the South to widespread acclaim, preaching to many thousands of White southerners. Just a few years later, Wells had to flee the South for her life because she had spoken out against lynching. Moody's public silence won him praise, but what did it cost him? What was the cost to the integrity of the Gospel and the church? What are we to make of a message that was more readily accepted by the oppressors than by the oppressed? How can such a message be anything other than a perversion of the teachings of Christ?

While Moody's Gospel allowed White southerners to believe they could love Christ while remaining indifferent to their brother, Wells did the much harder work of clinging to faith while grappling with the world as it actually was. "The heart almost loses faith in Christianity," she wrote, "when one thinks of...the countless massacres of defenseless Negroes...O God, when will these massacres stop?"

Was this a cry of despair? Perhaps, yes. It was also a cry of faith in which the key word was "almost." We would do well to come closer to Ida B. Wells, to meditate on evil committed in the name of Christ, to question and struggle to the point of "almost." If this means lost certainty and self-assurance, it may also lead to unexpected compensations. Not least, the discovery that "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble."