Tag Archives: race

Wednesday Words: On Race, Tribes and Voting

I get in trouble sometimes for putting two things alongside one another to see how they speak to one another. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

504719990_wide-bff45e75b9cb94f5461dcfe06dd75a367b02d30d-s900-c85I read this article this morning, “A pollster on the racial panic Obama’s presidency triggered — and what Democrats must do now.” I’m eager to delve into Cornell Belcher’s research to see how it holds up. (By the way, he’s not saying everyone who voted against Obama is a racist–his argument is much more nuanced than that, and race is one factor among many. I ask you to engage with what he is actually saying before you argue with it.)

I was especially interested in his critique of the old Democratic trope that people vote for Republicans “against their economic self-interest”:

It’s a disconnect that’s frustrating to me. They’re not voting against their economic interests; they are voting for their higher interests… The idea that you can disconnect white people from their group position and make pocketbook arguments to them void of the history of their group is folly.

…Who are we to say that they’re voting against their economic interests? If in fact you think you’re losing your country, that’s your higher interest, and how in the hell am I gonna prosper if [I believe] other people are taking my country?

The themes he lifts up reminded me of a passage I was reading last night from Steven Pressfield’s book on creativity, The War of Art. It’s not a book about politics, but this excerpt prompted me to reflect on how potent the Trump campaign turned out to be. I’ve tried to abridge it as much as possible:

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride.

What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The dislocation and emasculation by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.

It is the state of modern life.

The fundamentalist (or more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.

To making America great again?

Continuing to ponder all of this, and I welcome thoughtful engagement (and respectful disagreement) as I sort it out.

George Washington, Race, Greatness, and Me (and You)

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Members of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton (Chris Jackson as Washington, far right)

The other day I listened to an interview with Chris Jackson, who recently wrapped up his time playing George Washington in the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Robert and I were fortunate enough to see him in this role last month, and wow. Wow.

The depth of talent in New York is so deep that I have full confidence in Nicholas Christopher, the next Washington, but wow. Charisma for days.

Jackson was talking to Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about race and culture (and an indispensable one in my opinion). Demby asked Jackson about the experience of being an African-American man who is playing a slaveholder. Jackson has said in the past that he’s not interested in “reconciling” those parts of Washington’s character, and here’s part of how he explained that:

He owned people.
He owned people that looked like my father and that looked like me.

I’ve made a compromise with myself. I haven’t compromised my principles. But I told myself, “You have to portray somebody that was behind so many unlikely, breathtakingly genius ideas and who found a way to enact them.” But I’m not the guy to see him as a god. There’s always been a movement to deify [the Founders], and that has its place and is important in terms of educating the public on what we should strive for…

But to almost a person, they were under the mindset that someone who looked like me was not capable of pressing a thought, not capable of civilized behavior, or who had no aptitude for greatness.

And I’ll never make peace with that. But I don’t have to.

I’ve just been editing a section of my book in which I talk about improvisation as having a spirit of “And” rather than “But.” When we learn to improvise, we learn to receive whatever our partner offers onstage (Yes), and then to build on it (And). That doesn’t mean we go along passively with that offer, by the way. If they pull an improv gun on us, we don’t need to let ourselves get shot. But we at least need to agree that the thing they’re pointing at us is a gun, and not, say, a banana.

We have to agree on the reality before we can move forward. (Another post, perhaps, in this era of fake news.)

I hear Chris Jackson talking about approaching the Founders with a spirit of And rather than But.

Because here’s the problem with But. When we use But, we have to figure out which part of the statement is primary. Consider:

George Washington was a wise and discerning leader, but he owned slaves.
George Washington owned slaves, but he was a wise and discerning leader.

Each of these statements suggests a different starting point. Was he a great man, who oh-by-the-way had this terrible blind spot? Or was he at his core a racist, but despite this tragic flaw managed to lead our country with wisdom and strength?

A spirit of “And” means we don’t have to make that judgment, because ultimately we can’t. They are both part of who he was.

Zooming out a bit, in my reading about leadership, I’ve studied some polarity management (enough to be dangerous). My understanding of it is that most problems aren’t really solvable. Rather, it’s more important to manage the various competing concerns so they complement each other in a healthy, balanced way. We seem to have lost the ability to do that in the US, which is odd considering that, at least on the national level, we are basically a 50-50 country.

Yes, there are some ideals upon which we cannot budge an inch and still maintain our integrity. With a president-elect who is appointing white supremacists to his inner circle and talking of a registry of immigrants based on religion, I realize that “And” may sound like capitulation. I’m not willing to go along with actions which, I believe, compromise fundamental American values.

Still I wonder, is there any way to move past this zero-sum mentality in which our leaders (and we the people) seem to have gotten stuck? Are there any issues on which people can come together?

As one of my favorite Presidents, Josiah Bartlet, once said, “Every once in a while—every once in a while—there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country.” I’d like to see us find our way toward a bit more “And.”

Contradiction, polarity, “And,” whatever you want to call it–it’s been with us since the days of George Washington, patriot and slave-holder, slave-holder and patriot.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Word to the Church in Trump’s America

I have been so focused on the book lately that I’ve done no meaningful blogging for a few months now.

The events of last week have convicted me that, book deadline or no book deadline, I need to be writing publicly again.

I have no illusions that a blog is some courageous stand for justice. But what I have to offer are my words and my tiny platform. They will not be enough, and they will not be where I stop. But here is my first attempt.

Today I share two quotes. The first is from Matthew Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary, written on Facebook last week:

This number has haunted me over the last day: 60. Sixty percent of American voters who call themselves Protestant voted for a man who boasts of committing sexual assault repeatedly and with impunity, a man who harnesses vile undercurrents of antisemitism, a man whose words and proposals are the very definition of Islamophobia. Sixty percent.

Those of us who teach and lead in Protestant communities don’t necessarily need to wade into the unfamiliar world of political and economic philosophy. We might stay closer to home and simply ask: What one thing am I going to do today to chip away at the theological assumptions that continue to sow misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and exceptionalism in our “mainline” and seemingly respectable institutions, practices, rhetoric, and confessions? Start with one thing. Then try for two tomorrow.

Second: The other day a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook (disclaimer: haven’t read it) and highlighted the quote:

We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides.

I’m sitting in between those two quotes as I think about my role as a free-range pastor, whose “parish” may be anyone I happen to come in contact with. I’m discerning my call as a flawed and faithful follower of a brown man who stood with the vulnerable and the despised and was killed for it.

How do we cross the ever widening social divides?

I’m not talking about finding common ground with the white supremacists who have felt emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and are now painting swastikas. Maybe someone can do that work, but it’s too unsafe for too many people to wade into that.

But I am interested to understand the appeal of Donald Trump to those who do not march in KKK parades or rip off hijabs. I’m interested in the people who sit in Presbyterian pews and hear the gospel of Jesus Christ preached every week. What did they find compelling enough about his message and plan that they were able to dismiss the very real and very disturbing rhetoric he proffered? It had to be way more compelling than I am capable of grasping.

Some of my friends on the left are not interested in the answer to that question. They say these Trump votes (even lukewarm ones) aided and abetted racism, therefore the people who cast them are racist. (Sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, etc.)

This line of thinking is a dead end. Brene Brown has argued compellingly from research that shaming does not change behavior. Key quote:

Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy.

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.

Researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, authors of Shame and Guilt, explain that feelings of shame are so painful that it pulls the focus to our own survival, not the
experiences of others.

Shame suppresses empathy.
And empathy is the goal right now.

Which brings me back to Skinner’s quote. I’m more and more convinced that the divide in our country isn’t red state or blue state, or black and white, it is urban and rural. The map of the 2016 election makes this clear. (Disclaimer: this isn’t the final 2016 map, but it illustrates the point. Source)

counties

I don’t know very many people living in rural America. And they don’t know me.

But my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has connectional structures in place that can bridge the divide. I have friends I went to seminary with who serve churches in rural areas. We don’t even need to go far—our synods (multi-state jurisdictions within the PCUSA) encompass big cities and small towns and tiny hamlets. We’ve talked for years about whether synods have a purpose—maybe this can be part of their purpose.

The structure is there, but it needs some tweaking. I’m not talking about Suburban Presbyterian  Church swooping into Appalachia and building houses. Nor am I talking about Small-Town Pres trucking into the inner city to provide a day of labor at the various soup kitchens. Yes, as one of my colleagues likes to say, “Doctrine divides, mission unites,” but I don’t think unity is the right goal. Not right now. Things are too fragile. Empathy is the goal. Love of neighbor is the goal.

So I’m talking about cultural exchange. I’m talking about sitting at tables. I’m talking about sharing and bearing witness to stories of painful loss and soaring resilience. I’m talking about the kind of work Columbia Seminary does in its Alternative Context program, in which seminarians visit other parts of the world, not as helpers, not as tourists, but as pilgrims sent to listen and learn.

Advocates for justice movements talk all the time about “peopling” issues. It’s harder to take a stand that hurts LGBT people when you know and care about a specific queer person. I don’t expect the great honor of my friendship to move a Trump voter. But maybe when people start talking about the evil elites on the “Least Coast,” someone who’s met me or people like me will stand up for nuance and understanding. And when someone makes a joke about “flyover country,” I will intervene and say “Not that simple. Never that simple.”

I don’t know who’s willing to undertake such an experiment. But in the PCUSA at least, the structures are there. And the call is urgently clear.

Are there people willing to do this work?

Question: Why must we still talk about race? Answer: Twelve.

During_World_War_I_there_was_a_great_migration_north_by_southern_Negroes_-_NARA_-_559091

Note: This post was picked up by the Huffington Post and you can also read it there.

I’m reading Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me right now. It’s a dissonant experience because the language in the book is exquisite, and the truth of it is tough and hard.

I’m also reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington DC in the early 20th century.

I highly recommend both books, especially if you are white. Read them with an open heart. Read them not to refute, but to understand. Read them in the spirit of Brian McLaren’s joke, “Why did Jesus cross the road?” “To get to the other.”

I hear a good bit of defensiveness from many white people when the subject of race comes up. They don’t understand why we are “still” talking about it. If pressed, they will often insist that they are not racist. They treat people equally. Everyone was nice to everyone in their high school. There was no racial tension.

All of those things may be true. But they’re not the point.

Twelve is the point.

I heard Isabel Wilkerson speak last week while I was at the Chautauqua Institution, just a few days before the anniversary of Ferguson. She began her talk by evoking #BlackLivesMatter. And I could hear some hackles rising. Do you know what hackles sound like? They begin as the sound of shifting in seats. Add some clearing of throats as people get ready to rehearse their “post racial” bona fides to anyone who will listen. It was a polite crowd, and I must say, a well-intentioned one, so the hackles simmered down. They sat and listened. And I hope they heard Isabel Wilkerson offer an offhand remark that, for me, shifts everything:

The institution of slavery persisted for twelve generations of African Americans in this country.

I knew it, but I didn’t know it.

Twelve generations.

Those of us who study the Bible know the power of the number twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel. These tribes were God’s beloved ones. Later Jesus would call twelve disciples to walk with him in faithfulness. A woman reached out to Jesus for healing because she’d been hemorrhaging, her blood spilled upon the earth, for twelve years. And a little girl of twelve was brought to life again when Jesus’ words of liberation and empowerment filled her ears: little girl, GET UP.

For those of us who don’t read the Bible, no matter. Twelve generations is a long time.

Twelve generations of could-have-been.

Twelve generations of doctors and midwives and lawyers and writers, scrubbing floors in the master’s house.

Twelve generations of musicians and architects and sculptors and scholars, picking cotton from dawn until dusk.

And—it must be said, and was said by Isabel Wilkerson—twelve generations of white people who wouldn’t let the doctors heal, wouldn’t let the architects build, wouldn’t let the sculptors create. When you’re keeping a race of people down in the ditch, she said, that means you’re down in the ditch with them. Our history diminished all of us.

That’s why this conversation matters. That’s why we have to talk about it. If you’re not a racist, congratulations. I’m not going to argue with you, because it’s not the point.

Twelve is the point. Twelve is the point.

How long do you think it should take to dismantle twelve generations of racial oppression, not to mention Reconstruction, Jim Crow and its aftermath? Should we be “over it” by now? Ask my friend, who couldn’t get a job interview until she removed her “black-sounding” name from her resume, whether it’s over. Ask the black men in our communities, who are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire, whether it’s over.

My mother has an expression, “When it’s on you, it’s on you.” I didn’t ask for it to be on me—the privilege that comes from being white—but it’s on me. And I’m fooling only myself if I try and insist otherwise, just because we passed the Civil Rights Act and elected a black President.

It’s not about guilt. Guilt is a distraction, a side show, a dead end. My people did not own slaves. But the state of my birth fought under the Confederate flag. And contrary to popular belief, my white children will be more likely to receive a college scholarship than their friends who are people of color.

When it’s on you, it’s on you. And now it’s on all of us to talk about it—and also to listen.

~

During World War I there was a great migration north… painting by Jacob Lawrence.

A Racist Atticus and a Mess of a Book? Bring It On.

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I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.

Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.

Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.

But I say: bring it on.

Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.

I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.

We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.

But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?

In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.

Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.

As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.

~

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