Poll: What do you do? (The Gates arrest saga)

Case study: You are a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts–home of Harvard University. You are a decorated 11-year veteran, and you teach courses on racial profiling. You respond to a 911 call about a possible burglary in progress. Regardless of what happens next [ what they each saw (AP); or police report (pdf); more related links]. . . you have confirmed that the 58 year old black man with the cane in the house is indeed a resident of the home (likely the owner)–no life-threatening burglary is taking place.  You also now know that he works for Harvard University (I don’t know whether the Harvard ID card shows whether he is faculty or not).

BUT now he is angry and continues to loudly berate you for being a racist.

What do you do next?

I guess a lot depends on your temperament and personal history.

See also: America After the Gates Arrest (Reconciliation Blog), theRoot.com (multiple articles), William Easterly: Smart Rules and Stupid Outcomes, or this gem by the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson: Pique and the Professor (I bet he’s right too.)

Whiteness (articles from the Assoc. of Black Anthropologists)

traa - Cover

The latest issue of Transforming Anthropology features part one of a two part series which examines the racialized structural inequalities that continue to exist in America. Included within the series are carefully selected articles that explore how racial and class privileges shaped the past, and the lasting effects on the United States’ political and social environment.

Click on the links below for FREE access to the articles in this compelling series.

as the following essays demonstrate, a failure to critically engage the so-called unmarked status of whiteness, accepting the ostensible transparency of a privileged “white” positionality, creates even greater problems in terms of the asymmetry of power relations within our discipline, even as it perpetuates methodological blindness in our fieldwork practice. Further, it is imperative that anthropology continue to lead the way to a more complex, nuanced, and culturally situated analysis of racism, in general, and of whiteness (and its slippage into and out of other identificatory trajectories), in particular, because of the relationship between assumptions about whiteness and defenses of racist discourse and practice.

About Transforming Anthropology As the chief publication of the Association of Black Anthropologists, Transforming Anthropology interrogates the contemporary and historical construction of social inequities based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, nationality and other invidious distinctions. Published semiannually, Transforming Anthropology reflects the dynamic, transnational, and contested conditions of the social worlds.

Preparing to pursue racial justice (3): taking action

Continued from Introduction and Not so fast:

1. Be honest: admit personal bias & assume systemic injustice

2. Be teachable: educate yourself and then others

3. Become aware: don’t do anything at first; observe, reflect, pray, and become; then become active.


4. Make racial justice a priority & be intentional

The key word here is repentance – making changes in behavior and direction. Change won’t just happen automatically; we will have to be disciplined and intentional. We are going to have to stick our necks out – to take personal risks. If we don’t make it a high priority, it simply won’t happen; the status quo works against it.

5. Be accountable to & build relationships with people of color

We are relational people, and the best way of being transformed is probably through relationships with others. (See Perkins and Rice in More Than Equals.) Ideally, find a mentor, but at least try to find someone who is considered an equal. Seek to form multiple relationships with people of color from varying backgrounds and economic status. This relieves any one person of the burden of having to represent all people of color. Make sure to that you also have friends from different socio-economic classes from your own so-called “race.” All of these relationships help transform us more closely into the kind of image bearer that God calls us to be. Follow the example of Jesus. Ideally, immerse yourself into a predominantly African-American community, attend a black church, and learn to live in their world.

gilbreath-reconciliation-bluesPursue common goals with people of color. Become co-laborers as opposed to just having a relationship for the relationship’s sake. Invest yourself into something they are already doing. This allows you to at least contribute. Having a relationship with a white who is trying to learn about racial injustice is likely to be a big drain on someone’s emotional energy. Being partners allows you to be on the same team working towards the same goals they are rather than being people from opposing sides simply trying to learn to get along (a sure prescription for burnout – See also Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity).

Hold your thoughts and actions accountable to someone of color. This helps avoid the pitfalls of paternalism and misguided thinking. Accountability need not come from someone with whom you have a close relationship. Sometimes hard truth is easier to accept from someone who is not in a close relationship with you – where other interpersonal dynamics do not complicate the issues. Either way, you are going to have to accept constructive criticism graciously, because the truth is likely to hurt.

6. Find your prophetic voice – speak up & take risks

The most effective tool we have is often our own voice – including our written voice. Like the ancient prophetic message of justice and the hard teachings of Jesus, speaking up for justice can illicit negative and angry responses. As whites, we need to draw away some of this negative fire from our black brothers and sisters (they’ve certainly felt their fair share of that); take that burden upon ourselves. We will need to be courageous where truth needs to be spoken. While we should be prepared to “rock-the-boat” if need be, we are more likely to have opportunities to address small things. For example, recently my wife who works in corporate communications, noticed that all the photographs on a brochure they were preparing was reinforcing racial stereotypes. Under “expertise” was a picture of three white men dressed in suits. The section on global compassion featured a picture of poor children – all dark skinned. In that case, all it took to speak for racial justice and illicit change was bringing this observation to the attention of the brochure team. She was simply applying the skills of analysis – of learning how to recognize racial injustice in society – to common every-day activities.

7. Give up comfort & control

If you are in a position of power in a multi-cultural setting, the hardest thing to do may be to give up control. Often that is exactly what has to happen in order to promote racial justice. In my African context, that usually means keeping my mouth shut and refusing to take leadership. I almost always discover that other, more capable leaders, but habits of internalized racial oppression often lead them to look to the white guy first. (And to think that I used to believe this happened because I had some kind of natural leadership abilities. 😉

8. Team up & strategically organize against systemic injustice

Teams are much more effective than individuals. The Damascus Road Anti-Racism team helps establish and train teams that can help churches and other Christian organizations promote racial justice. The first half of their program is simply education. But even that learning takes place in teams that include people of color to provide perspective and accountability. These teams then enter a second phase of more strategic planning. Using the best tools of the corporate world, they draw up a strategic plan with a vision, goals, objectives and action plans for accomplishing those goals. A strategic plan allows the team to break down change into short-term, medium-range, and long term goals. Making change goals measurable also alleviates ambiguity and frustration.

9. Develop, promote or support multi-cultural congregations, communities, or organizations


§ Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim, United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race, New York: Oxford, 2003.

§ Manuel Ortiz, One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996.

§ Stephen A. Rhodes, Where the Nations Meet: The Church in a Multicultural World, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998.

[Previously posted on Christ, My Righteousness.]

Practical steps for racial awareness (2): Not so fast?

See previous post for introduction and:

1. Be honest: admit personal bias & assume systemic injustice

2. Be teachable: educate yourself and then others


3. Become aware: don’t do anything at first; observe, reflect, pray, and become; then become active.

Once we have begun to see that there is a racial problem, we will probably to want to jump into action and fix it right away. We may want to “wipe away the pain that race causes” or look for a quick fixes to rid ourselves of guilt.[1] Church historian Mark Noll says (with special reference to Evangelicals) that Americans tend to be “activistic, populist, pragmatic and utilitarian.” We value action more than careful thought and therefore get caught up in the urgencies of the moment and leave little room for “broader or deeper intellectual effort.”[2] N.K. Clifford is a little more biting in his criticism of evangelicals,

The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection.[3]

If racialization is something steeped in our unconscious worldview, it will take time to begin reorienting ourselves. Like the Old Testament wisdom writers, we will need to observe the world around us and seek God’s wisdom. We will need to ask, what are the problems? Where are we heading? How do class, growing diversity, the economy and politics impact the racial landscape? How do different ethnic groups look at the same issues?[4] We will need to examine where we live, work, study, socialize, relax, and worship and ask how racial injustice has shaped our world. Where is it obvious? Where is it more subtle? How is it reflected in our own thoughts and attitudes? How is it reflected in the structures and organizations in which we participate? What are the values, assumptions, perceptions and patterns of interaction?[5] How might we personally benefit from racial injustice? Are there any economic interests we might subtly be trying to protect? We will need to be thoughtful so that our actions are not paternalistic and do not simply reinforce racial stereotypes or unjust systems.

On the other hand, while we need to begin by observing and learning, we will eventually need to move towards being activist and practical. We must avoid putting off too long by saying, “We really need to acquire more information, read another book, attend one more conference, hold further conversations, in order to ‘clarify the issues.’ Then we’ll act.” [6] We need to be committed to action. There should always be an ongoing relationship between thinking and acting – a hermeneutic spiral – but in the end, we must act. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”[7]

If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. “If an elephant has his foot on the tail of the mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu[8]

All wisdom comes from God, who has given us his Holy Spirit to guide us. In order to effectively promote racial justice, we will also need to seek God through prayer.


[1] Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice. More than Equals: Continue reading

Practical steps for becoming racially aware and promoting racial justice

[Previously posted on Christ, My Righteousness.]
Again, I speak as one white man to other whites. In two earlier posts I talked about the important postures we need to take when beginning to think about our own roles in systemic racism and the emotional explosion that often reacts to growing racial awareness. Today, I move to more practical ideas for becoming more racially aware and to begin promoting racial justices.
If we are interested in racial reconciliation, and we should be, we are going to have to take responsibility and action. [For a Biblical basis for pursuing racial justice you really don’t need much more than the following: 1. God created all humans in his image -dignity, 2. God values justice 3. Love your neighbor as yourself. 4. Jesus and the early church specifically broke down ethnic barriers. 5. We are all one in Christ. 6. God paints a picture of people from every nation and tribe worshipping him together (Rev. 5 & 7)].
Given this biblical narrative, the onus is really on us as whites to take the lead role in educating ourselves and others about deep roots of racism, and being advocates and instruments of racial justice. We are the ones who most benefit from the privileges of the history of race.
To help us move forward with racial reconciliation and healing, I’ve listed a few practical things that whites can do to become advocates and instruments of racial justice:

1. Be honest: admit personal bias & assume systemic injustice

I think the hardest thing for any white person (it was for me) is to admit that we are part of the problem – that we have racial prejudices and we support systems that racially oppress others. (I had grown up in and loved Africa, I had good black friends, etc.) We tend to see racism stereotypically as views that others like skinheads hold. Even if we do admit our own prejudices, it is likely to be hard to see and understand how our innocent behaviors can help maintain systems that racially oppress others. I don’t have time to develop this idea here, but in the interest of racial healing, I’d encourage you to accept as a given – at least at the beginning – that most of systems and organizations in our society and culture benefit whites. As you do the things in the rest of this list, it will be easier to see how our communities and organizations do this. In the meantime, assume that racial injustice is everywhere and try to train your eye to recognize it.

2. Be teachable: educate yourself and then others

It is safe to say that most whites don’t really understand racial injustice. To remedy the ignorance and distorted perspective, we will need to listen both to those who have experienced injustice and those who have more background and experience. Try to understand the history and shifting nature of racism. There are many decent books available at all levels and in different kinds of genres. One good place to start is Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). There are also movies available which address racial injustice. Look at areas where you benefit from being white (privilege). The main thing is to put yourself in a situation where you can be teachable.

In other words to effectively promote racial justice, we must be good listeners. We must set aside our agendas and take the posture of a humble student. When talking to minorities, we will need to check our motives, ask open ended questions, and try putting ourselves in their shoes as best we can. We must also provide a safe place where the frustration, anger and other emotions that result from a lifetime of marginalization and put downs can be honestly expressed. To do this effectively, we will have to check our fight or flight reactions – detachment, ignoring, anger, combativeness, etc – and seek to be as genuinely empathetic as possible. Our goal should be a deeper understanding that goes beyond just the symptoms.


racial awareness and the emotional explosion

Yesterday, I reflected on some important postures we whites need to take in order to become aware of racial injustices and how we participate in racist systems. Today, we look at one of the inevitable results of exposing ourselves in this way – the emotional explosion.

Few subjects are as emotionally volatile as race and ethnicity. When they first started teaching anti-racism, Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips discovered that there was always an “emotional explosion” about four or five weeks into their class. At first they tried to change the structure of the class so that the emotional explosion wouldn’t occur the following semester. It did anyway. Eventually they realized that the emotional explosion was a necessary part of the process and sought rather to channel it in a positive direction. Racial justice needs to be learned emotionally as well as cognitively.[1] We are emotional people, so when dealing with a subject as difficult as racism, uncomfortable emotions are inevitable.

The key is learning to manage our emotions in a wise way. With our emotions, we need to check the source, the usefulness and how we handle our emotions. We need to feel and experience our emotions, use and evaluate what they reveal about our beliefs and purposes, and express every emotion with the purpose of love. Again, we turn to Christian counselor Larry Crabb who lays out three types of reactions to blocked, uncertain or unreachable desires. When we have an inaccurate perception of ourselves and our goals, we tend to react in rage, worry or depressing inadequacy. A more accurate assessment of ourselves and our circumstances can transform these feelings into righteous anger, painful concern or productive sadness.[2] “Our deceitful hearts are capable of hiding strong emotions (particularly rage) which, if recognized and properly handled, could lead to life-changing repentance (Crabb, 185).”

Thus, to effectively promote racial justice, we need to learn to understand and use our emotions wisely.

  1. The first principle is to simply allow ourselves to feel our emotions (186). The common Christian habit of escape and denial of feelings is very unbiblical; the Bible is full of expressions of emotion.
  2. The second principle is to “evaluate and deal with acknowledged emotions (187).”
  3. Third, we need to abandon our self-protection and fearlessly be willing to state exactly how we feel.

Our open expressions should be tempered only by our love for others – not any kind of fear. This is particularly important in our interactions with African-Americans. More importantly, we need to provide safe environments for blacks to express their emotions honestly – especially anger, which is present in nearly all American blacks who have been dealing with injustices all their lives.[3]

Rather than reacting negatively to this anger, we must seek the reasons behind this anger and learn not fear it.

[1] Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips, Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach, (New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1997), 4.

[2] Larry Crabb, Understanding People, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 177-182.

[3] Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000 revised edition), 95.

Preparing ourselves for becoming agents of racial justice (esp. important for cross-cultural ministry).

As part of the wind-down this week, I’m going to publish a few brief of posts to people like myself – whites interested in being racially aware and instruments of reconciliation and justice. These will include some important postures for any “whites” involved in cross-cultural settings.

Going in, we need to be aware that we are in for embarrassment, pain, and shame. If we truly are going to be agents of healing and reconciliation, our deepest faults are going to get exposed – even in those of us that are most well-meaning.

Racial injustice at the personal level seeks to distort our identities and harm our relationships. The process of understanding the roles we play in a racialized society and changing our thoughts and behaviors is Continue reading

Before you pose for that photo with that Obama cutout, check out those white hands

. . . Everyone’s favorite cardboard president is not our president at all. Look closely from the neck down. Look at the hands poking out from the sleeves. They are white. Yes. That’s right. Look. The ubiquitous Obama cutout seems to have a white body—one that’s about 30 pounds heavier, with clearly white, wedding band-less hands, holding glasses that Obama doesn’t wear—beneath the head of the real 44.

Just when we thought the nation was finally in black hands!  . . . ;-).

[And my favorite line]. . . Apparently, finding a generic photograph of a black man in a suit was too much to handle out in Utah.

Read the whole story at the Root.com – Black President, White Hands; it’s got a lot of funny lines.obama-cutout

American evangelicals and race 2: today

It is easy for people like us today to think we are progressive and play no part in racism. The brief history of evangelicals and racial injustice (see earlier post)demonstrates that while the contexts and forms may be different, white evangelical thinking about racial problems today shares many similarities with the past. Most evangelicals – if they even see a problem – still tend to focus on the need to improve interpersonal relationships.  Again, we turn to Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000),

emerson-divided-by-faithCommon terms used to describe the race problem were prejudice, bigotry, anger, ignorance, lack of respect, fear of each other, poor communications, individuals hating or being angry at each other, and lacking Christ-like love for one another (75).

Most white evangelicals, directed by their cultural tools, fail to recognize the institutionalization of racialization – in economic, political, educational, social, and religious systems. They therefore think and act as if these problems do not exist (171).

Only a few actually seem willing to challenge the economic and cultural systems that preserve segregation and inequity. There continues to be a strong desire for separateness, if not explicitly stated, at least betrayed by actions. Even where intentions seem more pure, many of the solution to race problems proposed today are not that different from those proposed in the past. In essence, white evangelicals continue to be blind to what people of color experience, and as a result, their attempts as solving the “racial problem” reflect this ignorance. “With regards to reconciliation, whites often approach it with the expectation that black people will assimilate and essentially ‘become white’” (Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice. More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Rev ed. InterVarsity, 2000, 76.)

Even so-called progressive whites tend to dominate leadership structures in multi-cultural settings. Without giving it a second thought, they just assume that they have the gifts and skills for leadership. On the whole, whites tend to be fairly ignorant about – and definitely uncomfortable in – black cultural settings, and so blacks and whites rarely have close, confiding friendships (Perkins and Rice, 77). Given this data, the possibilities for racial justice look quite bleak. Although, Emerson and Smith do not propose any grandiose solutions, they do warn against culturally shaped one-dimensional assessments and solutions. Instead they challenge us to think more seriously about the multi-dimensional problems of racialization and dialogue with others educated on the subject (Emerson and Smith, 171).

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I don’t need God, but those Africans sure do . . . (on Matthew Parris’s popular column)

For the last month, a Matthew Parris Times column – As an Atheist, I truly believe Africa Needs God – has been making it’s way around the Christian blogosphere and Facebooking world (too many to link to). Today, I got yet another e-mail suggesting I read this great article, so I thought I’d better join What an African Woman Thinks and finally post this qualification – incomplete as it is here.

I confess that my first response was as enthusiastic as many of the others I’ve read. Finally, someone without any particular missionary agenda (an atheist no less) recognizes the difference God makes – a difference that goes beyond what NGOs and economic aid can offer.

I don’t want to take anything away from that, but as I read further and began to reflect, I started to feel a little bit queasy. Here’s why:

Continue reading

American evangelicals and race 1: pre-civil rights

Many whites express fatigue with the subject of race and feel like everything has been rectified with the legal changes wrought by civil rights. Now that Obama has been elected President, many feel like they can rest their case. Unfortunately, we’ve still got a long, long ways to go.  Years ago, Spencer Perkins wrote that given that America has been working on racializing society and oppressing blacks for three hundred years, we should not expect everything to be rectified in thirty? (Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice. More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Rev ed. InterVarsity, 2000, 96.)

Looking at how the American church has responded to racial injustice over the years can be very instructive for our blindness to the present. emerson-divided-by-faithMichael Emerson and Christian Smith do exactly this type of analysis in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 22ff) Before the start of the eighteenth century, only Quakers and a few others opposed slavery. Once they saw its economic advantages, most Anglos began to feel like slavery was necessary for survival. Initially when slaves became Christians, they were freed. But when economic ramifications were realized, the church quickly modified its beliefs and liturgy to insure that they would not be considered as equal –i.e. “free” – brothers and sisters (p. 23).This same concern for economic success led George Whitfield, of the Great Awakening, to lobby Parliament for the introduction of slavery into America’s newest colony, Georgia, where slavery was initially forbidden (26). Eventually, an abolition movement arose – partially due to Continue reading

Band-Aids, doll babies, and racial shades of beauty

Since almost all my daughters’ friends are various shades of brown and black, I’m frequently struck by the prominent shades of Band-Aids (or plasters as they are called here) and dolls. I remember walking into a drug store in N.E. Washington, DC and being unable to find a dark shade of Band-Aid for the kids I was working with. I thought about it for a minute and realized that, in this predominantly African-American part of the city, I was probably the only white guy who was going to be in that drugstore that day. Still, all the Band-Aids blended much better with my pink skin than they did with just about every other customer. Since then, I have seen some darker shades, and clear ones help, but check out the Band-Aid selection next time you are in a store. All the Band-Aids for kids in our house are now flashy kid colors – blue, yellow, red, green, purple, etc.

Finding multiple shades of dolls is another problem. Sadly, even when Christi does find black dolls for all the girls to play with, Kiara and Leila’s African friends (from all over the continent) still prefer the white-looking  dolls; white dolls are “more beautiful” they argue (even when they are identical except for color). Do we need any more evidence of the powerful impact of popular imagery (TV)? Christi’s had to do a lot of work building the self image of these young girls as black, brown, and beautiful.

Reconciliation blog brings attention to the culture clash over dolls and quotes a comment under a post by  Noble Mother that talks about her conflicted feelings over Bratz dolls – they like the color, but does not like the materialistic diva image.

Until the Bratz dolls came on the market, my daughter [black dad; white mom] just wasn’t really interested in dolls of any kind. She and I have lots of conversations about ‘what she is’…and she’s decided she’s not white, she’s not black, she’s brown. She’s often asked why there are never any brown babies in the stores? There are white and there are black, but not brown. And I’m sure she’s not been the only little girl asking this question.

The Bratz dolls, while I have major issues with many other factors about them, have given my daughter a sense of validation of her color. Now, there are dolls on the store shelves that look just like her. She no longer has to decide whether she wants a white doll or a black doll…she can get one that looks just like her.

Gilbreath asks:

Does Barbie represent an increasingly outdated notion of what “normal” mainstream culture looks like, while the Bratz signify a more multiethnic (or urban) aesthetic that is underrepresented among children’s dolls today? Even millionaire celeb Angelina Jolie, who adopted an African daughter, spoke up on this recently saying,

“and I look for a Barbie that’s African, and the African Barbie has straight hair! And you know, why has Disney never made a film with an African-American princess?”

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The importance of positive images (race & society)

Images in popular culture are powerful. When Christi and I first saw David Palmer on 24, long before Obama ever burst onto the scene, I remember saying to her, “This is great for America! It will help get a lot of people more comfortable with images of a very good president who is also very black.”   Earlier this week, Edward Gilbreath, pointed out a short article on UrbanFaith.com about the “Huxtable Effect.” “This is the notion that the middle-class African American family portrayed in Bill Cosby’s famous ’80s sitcom, The Cosby Show, had an impact on the way Americans voted in last month’s presidential election.”

I don’t want to take anything away from Obama’s brilliant campaign, but I suspect these positive images did help him pick up a few votes – especially from some of those who might otherwise harbor fearful emotions of one kind or another (and I certainly heard plenty of those).

Regarding the Huxtable effect, UrbanFaith article adds a qualification that makes an important point.

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, the columnist who coined the term “Huxtable Effect,” has since claimed the media misinterpreted what she was saying. “What I actually posited was much more complex than that,” she clarified. “I said that the social norms of a population are generally formed through its popular culture.” [emphasis mine]. In other words, our entertainment actually sets the standard for the public perception of what is socially and politically acceptable over time.

Gilbreath notes that Tiger Woods may have helped, and one of the comments on his Reconciliation blog post says: “I think Colin Powell and Condelezza Rice should be given some credit, too. We saw Bryant Gumbel on the morning news every day for several years. It all works together. Shirley Chisholm. Barbara Jordan. Andrew Young.”

Who would you add to this list? What popular images have shaped some of your perceptions? What does this about the importance images on TV, in popular fiction? What can we do about this?

Next: Who do I see when I hear “African-American” – the personal images.

Coming next week: Thinking about images of Africa: On one of my “most favoritest” blogs, What an African Woman Thinks, Rombo reflects on the implications of popular imagery for our dreams of Africa. (I have a few posts on that subject in the pipeline.)

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Something dramatic just happened in America’s moral economy

In the last couple of days, I’ve been touched by reading articles and posts by African Americans that have been deeply moved by Barak Obama’s election. As you already know, I was moved for many of the same reasons, but obviously, I can never feel it as deeply as they feel it (nor can the younger generations feel it like the older generations). My challenge to my white friends is to read some of these reflections and try to absorb some of the history and emotion. This is a very teachable moment, and it may help us begin to change the way we think about certain things. (These examples just happen to be from sites I regularly peruse; I’m sure there are many more.)

Eugene Robinson – (Washington post): Morning in America

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In our Lifetime (the Root): “From toiling as White House slaves to President-elect Barack Obama, we have crossed the ultimate color line.”

Alice Walker – an Open Letter to Obama (The Root)

Edward Gilbreath – What Obama, Tchaikovsky, and Dante Have in Common (Reconciliation Blog)

Todd Burkes – I wish you could have been here. (Follow)

Kevin Merida: A Day of Transformation: America’s History Gives Way to It’s Future (Washington Post)

. . . Presidential elections often reveal something about the nation’s character, its temperament and state of mind. Many who are wondering how it happened that Barack Obama was elected president this season are also wondering what else they may be missing in their cities and towns and neighborhoods. Transformation rarely announces itself with trumpets. It usually happens gradually, over time, and then — clang!— a singular moment chimes the news. From its founding, the United States has seen itself as a special place, an example to other nations, a “city on the hill.” With the election of its first black president, it can now begin to erase one of the stains on that reputation, one that repeatedly shamed us in front of other countries. . .

Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Man of Tomorrow (Washington Post) – sort of a side note.

I also liked this quote about where Obama stands (and differs) with other civil rights leaders – some perspective: “He ran the last leg of a 60-year tag race . . . The wall is down now. Barack must build the bridge for the next generation.” He leapt the tallest barrier. What does it mean for Black America? (Washington Post)

BONUS: Here is a looong New Yorker article that I highly recommend: The Joshua Generation: Race and the Campaign of Barack Obama

As white Americans (especially white evangelicals), we need to come to grips with the reality that something deeply significant just happened in the moral economy of our nation. Let’s put our political reservations aside for a minute and wholeheartedly celebrate what this means within the moral paradoxes of our nation’s history.

Disclaimers: This is only a beginning, and the harsh political realities will emerge soon enough. As far as I recall, none of these writers is saying that Obama is the messiah; this is bigger than any one individual. Also, I do make a distinction between celebrating this moral milestone and Obamamania. Some people (worldwide) might as well be cheering for their favorite sports team; it almost cheapens it for the rest of us.

I cried, and Liam stole my snack

I didn’t stay up to watch the election results; I got a good night’s sleep. I woke up this morning and turned on BBC radio just in time to hear McCain’s concession speech. Christi and I went downstairs in the apartment of our Sudanese neighbors to watch Obama’s victory speech (we don’t have a TV.) Liam (my 2 year old son) had fallen down on his way to school; he walked back to be comforted and joined the festivities.

The speech was vintage Obama, but I’m not big on hype or political rhetoric; I remember Bush saying many of the same things when he was first elected (obviously not as eloquently).

But when the speech was over and Michelle Obama walked out onto the stage, the tears suddenly came (for Christi too). The symbolic importance of this moment for America and the world cannot be overestimated. I know it’s not perfect, and the real work is just beginning, but a critical threshold has just been crossed. That this barrier has been broken means a lot to me, and it makes me feel real good right now.

In the meantime Liam, rummaging through my backpack, takes out my banana bread snack, adds it to his own, zips up his backpack, and – with a smirk on his face – trudges off to school ;-).

Other random thoughts:

  • I’m really glad the campaign is over.
  • Will all the lobbyist have to learn how to play basketball now? (Reflecting on Obama’s election day activity.)
  • Christi on seeing Joe Biden on stage: “Joe Biden just got a free ride. He must be thinking, ‘boy was that easy.'”
  • I appreciated McCain’s concession speech, but we haven’t arrived with regards to race; we’ve still got a long way to go – on Main Street as it were.
  • It’s all downhill from here (once the realities of Washington strike); wait, we still have the inauguration. I’m counting the the First Lady to help the president keep it real.

With apologies to all my really conservative friends, I’m going to enjoy this moment.

Millenials and race

Saaret E. Yoseph – Gen Y and the Colorblind Lie:

. . . Millennials like myself are often steeped just as deep in the troubles of race as generations before us. This isn’t to say that advancements haven’t been made. Civil rights, career options for minorities and intercultural dynamics have no doubt improved in America since my parents’ day. But progress in regard to race is not linear—it never has been and never will be. Every generation has different ways of dealing with the rainbow-colored elephant in the room; influenced, no doubt, by previous eras, but distinct in its own right. We Gen Y’ers, born between 1978-1997, handle race with our own brand of complexity. . .

. . . Los Angeles Times writer Rosa Brooks discussed the impact of race on my generation in her January 2008 piece, “Sex, Race and Gen Y Voters.” Brooks explains:

“[Younger] Americans just don’t think about race in the same simplistic ways [as Americans over 40]. They’re more likely than older Americans to be minorities themselves, for one thing. In 2006, only 19.8 percent of Americans over 60 were minorities, compared with about 40 percent of Americans under the age of 40. And younger minorities come from a far wider range of racial and ethnic backgrounds than their older counterparts.”

So, we’re mixing more than ever. That’s for sure. But diversity doesn’t necessarily equate to cultural understanding. Gen Y’ers often deal with race in an overt, in-your-face manner through jokes, stereotypical references and cultural tourism. David Tarrant hit these complications dead-on in his January 2006 article for the Dallas Morning News, “Should Race Still Matter to Gen Y?” . . .
. . . Note: Knowing every line of a Lil’ Wayne song does not mean you know the black experience. The black experience cannot be defined one-dimensionally, especially not in the lyrics of a single track. Neither can the Latino experience, or the Asian experience or the white experience. Yet, somehow my peers and I feel more comfortable skimming the surface rather than sitting down for an honest discussion about race. . .

The ongoing racial divide in America

NY Times article: Poll Finds Obama’s Run Isn’t Closing the Divide on Race.

Note the HUGE disparity in perceptions in this NYTimes poll; the first two questions pretty much say it all. At least most of us agree that America is ready for a black president. Then again, we “disagree on almost every other question about race in the poll.” I’m actually not that surprised.

Click here for complete poll results (pdf):

racial assumptions

A great little story about a visit to church followed by this conclusion –  Judging a book by is racial cover (Everyday Sociologist)

. . . This Easter Sunday experience was a great lesson in how prejudice works: Using the information we have, based on our often narrow personal experiences, we decide where someone fits in the world. Those prejudices may take the form of race, class, gender, sexual orientation or any other lens that we choose to wear. Also, context matters.

[My own story]: When we lived in Paris, my pastor – black and muscular – visited us from the US. After lunch at a corner café, the waiter came up and handed him the bill. Though he was my guest and I happened to be paying that day, we both remarked that someone finally recognized that the older more distinguished gentleman is the more likely one to be paying the bill (after all he is the one with two masters degress and a PhD.)  I can’t tell you how many times we had eaten out in the US on his dime, but the waiters handed me the bill because I was white. France has it’s own set of racial issues, but this French waiter got it right.

Racism, wealth, and payback

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to remind others (and myself) about the ongoing consequences of American slavery and other elements of our racialized past. In yesterday’s The Root, William Darity (Duke) and Kirsten Mullen remind us of a very important dynamic that most of us miss – The Big Payback:

. . . The effects of American racism are pernicious. To illustrate, we would like to examine just one area of adversity for African Americans—accumulating and passing wealth to subsequent generations.

Estimates derived from the 2002 Survey of Income and Program Participation indicate that median white household net worth is about $90,000 and median black household net worth is about $6,000. Black profligacy or exceptionally poor black portfolio management cannot explain this staggering disparity. Studies by economists Maury Gittelman (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), Edward N. Wolff (New York University), Ngina Chiteji (Skidmore College) and Darrick Hamilton (The New School) show that at each income level, blacks have a savings rate at least as high as whites and earn a slightly higher rate of return on their portfolios.

The primary source of individual wealth today is either an inheritance or a transfer of resources from living relatives. We don’t typically view parental gifts to newborn children, young couples purchasing their first house or sons and daughters enrolled in college or university as transfers of wealth. But that is precisely what they are.

African Americans have not been able to make major transfers in wealth across generations because they have been denied the capacity to accumulate wealth. . .

Read more of The Big Payback

Note that this is just one tangible consequence of slavery and racism. Slave owners’ propensity for breaking up families strikes me as another evil affliction that likely had lingering effects for several generations.

But poverty brings with it enough challenges of its own. The book Blaming the Victim by William Ryan comes to mind. While this book is now dated (1970s), its way of exposing the lies we tell ourselves about race, poverty, the poor, and the powerless makes it a classic. It’s not unusual for me to hear some of this same distorted thinking applied to poorer Africans by some of my Western friends.

Regarding wealth transfer: My own parents, being missionaries, didn’t have a whole lot to pass on to me, but there were some key “tipping points” where small infusions of inherited “wealth” (little as it may have seemed) paid huge dividends in the long run. Sometimes it was as little as a couple hundred dollars which freed me to pursue opportunities which in turn led to greater opportunities. At other times, it was a car that allowed me to take a better jobs. The education help was priceless.

I know the topic of reparations is complicated; most of us don’t want to give up what little we think we have rightfully earned, but true reconciliation and justice will have a price. Rrom now on, let’s at least not pretend that the playing field has been level. Those who have “made it” have had to overcome huge odds. We’ve got a long ways to go; the majority of us have benefited from slavery and racism in ways we don’t even realize – and don’t want to think about.

UPDATE: Rereading racism as a theological problem (a post by Celucien L. Joseph), I saw that he makes some important points about grappling with our past:

So there’s an urgent need for all of us to take a step forward to bring an effective healing to this great sin. By not engaging about the problem of racism, contemporary theologians and scholars are treating “the nation’s violent racist past as if it were dead” (Cone, Risks of Faith, 132). The great American poet, William Faulkner reminds us, “the past never dead; it is not even past.” In other words, “There can be no racial healing without dialogue, without ending the white silence on racism. There can be no reconciliation without honest and frank conversation” (Cone, Risks of Faith, 136). White theologians, in particular, need to “address the radical contradiction that racism creates for Christian theology… and need to write about slavery, colonialism, segregation, and the profound cultural link these horrible crimes created between white supremacy and Christianity” (Cone, Risks of Faith, 130).

Kenyan commentary on Americans and race

I keep a running list of articles and posts I think are worth reading on the right – “Links of the Day.” (If you click on header, it takes you to a page with summaries – for longer articles – and an occasional note.) I’m not sure if anyone is actually looking at it, so I thought I’d pull this particular article for those of you like me, who like to keep an eye on race discussions around the world. Kenyan papers are as full of Obama.

Why Obama is black, not white (by Philip Ochieng) – The East African

WHY IS THE WHITE MEDIA SO preoccupied with Barack Obama’s race? Is it because the young Illinois senator could become the first black person to be elected president of a predominantly white country? If so, then it is a sad commentary on white psychology. . .

. . .Indeed, Richard Dawkins, the outspoken Oxford evolutionary biologist, is germane here because he shares something vital with Barack Obama Senior and myself: All three of us were born in Kenya many decades ago. . .

. . . Writes Dawkins: “People who are universally agreed by all Americans to be ‘black’ may draw less than one-eighth of their ancestry from Africa, and often have a light skin colour well within the normal range for people universally agreed to be ‘white’.”. . .

. . .But if Naisbitt is right to say that there is no such thing as a blend or a melting pot as far as the ethnic spirit goes, surely Allan Bloom, the respected Chicago educator, is also right. Fundamentally, all these European ethnic groups and other immigrants have, over a protracted period of time, become homogenised.

Yet this is correct only up to a point. Only in the liberal ideology of individualism — only in greed, in the go-getting spirit, only in the ferocity with which that quest is pursued — is it possible to become an American overnight — not in terms of essence, not in terms of ethnicity and race.

Bloom states that any immigrant can become an American the minute he or she lands on the Atlantic shores of that country. In other words, there is nothing easier than to become an American. But there is a racial element even in this. Bloom’s assertion is correct only to the extent that it refers to white individuals. . .

. . .No race, nation or tribe is ever tyrannical or chauvinistic “by inclination,” that is to say, genetically. The British Empire was tyrannical in whatever way you look at it. But “inclination” had nothing to do with it. It is not the British people who are to blame — although all classes of British society were seduced into racism by the propaganda of the upper classes.

It was the economic interests of these classes that come into play. Such interests are what propel all empire-builders. Tyranny and empire-building are attributes of civilisation, culture and opportunity.

Moreover, it is a class question: Lower-class members of the same race, nation or tribe will equally suffer from it under the illusion that they are actually beneficiaries — as Kenya’s own elite Gema grouping seduced the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru masses into believing that their interests are identical even as their Kamatusa counterparts were doing the same to the Kalenjin, Maasai and Turkana masses.

Tyranny over other nations can assume national proportions only to the extent that the ruling class of one race can turn a whole nation of a different race into a class targeted for exploitation. Racism becomes a national thought-habit only to the extent that the lower classes are deeply swayed by the prejudices, trappings, ideas and practices of the ruling classes within the same nation and race. . .

To those who are familiar with America’s racial history, none of this will be new. It’s a long article with plenty to mull over and likely a few things to disagree with. Click here for the whole article.