Monday, May 12, 2008

Conversations About Race

If you think we don't need to have a "conversation about race" in America just because a black man is on the verge of receiving the Democratic Party's nomination for President, consider what he had to do to get there. He had to deny his own pastor. I have listened to what Jeremiah Wright has said about race again and again, and I still can't figure out what he's said that is false. Mind, I've listened to him in context, not just the sound bites that our infantile mass media obsess on, but what the man himself has said and continues to say.

And I'm not the only one who thinks Jeremiah is right. In a strange twist of fate, my American Religious Histories class was doing its unit on the Black Church, and reading Alfred Raboteau's Slave Religion right at the moment that the media was going ape-shit over Jeremiah's call to repentance. Yes, that's what Wright was doing, calling America to repentance. And not a soul among my mostly white students could disagree with what the man has said. Now keep in mind that I was teaching at a United Churches of Christ (UCC) Seminary, which happens to be the predominantly white denomination that Pastor Jeremiah Wright belongs to. I can't say how heartened I was to see that white future pastors of this denomination (and of other denominations -- we have Methodists, Presbyterians and Unitarians at United too) without missing a beat are standing in solidarity with a fellow pastor who happens to be black, and who is taking a beating in the media because he's dared to call America to repentance for its sins of militarism and racism.

And the denomination as a whole is standing by him as well. The UCC has called on all its member churches to take up the challenge laid down both by Jeremiah Wright and by his parishioner, Barak Obama, and to begin having an extended conversation about race. So on Sunday, at Lyndale United Church of Christ, Pastor Don Portwood asked us not to delay this conversation any longer. And when Pastor Don asked us what we thought about this, Sister Glenda Rooney had the presence of mind to remind us that there's no one conversation about race, there are conversations about race. Everyone will have their own perspectives on this all important matter, that will be uniquely based on their own personal history, age, and station in life. All deserve to be heard in the conversation. And all have a responsibility both to speak and to listen. But speak from the heart, and don't make up stuff just because you think it's what someone else wants to hear. Because above all, a conversation has to be honest.

I want to converse about race. Let's do it right here, right now, on this blog. And here's my opening salvo. First, I know enough from my own efforts to come to terms with this in my life that it is a life work to achieve the clarity of soul that makes brothers and sisters out of all of us in the truest sense. The enemy of our souls is forgetfulness, lack of consciousness, letting ourselves fall into the old, worn habits of thought and ways of being. So we owe a debt of gratitude to those who have a knack for offending us into consciousness.

My second thought is, I'm not sure that it is possible -- as Americans are wont to insist -- that a collective evil can be overcome individually. The great racist sins of this nation were all committed collectively, institutionally. Yet we act as if repenting of those sins is something we do individually. That doesn't compute for me.

My third thought is, guilt is a pre-repentance emotion. In other words, if you are white and discussions on the topic of racism arouse guilt, to me this is a sign that you are not fully committed yet to overcoming racism. Godly sorrow is closer to the range of emotions that will be helpful, along with resolve to make good and to stay on the path.

Because my fourth thought is, this is a process. Too often, white folks get fired up about racism. For a moment. And then we forget all about it. We forget that true change requires a day-in, day-out commitment. We need to commit ourselves to read something about racism every week. Commit ourselves to attend a lecture, read a book, participate in a workshop, anything on a regular basis that will over time build awareness. Accept that there are no simple answers to this problem any more than there are simple answers to any of life's great challenges. We need to commit ourselves to wrestle both individually and collectively with solutions, and when efforts fail, to commit ourselves to try something new until we find something that works.

My fifth and final thought (in this opening/continuing conversation) involves taking a larger historical perspective. There were three moments in American history when white folks and black folks came close to achieving (and yet failed to achieve) a true and lasting consensus over the issue of race in American society. The first historic moment was roughly from 1790 - 1820, during the Second Great Awakening. The second historic moment was in the aftermath of the Civil War, from roughly 1862 - 1870 or so. The third was during the Civil Rights Movement, from about 1950 to the mid-1960s. After each of these moments, white folks generally got tired and lost interest, and the country fell back into its racist slumber only to be aroused by the next crisis.

But if we look at what those three historic moments had in common, it was an emerging awareness that racism is a fundamentally spiritual problem.

In other words, we can't make this journey without God's help.


Bill McA said...

Please put the following Wright-ism into context for me: the US government "invent[ed] the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." Unfortunately, Wright is a lunatic who has seriously damaged Senator Obama's chances for the White House.

J G-W said...

He was quoting someone else, and making the point that the level of mistrust among many African Americans is so high that they believe such a plot is possible -- in light of, for instance, the Tuskegee experiments.

Robert F said...

I, too, was in the congregation at Lyndale UCC this past Sunday for the opening of the conversation that John mentions. And, like him, I am a historian of US history. So, I already bring a fair amount of context within which I place what Rev. Wright - and his critics - say.

One thing I took from Sunday's experience, which builds on something John wrote here, is how we as white folks _feel_ about race. I'm less godly than John (!), so I did not think about a sacred context.

I identify the emotion I feel as "Responsibility": racism is a system, one that has been institutionalized by this culture. Guilt is not a motivating emotion around race, it seems to me. But my responsibility is. Many in the U.S. gained something tangible from the labor of slaves and, long after that time, from the system we developed to manage and exploit them. That system did not disappear or stop when slavery ended: people adapted it to new realities.

One of my responsibilities as someone who inherited and benefits from that system - even though it long pre-dates me - is to work to change it; I would say to fix it, so it matches our ideals about equality of opportunity.

J G-W said...

Robert: Responsibility is next to godliness. :)

The historical context helps. The Black Church (and black pastors) have a long tradition of speaking out in strong terms against American injustice -- at home and abroad. This dates back to a time when blacks could be lynched for saying the wrong thing about America in public. And the Church, protected by the first amendment, was one of the few forums where African Americans could say what they thought without fear of reprisal. And say they did.

When you clear away all the distorted sound bites (for example, the way Rev. Wright was misquoted about HIV), what the flap boiled down to was thinly veiled accusations by the media that Wright (and by extension Obama) was unpatriotic.

But to be honest, what was the first word that entered my mind when I realized that the planes crashing into the World Trade Center was no accident? "FINALLY." Frankly, I was shocked it hadn't happened earlier. And to me the connection between this attack on American soil and American Middle East foreign policy was so obvious, the only thing that shocked me was that everybody else didn't seem to see it... I think I might even have remembered Malcolm X's words about "chickens coming home to roost."

Shouldn't we have a right to discuss the moral consequences of our foreign policy and its relationship to escalating world violence?

And shouldn't Obama have the right to speak for himself on this score, and not be judged by the views of his pastor?