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Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma
By C. Eric Lincoln
Hill and WangCopyright © 1999 C. Eric Lincoln
All rights reserved.
The American Dilemma in Perspective
THE same fetters that bind the captive bind the captor, and the American people are captives of their own myths, woven so cleverly and so imperceptibly into the fabric of our national experience. When a serious candidate for President of the United States can testify candidly, as did Ronald Reagan in his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, that when he was growing up "this country didn't even know it had a racial problem," then the candor of selective ignorance has swung full circle to reemerge as the casuistry of presumptive innocence. Thus the Great American Myth perpetuates itself through all the accidents of our imperfect understanding, so marvelously convenient to what we do understand and affirm.
If the American people ever take seriously the political rhetoric of innocence by ignorance, the erosion of our credibility for world leadership will be even greater than it is at present. Mr. Reagan's posturing was recognized, of course, for what it was — a classic instance of the way in which our systems of anti-values function to protect us from unpleasant realities we do not want to know about. Nevertheless, if we ever get through the mist and the murk of our self-willed naivete, we will discover that our moral values have long since been corroded, that the democratic ideal has been corrupted, and we have allowed ourselves to be transported by dreams that never were to a Shangri La we know does not exist.
That is our dilemma. After the dreaming is done, there has to be an awakening, and the reality of our imperfections must be addressed. Sooner or later the dreams that enrapture us and the tales that regale us must make way for the truth which alone can make us free. All of us. That is our prospect and that is the sobering reality that White Church and Black Church are called to address in the common interest of the faith we share and the fate we must define for ourselves.
The most obvious feature of contemporary American life is violence. Violence stalks us all: the old, the young, the unborn, the rich, the poor, black and white. The high incidence of social aggression which characterizes America and makes us unique among "developed" civilizations is scarcely incidental. It is the inevitable harvest of the political and the moral laissez faire which has strangled the American character for so long that we are hard pushed to distinguish the American Dream from the de facto American tradition. Crime in the streets is warp to the woof of the Watergates and other political crimes which define and shape our contemporary society, and our continual crises in blood are the natural progeny of our crisis in moral values.
Americans like to imagine themselves affronted by the murder of political leaders like the brothers Kennedy or of spiritual leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. But there is cynicism and hypocrisy implicit in our willingness to be shocked by such violence, for violence has long been an integral part of our way of life. It began with the effort to exterminate the Indian; it was confirmed as a way of life in our protracted effort to dehumanize the African. Neither human life nor human dignity is characteristically sacred to us, and the political overtones of the frequent assaults on public officials suggest that life in general is cheap in America. Black life is cheapest of all. It has always been bought and sold with impunity, whether at the slave-auction block, or in the courtrooms, or through a thousand and one sophisticated stratagems designed to exploit whatever values the white man recognized in the black condition — economic, sexual, political, military, psychological, and so on, ad infinitum. Black life is still cheap. And it continues to be a paradoxical aspect of the ecological structure of American civilization.
Life is cheap but violence is not always reliable. The madness that killed the Kennedys; that cut down Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and countless others of recent memory; that struck at Governor George Wallace and President Ronald Reagan is but a logical extension of an implied license to kill if the killing is selective. Official killing is routinely justified if the killer is in uniform and acting under cover of law on behalf of society. It is only when the killing becomes personal that it becomes intolerable. But then it is too late. What this society somehow refuses to grasp is that what happens tomorrow is in part determined by what was accepted yesterday. Who is next is in part already determined by what we have already done or failed to do about who was last. The violence which racks our cities and kills our leaders is a violence America institutionalized in practice, accepted in principle, and acquiesced in by default.
The poor, the black, and the faceless have never been free of the shadow of violence, whether under pretense of law or through tacit consensus. The rivers and bayous of the rural South, like the streets and alleys of the black ghettos which pockmark urban America, have a long, sad tale to tell about violence and about the social, political, and economic forces which converge in the selection of its principal victims. But there is little comfort and less security to be derived from the statistics which make that violence a phenomenon of the ghetto, for there are no physical boundaries for hatred or indifference, and the violence they engender is neither self-regulated nor self-contained. Human sensitivity is narcotized by the implied license for selective aggression, and whenever such violence is permitted or urged upon an approved subject, sooner or later the lines become blurred and one subject becomes as potential as another. It is madness to believe that the forces we have loosed in this society against the black, the poor, the disinherited will retain the power of discrimination. A dog gone mad knows no master — only the taste of blood.
Too many American cities have become camps of hostility. Too many American children have been taught to hate rather than to appreciate. Somewhere the American Dream has gone wrong. What happened to the moral glue, the vaunted ethical principles we relied upon to preserve the integrity of the Dream while we got on with the dreaming?
Power and Responsibility
In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes in trying to rationalize the existence of human society deduced that men organized themselves into social entities for their mutual protection and for the greater enhancement of those qualities of human existence which they as individuals, and collectively, find by experience to be gratifying, or to have value. The alternative to an organized society, reasoned Hobbes, is a "state of nature," a dismal and unrewarding existence characterized by unlimited aggression and counteraggression; an existence in which every individual is a law unto himself, in which there is no definition of morality, and in which force and fraud are the respected instruments for the realization of self-interest, which, in the state of nature, is the sole factor of human motivation.
Men organized themselves into societies because, in the state of nature, life was "solitary, mean, nasty, brutish and short." To remedy such an unattractive existence, each man relinquished a degree of personal, natural autonomy — i.e., the liberty of every man to do what seemed best to him to promote his own interests and to preserve his own existence. The hope was that all men together, society, the confraternity of those who agree to live under the rule of law, might through the resulting collective of power so regulate behavior and the distribution of scarce values as to refine human existence and to broaden somewhat the scope of human motivation.
It is not important that we accept Hobbes's theory as an adequate explanation of social existence. It is important to recognize that the de facto existence of any social entity suggests that it exists for some reason; that that reason must somehow encompass the general and the individual welfare; and that when a society ceases to function in the common interests for which men modify their pursuit of self-interest and accept law and order, then such a society has probably outlived its purpose and its usefulness. In short, a society in which large numbers of people find life to be solitary, nasty, mean, brutish and short is already in reversion toward a state of nature, however it may be styled. When the power which belongs to the people is by whatever artifice arrogated and manipulated in the preservation and extension of selective interests, what stake have the distressed and the oppressed in the responsible maintenance of that society? They have all of the responsibilities of citizens and none of the power needed to fulfill those responsibilities.
Responsibility without power is slavery. Power without responsibility is tyranny. If the interests of the oppressed are not protected, if the power they relinquish is used against them capriciously, if solitariness is exchanged for alienation, meanness for poverty, brutishness for perpetual anxiety, what then is such a society except a sophisticated state of nature? If some are always preselected as the pieces and never the players in the game, for them the game may not be worth the candle. Such is the typical experience of the black and the poor in America, and of such are the contradictions of the American dilemma by which their participation in our common values is conditioned. The ready array of official statistics which tell the hungry how well fed they are, and the magic charts with the inevitably cheerful projections which promise miracle reversals to the derelict and the destitute, provide no satisfactions of substance. Poverty and ignorance are not necessarily the same, and America must beware, lest in our smugness we underestimate the power of the poor to act on their own behalf.
The Power in City Hall
The prime prerequisite of any organized society is power. The corollary of power is responsibility. The logical consequence of legitimate power responsibly exercised is peace, order, and a reasonable participation in the common values of the society. The irresponsible exercise of power is the invitation to anarchy and the prelude to revolution — a proposition to which we have not always given responsible attention. The ultimate expression of power is control, direct or indirect, manifest or covert. The most sophisticated expression of power is control over decisions and the decision-making process. Who participates in the real decision-making process in America? That is an issue for Americans to ponder. And redress.
Life in America is manipulated through the instrumentality of decisions made or avoided. Men who sit in boardrooms remote from the scene make the decisions which control the life circumstances of millions they have not seen, will never see, and do not want to see. When City Hall was lily-white, the procuration of the black ghetto was a national scandal. The power which manipulated the lives and the life chances of millions of Blackamericans was neither benevolent nor benign. It was sinister; and it was programmed to continue indefinitely a black supporting cast for the ego and status needs of the white overculture. As a consequence, the black community lost a little more hope, a little more faith, and a little more commitment to peaceful protest with each new disclosure of abuse. Each morning all over America the great American tragedy was reenacted each time a black man looked at himself in the mirror as he shaved, and each time a black woman put on the face she would wear in her efforts to find bread for her family in the kitchens of the elegant houses far from the decaying flats and tenements of the racial compound to which she was assigned. What each saw in the looking glass was a cipher citizen — an American who would have no serious input in any of the decisions which would determine the quality of his or her significant experiences for that day, or any day; whose life chances had already been programmed with sinister predictability by persons unknown, or, even if known, unavailable and unconcerned.
Wherever the life chances of some are consistently manipulated by others, freedom is in contest and the struggle to redress is inevitable. Where freedom has been long withheld, people who have never experienced it may not know what it is precisely, but they are nevertheless sensitive to the absence of some vital quality which leaves their lives bereft of meaningful participation in the significant experiences of the human enterprise. Conversely, those who distrain freedom from others equate it with privilege — privilege to which they alone are entitled. That is why it is possible that America misread Martin Luther King. Certainly, not many Americans had King's full dream in mind, even though, black and white together, they locked arms and marched through the South with such apparent purpose. But the South was only the symbol, not the problem. The problem was attitudinal, not regional. What Dr. King wanted was not merely to reform the South but to make all America safe for the kind of democracy that could accept full participation of all her citizens, regardless of color. But when the Black Panthers operating outside the South let it be known that they, too, were determined to overcome, and "by any means necessary," their startling assertion of an unconditional commitment to freedom was rejected as the ultimate profanation of the consensual racial understanding thought to be operative in the civil rights movement. While most white Americans cannot visualize a qualified freedom for themselves and their children, the notion that freedom is important enough to black people for them to want to pursue it on its own terms was unthinkable and untenable.
Freedom implies power — the power to be responsible. Such power was unthinkable because black responsibility lay well beyond what liberal white America envisioned when it endorsed the black mission to overcome. The power that shaped life in the black ghetto was not, and is not, of course, black power. It does not originate in the ghetto. It is power from the outside. It is alien power, with many faces. It is the nonresident merchants who come into the ghetto with the sun in the morning, and who leave with the sun in the evening, taking with them the day's toll for their visitation. It is also the vexatious blue presence — that alien, anonymous, contemptuous phalanx known as "the law," but more often than not considered an army of occupation pursuing its own private system of spoils. It is the ubiquitous presence of alien schoolteachers, case workers, process servers, rent collectors, repossessors, bailiffs, political hustlers, and assorted functionaries and racketeers whose economic stakes in the black ghetto require their temporary and grudging presence imposed upon a community they detest and which detests them in return. It is clearly not a question of the right of people from outside the ghetto to live, or work, or maintain businesses there, but the reciprocation of that right is startlingly difficult to demonstrate in suburbia.
It will be argued that City Hall is no longer lily-white; that in fact some of America's largest cities and scores of smaller towns have black mayors and other black elected officials. This observation deserves the closest attention. But in 1983 Blacks still constituted scarcely more than one percent of all elected officials. Meanwhile, black income was only fifty-six percent of whites', down five percent from its best showing in 1970, and while seventy-four percent of all black men over sixteen were employed in 1960, only fifty-five percent were employed in 1983. Other indicators of the economic status of Blacks are consistent. What they say in sum is that, no matter who sits in the mayor's office, the economics of being black are not substantially improved. Not yet. Black mayors win and retain their offices through coalitions with established power, and the significant interests of such power are seldom coordinate with those of the people confined to the ghetto. The black mayor is a symbol, a hopeful sign of the potential power of the black electorate. But if that power were miraculously doubled or even tripled, it would still be potential and there would be no dramatic improvement in the life of the masses who inhabit the ghetto. When the available patronage has been divided and dispensed, the Blacks who benefit substantially will be few in number and the black masses, whose circumstances are the most desolate and the most desperate, will generally remain beyond the effective reach of the most conscientious black mayor. The Irish Catholics of Boston have "run" that city for decades, but the economic power in Boston is not Irish Catholic, a fact with which every Irish mayor has had to come to terms in the structure of his administration and its programs. Who, then, runs the runners while the runners are running the city? Or, to put it another way, what is the power behind the political power that keeps things the way they were? The Blacks in City Hall are an important development toward America's political maturation. Their presence is the best evidence of the political direction the struggle for full freedom must take. But that struggle must ultimately receive ratification from those sources which operate above and beyond the sound and the fury of politics, and from which most politicians are required to take their cues.
Excerpted from Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma by C. Eric Lincoln. Copyright © 1999 C. Eric Lincoln. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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