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About the Author
Catherine Meeks, PhD, is a retired professor of African American Studies and serves the Diocese of Atlanta as the Chair of the Beloved Community: Commission for Dismantling Racism.
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Living into God's Dream
Dismantling Racism in America
By Catherine Meeks
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Catherine Meeks
All rights reserved.
Living into God's Dream of Community
Luther E. Smith Jr.
Does racism exist in the United States? This question permeates news broadcasts whenever there are public demonstrations about police brutality against Black citizens, or the Supreme Court is deciding cases on voting rights and affirmative action, or economic reports show that Black and Hispanic communities suffer the highest unemployment rates, or graphs indicate the disparity between the number of Black and Hispanic and White high school graduates, or the mass incarceration of Black and Hispanic citizens as compared to White citizens, or reports are released about the epidemic rate of suicides among Native American children.
Often this question about racism results in a slew of questions. What's the difference between racism and prejudice? Are Black and Hispanic people also racists? How strong are the links between current racial problems and historic realities of enslavement, discrimination, and injustice? Does the focus on racism shift attention away from opportunities for self-determination? Is there biological evidence for the concept of race?
These questions merit rigorous engagement. At the same time we must be aware of how asking more questions can be a strategy to avoid answering the prior question and dealing with its challenges: "Does racism exist in the United States?" The answer is "Yes." This is a fact. No amount of complexity or denial or embarrassment about this fact makes it less true.
Two follow-up questions that are a strategic engagement, rather than a strategic avoidance, of racism are: Why does racism continue to persist? And how can we reduce its poisonous impact on society?
Overcoming deadly forces begins with understanding them. The cancer researcher conducts hundreds of experiments to understand how some cells cause and other cells help to treat cancer. Climate scientists are identifying the major human behaviors that contribute to climate temperature increases that portend catastrophic consequences for all life on earth. And we must have a clear understanding of why racism persists if we hope to engage it effectively.
As I write, there is twenty-four-hour media coverage on Muslims being portrayed as immediate and potential threats to security. Considerable attention is being given to state governors who are refusing to accept Muslim refugees seeking asylum in the United States. However, the rhetoric and many acts of violence against Muslims around the world are also occurring against Muslim citizens of the United States and their mosques. This ethnic and religious bigotry is being headlined as expressions of racism. Critics counter that this inflammatory rhetoric and violent behavior are "un-American."
The critics might be correct if they were only referring to the American ideal of respect and equality for all people regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity. The "un-American" label, however, is grossly incorrect when one surveys American history. Enslavement of Africans, broken treaties and wars against Native American Peoples, abuse of Chinese and Mexican immigrant workers, Jim Crow laws, violence against the most recent waves of immigrants, the rallying of lynch mobs against African Americans and Jews, Japanese internment camps, and the mass incarceration industrial complex are all American realities. Racism persists because its oppressive tenets are woven throughout the whole fabric of American history.
Centuries of racial discrimination and injustice are the foundation upon which current social and economic institutions stand. Education, for example, is touted as a way for persons to participate fully in the American dream of opportunity and resourceful living. Schools, however, report major disparities in the educational achievement of Black and Hispanic students when compared to White students. This outcome is not because White babies are born more intelligent than Black and Hispanic babies. Major factors for this disparity are the differences in educational resources for local schools, the impact of poverty on students' ability to have adequate nutrition and a resourceful home environment for study, and the quality of community life for students. Generational patterns of such factors compound the difficulty in overcoming the problems that current students experience. These generational patterns developed in schools and communities that were afflicted by discriminatory housing, employment, and social service policies and practices. Racism is embedded in how American institutions and systems function.
Racism also persists because a large segment of the population benefits from it. This explains why and how individuals perpetuate the system of racism, even without their conscious awareness of the implications of their actions. The existence of racism relies upon it having the personal commitment of some and the inaction of many.
One of the personal commitments to racism occurs with individuals who value their "White privilege" to the extent that they will mount efforts to oppose policies designed to redress current racial inequities caused by the history of racism. Affirmative Action to admit Black and Hispanic students to colleges is considered discrimination against White applicants who are not accepted for admission. Affirmative action to correct historic discrimination in employment practices is interpreted as the violation of the job-seeking rights of White applicants. In both cases, White applicants resist strategies to dismantle racism when the strategies are perceived to diminish their own opportunities to pursue the dreams they have for themselves. A second group that perpetuates racism includes those White persons who believe they are superior to other races. Maintaining definite boundaries between the races is therefore crucial to preserving their superior and rightful standing in society. The self- understanding as superior is so psychologically fulfilling that such persons will even forego economic benefits that would accrue from associating with other races as equals. W. E. B. Du Bois writes about this occurring in his book Black Reconstruction. Whiteness served as a "wage" that compensated White workers for the income lost from failing to join with Black laborers to demand higher wages. Historian David R. Roediger comments upon Du Bois's analysis in his book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class:
Race feeling and the benefits conferred by whiteness made white Southern workers forget their "practically identical interests" with the Black poor and accept stunted lives for themselves and for those more oppressed than themselves. ... Du Bois held that this would have been a better and more class-conscious nation and world had the heritage of slavery and racism not led the working class to prize whiteness.
Identifying as White can be so fundamental to feeling properly located in the best racial group that "the American ideal" of all persons being created equal is no more than a platitude to explain the superior abilities of those who have risen to the top. A third group unapologetically declares itself to not only be superior to other races, it is active in advocating for racial segregation and even terrorism against other races. Periodically the activities of a few of these groups will surface in the news. The Southern Poverty Law Center's work, however, indicates that hundreds of these groups are pervasive throughout the United States and that their espousal of racism is relentless through rallies, magazine publications, and the various media of the Internet. The fourth group is persons who are actually appalled by racism. However, they are so bewildered by its scope and frightened by possible conflicts arising from their involvement in efforts to dismantle racism that they keep their distance from any kind of activism against racism. This is not only the largest group, it is probably larger than the three other groups combined. Opposing racism but not being active in combatting it sounds rather benign — especially when compared to the attitudes and activism of the first three groups. Forfeiting opportunities to act creatively for race relations may be the greatest contributor to racism's malignant persistence in society. I believe Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was right when he said: "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible." All of us are responsible for the persistence of racism. The failure to be involved in addressing racism is also to be guilty of perpetuating it.
The systemic realities of racism are not immutable. They increase or diminish by the extent of personal and collective involvement we give to combat racism. Individuals giving their hearts to dismantling racism are key to reducing its horrific blight on life. The transformations of hearts alone will not undo racism. Racism is embedded in our institutions. Still, the transformation of hearts is essential to participating in the interpersonal and political processes that result in the transformation of racist systems.
Casting Our Eyes to the Vision
Giving our hearts to dismantling racism is a calling and a challenge worthy of us. Christian commitment, however, should never have being against evil as its ultimate focus. If our faith is reduced to only being against evil, then evil consumes our attention and energies. We then have a perverted devotion to evil — a devotion driven by outrage.
The Christian faith is based upon being committed to God's dream for us personally and communally. Our living creatively into the future involves our devotion to the compelling vision of God's realm of shalom. This is a major biblical theme in Judaism and Christianity. Throughout the sacred Scriptures, God is longing for a people who will become a faithful community of witness to God's commandments and love. The faithful community, in covenant relationship with God, is integral to God's purposes that the whole creation be in harmony with God.
Racism is a social and spiritual crisis. Being motivated against racism is to recognize a major impediment to the realization of this Beloved Community. However, eliminating racism does not, in and of itself, bring forth Beloved Community. Other societal ills are soul crushing. Living in community can be experienced as "hell on earth" when society fails to give sufficient attention to addressing poverty, mental health care, religious bigotry that pits one religion against another, sexism, violence as a chosen remedy to conflict, and hostilities against people because of their sexual orientation. Opposing racism and other social ills need to be rooted in the vision of God's dream of Beloved Community where persons respect, nurture, and love one another as sacred people of God.
The primary significance of this vision to living the Christian faith is recorded in Luke's Gospel when a lawyer stands to test Jesus and asks: "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" And the lawyer answers, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And then Jesus says to the lawyer, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." The lawyer decides to press Jesus on how far this love-ethic extends to others, so he asks a question that shines a light on his assumption that some criteria must be operative to determine who does and does not merit this extravagant love. He asks, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus proceeds to tell him a story about a traveler being brutally assaulted by criminals and left in a critical condition. When persons who were part of the victim's own religious identity saw him, they had excuses to avoid responding to the man's needs. Then a Samaritan, someone whose religion was generally considered despicable, came by and upon seeing the man gave him immediate and longer-term care. Jesus then asks the lawyer, "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The lawyer identifies the Samaritan. Jesus tells the lawyer to continue life by showing this extravagant love to others — even those we think of as being outside the circle of our caring relationships.
This vision and ethic of loving neighbors inspires our commitment to overcome racism. At the same time, the message's simplicity can be disturbing because it eviscerates the excuse that racism is too complicated for personal involvement. Everyone has the opportunity and capacity to act as a neighbor. The message is also disturbing because it compels us to go beyond the homogeneous relational boundaries we have constructed.
In this parable, Jesus not only gives us a command, "Go and do likewise," he provides us a method for honoring what God dreams for us. We are to love God and love our neighbors. The current reality of alienation from neighbors can be overcome through love. We should be heartened in knowing the power of love to overcome obstacles to the community-making purpose of love. And our hearts should rejoice in knowing the assurance of Jesus that in giving ourselves to loving in this way, we "will live." (Luke 10:28).
Howard Thurman: Mentor for Transformation
Howard Thurman's prophetic witness in overcoming racial barriers is a resource for addressing the challenges of racism to Beloved Community. Thurman played a major role in casting a vision of community that is characterized by justice, peace, and a love-ethic that extends to all persons. In addition to the vision, he was a prophetic worker on behalf of a process for community that asserted the power of nonviolent conflict resolution. His work informed the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. to such an extent that King listed Thurman as one of the ten most influential persons of the twentieth century.
In 1936 Howard Thurman was the first African American to meet with Mohandas K. Gandhi. His conversation with Gandhi received national attention as the basis for creating a movement to overcome racial injustice in the United States. His 1944 cofounding of the first interracial and intercultural church (named "The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples"; also known as "Fellowship Church"), in both membership and leadership, in the United States was a pioneering accomplishment to demonstrate the church's capacity to overcome the racial divisions of society. This breakthrough inspired others to establish multi- racial and multi-cultural congregations.
The underlying methodology of Thurman's witness to overcome racial alienation and hostility is presented in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman writes about Jesus's liberating message "to those who stand with their backs against the wall." He interprets Jesus's status as a poor, oppressed Jew as being analogous to the status and plight of African Americans. He then identifies "hate" as a powerful emotion and motivation that pervades society and prevents people from experiencing one another as sisters and brothers.
Thurman concludes that hate begins "in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness." Next, "contacts without fellowship tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic. There is understanding of a kind, but it is without the healing and reinforcement of personality." Third, "an unsympathetic understanding tends to express itself in the active functioning of ill will." And fourth, "ill will, when dramatized in a human being, becomes hatred walking on the earth." This four-phase development of hate serves as both analysis and basis for a healing prescription.
Physical proximity to one another can provide diverse peoples opportunities for caring relationship. However, without sustained interaction and expressions of intimacy among people of different identities, the stage is set for dramas in which hate will be a leading character. Proximity without a process that forms caring relationships is a deadly combination.
Thurman believes that Jesus's love-ethic was the transforming power for liberating the disinherited from the moribund consequences of hatred. In this love-ethic "every man is potentially every other man's neighbor. Neighborliness is nonspatial; it is qualitative. A man must love his neighbor directly, clearly, permitting no barriers between."
Excerpted from Living into God's Dream by Catherine Meeks. Copyright © 2016 Catherine Meeks. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword Jim Wallis,
Introduction Catherine Meeks,
1 Living into God's Dream of Community Luther E. Smith Jr.,
2 Dissecting Racism: Healing Minds, Cultivating Spirits Lerita Coleman Brown,
3 Why Is This Black Woman Still Talking about Race? Catherine Meeks,
4 Mama, It Is So Hard to Be Black in America Catherine Meeks,
5 Diary of a Spoiled White Guy Don Mosley,
6 A White Lens on Dismantling Racism Diane D'Souza,
7 Architects of Safe Space for Beloved Community Lynn W. Huber 107,
8 The American South Is Our Holy Land Robert C. Wright,
9 Getting Dismantling Racism Right in Atlanta Beth King and Catherine Meeks,
Questions for Individual or Group Reflection,