Friday, May 09, 2008

How I (Didn't) Get Over

Several years ago, I took part in a workshop after church. The members of the congregation were gathered and watch a video about race and American society. We were then asked to talk about our experience with race. Now, I was the only African American in the room and most of the people there were in the 60s and 70s. Most talked about how they had good relations with Blacks and had many friendships. However, one person who was middle aged, said that things for African Americans and other persons of color were worse now than in the 60s.

In chatting with the pastor later, he said that the point of the workshop was for the participants to understand their role in perpetuating racism and then doing something about it.

The whole thrust of the workshop was part of an initiative that has become a part of many churches called anti-racism. On one level, it seems like a good thing, to help us learn to be against racism. My problem is that it seems to do nothing to advance racial progress and might only exacerbate the issue.

I've been thinking about this in light of the whole Jeremiah Wright controversy. The United Church of Christ, the denomination that Wright is ordained in, has decided to make next Sunday, May 18, a day to have a "sacred conversation on race." On the surface it seems to make sense; let's talk about this issue that has had such a prominent role in American history. I've heard others talk about having a conversation about race and again, it sounds good. But in the end, this conversation ends up not really being a conversation at all. In some ways, it seems more like a play, where persons of color and whites have roles to play, where the script has already been written well in advance.

The pastoral letter on racism from the leaders of the United Church of Christ is interesting, in that it paints an extremely dark view of race relations in the United States circa 2008. This is a sample:

The Pastoral Letter on Racism documented what it called “a sobering truth” – namely, that despite the meaningful progress achieved during the civil
rights era, “quality of life for the majority of racial and ethnic people is worse today in many ways than it was during the 1960s.” The letter went
on to name a number of disturbing trends that signaled growing racial intolerance and hostility: increasing inequities between the rich and the
poor; charges of “reverse racism”and attacks on affirmative action; a resurgence of racially motivated hate crimes and; fear of “foreigners” surfacing in movements such as “English Only.” Seventeen years later, in 2008, we might wish to believe that we have made significant progress in addressing and reversing those alarming trends.
Lamentably, that claim cannot be substantiated.

We have witnessed a systematic assault on affirmative action policies at the state and national level. In the wake of the “war on terror,” our
Arab American and Muslim brothers and sisters contend daily with discrimination, racial profiling,and misunderstanding about the true nature of Islam. As unemployment rates soar and jobs are outsourced overseas, frustration and rage are
unleashed upon the most vulnerable within our borders – immigrants and those who some call “illegal aliens.” After more than two years, thousands
of dispossessed residents of New Orleans are still in diaspora, awaiting our government’s promise to help rebuild their homes and neighborhoods. The divide between rich and poor is greater than at any time since the Great Depression. Despite the rise of a Black middle class over the past 40 years, the average net
worth of White families in 2008 remains 10 times greater than the average net
worth of Black families. Racial segregation in our public schools has intensified and has now been condoned by the United States Supreme Court.

There is a lot here to agree with in some case and a lot to disagree. On the belief that the quality of life for persons of color is worse than it was in the 60s, I have to respectfully disagree. I've said this before, but back in the 50s, my father could not get a hotel room or eat in a restaurant when he made trips to his native Louisiana from Michigan. Black people were getting killed by whites and all-white juries let them get away with it. Is life a racial utopia? No. We still have problems. We still have cops shooting unarmed blacks and too many who think hanging a noose is funny. But we are not the America of the 50s and 60s where whites were trying hard to keep blacks down.

The letter also seems to ignore the most important change of the last 40 years: a political party is on the verge of nominating a black man for President and all indications point to this same black man becoming the 44th President of the United States. A nation that once treated its African immigrants as property might very well elect someone of African heritage.

Barak Obama's historic run for the presidency can't by itself atone for America's racist past, but it is important and can show that we have come a long way. To not hold this up is puzzling.

But maybe what is most puzzling about this letter is that this isn't as much a conversation as a monologue. It lists a litany of problems and says white people don't care and that life is hard for persons of color. I'm not saying any of this is a falsehood, but there isn't much room in this letter for a conversation on race. It has one view and one view only.

The letter points out a problem that I have with both liberals and conservatives on their views on race. For liberals, the glass seems half empty all the time. They seem to ignore any racial progress and continually see America as a racist society.

For conservatives, there seems to be a belief that we can just jump from a racial to post-racial society in one leap. They look down on programs like affirmative action, not realizing that in the past, blacks were shut out of jobs and the walls of higher eduation and you just can't say, "sorry about the racism, dude" and make it all better.

If we are going to have a conversation on race, the lets have one, but let's have a real one, where we are sharing our true selves and not some script. Maybe the best example of true conversation came from Obama himself. In his speech on race entitled "A More Perfect Union," he talked about the frustration that both blacks and white have felt.

He says:

The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Obama's speech was truly a conversation starter if there ever was one. He expressed the anger blacks and whites feel and then sought to find common ground. Unlike the pastoral letter, it wasn't a one-sided affair but an attempt to listen to both sides.

That is what is needed today in America. We need to talk about race and racism and find ways to keep the dream of King's Beloved Community alive. But that chat has to be honest and it also means telling truths both sides don't always want to hear.

I need to say that I do respect the UCC. I have many friends in the denomination and I also have standing in the denomination. I just think this method is not the best approach.

We have come a long way as a nation in the area of racial justice and that should be celebrated. But we have a ways to go, so let's get to having a real conversation and throw away the script.

Note: Like Rev. Wright, Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ.

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