Books and Bling

Books and Bling
January 16, 2005
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I was with my mother in Boston for most of this week, helping her around the house after her back surgery last month.  I drove back to Binghamton Friday night after dinner.  Before I left I called my wife to let her know I was about to head out and was warned that there was significant ice affecting the driving conditions around southern New York and that I was to be cautious while traveling through the evening and night.  The roads around Boston were clear of this sort of trouble.  Traffic and construction were the hazards I had to watch out for there.  Actually, I made it home without incident, but there was one point on the trip when I was worried.  I was climbing through western Massachusetts toward the Berkshires when I realized the road stretching before me in the passing lane was dark compared to the light grey lane of the right lane where the truck was.  A thought flashed through my mind, “I’m driving on ice while passing a truck going up hill at seventy miles per hour in the late evening hours.”  The fear that gripped me and froze my heart almost caused me lose control of my senses and my vehicle.  But I could tell, after a quick check, that the wet road was not frozen and that was in full control of the situation, and I continued cautiously on my way.

There are situations in life where it feels like we have suddenly found ourselves metaphorically on an icy incline that, while not physically life-threatening, is fear-inducing all the same, and we freeze up and even lose our senses.  For many people who care deeply about equality and justice, the issue of Racism can be a slippery situation causing us to freeze up.

The article I used for our reading this morning had a long thread of responses on the website that were shown immediately following the article.   I considered printing out the article along with all the responses, the article was about two and a half pages long while the responses would have been well over a hundred pages.  This topic sparked a lot of conversation.

One of the responses began with this confession, “I do have a level of discomfort, maybe even fear, in discussing racially relevant topics with members of the black community.  I feel that I need to be on guard for personal attacks of racism due to my membership in the white community and how that membership is perceived in regards to racial and social dynamics in this country by members of the black community.”

I don’t think this discomfort, even fear, is uncommon.  I remember the story of two friends on there way to a meeting titled “A conversation on race and religion.”  The one friend (who was white) commented to his black friend, “I must admit, I’m a little scared that if I try to participate I will say something really stupid and embarrassing.”   His friend smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you will.”

Racism has grown complex over the years since Dr. Martin Luther King brought about the revolution to end the legalized segregation of black and white people.  Each time we stamp out a large chunk of this problem, multiple smaller insidious versions of the same root take hold and begin to grow.  Racism has become difficult to define because as the actions borne of racist attitudes become unacceptable and even illegal, those attitudes remain to be dealt with.  It was easy to just look at actions: do you fight for segregation and status quo?  Or do you fight for civil rights and racial equality?  Now, it can be a little tricky trying to sort out just what exactly constitutes racism.   Yet racism is still having its devastating impact on minorities.

Most Americans still live, work, worship, and are educated in a racially segregated America.  It was Billy Graham who said back in the 60’s “The most segregated hour in America is still eleven o’clock, Sunday morning.”  We each live like Dillard’s pet Amoeba, in a universe “two feet by five” and are confused or frustrated by (or simply dismissive of) those things that do not fit what we know to be true. The limit of our vision may translate into so many areas of life.  At different times it will prove to be different things for you.  For me, Racism has been at times one of those things that does not fit what I know to be true.

I grew up in the suburbs of Rochester New York, a city with significant racial problems that I didn’t see until I moved back there for a summer as a young adult.  I grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, having missed the turmoil of the Sixties.  I was concerned about nuclear war and sexism and Reagan-omics, but racism didn’t impact me and I suppose I thought it was not a big deal; that it had been dealt with.  My “two feet by five” universe had not introduced that issue to me yet.

I could have been one of those people who would have said, “I’m color-blind.  Race doesn’t matter.  I don’t care if you’re Native American or Asian American or African American or Cuban American.  Hey, drop the extra stuff, we’re all Americans!”  I didn’t see that this translates to “they” can join “us” who are just plain regular Americans and “they” can leave their extra identities at the door.  Well, thankfully my “two feet by five” universe grew a little and I saw that not only is that not going to work because people should not be required to leave any portion of their identity at the door; it also could not work because I have an ethnic identity not to be dismissed.

I am about half Irish, a good bit English, a little Polish, German, and some other ancestries thrown in.  Ethnically, I am a Northern European mutt.  But that still has an impact on who I am.  And yet, I and many, many people who are nothing like me, are clumped together under the racial category of ‘white.’

In their book A many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Steve Kang, and Gary Parrett team up to explore how ethnicity and multiculturalism affect the dynamics of spiritual formation.  In the beginning of their book they define their terms and offer this for Race:

Using various biological criteria to locate the concept of race in the disciplines of science – for example, focusing on blood groups, skin color, cranial and skeletal features, and DNA – has not yielded a coherent definition of race.  The resulting typologies based on the use of different classificatory criteria can only be construed as arbitrary demarcations that lack biological significance and integrity.

Generally speaking, most people can tell if someone is of European, African, or Asian decent, based on his or her skin color or hair or maybe by the eyes or nose or something like that.  Yet unless you can determine biological criteria that holds for every individual you have to concede that the distinctions are arbitrary.

I remember encountering an example of this in connection to DNA.  A geneticist and scholar from Ghana basically showed that if you randomly picked out two people from the entire population of our planet and took a sample of tissue from each, examined it at the level of the chromosomes, you would have an 85.2% chance of finding the same characteristics. If you did the same thing only limited your sample of human being to the population of England, you would increase that chance to 85.7%. “In other words,” this geneticist wrote, “aside from being able to predict the grosser physical attributes of color, which defines the racial categories, a person’s race has virtually no predictive value at any biological level.” (Kwame Appiah, In My Father’s House)

Yet contrary to this geneticist’s statement, the grosser physical attribute of color even fails to bring a clear definition with absurd qualities including the “one drop of blood” concept where the child of a biracial couple is considered to be in the racial category of whichever parent is darker, rather than a member of both groups.  Even the choices of color names like black, red, white, and yellow (??) when we’re all really shades of brown.  I, for example, am sort of a pinkish-sandy color.  This isn’t to say Race does not exist or is not real.  This is simply to say that Race is not a biologically ground fact. It is a social fact, a social construct whose elements include aspects of ethnicity and ancestry, but only because it is also about history, culture, and self-identity.

In a book published in 2000 entitled Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, the authors investigate attitudes of race and ethnicity among evangelical Christians.  One insight that comes up that I find so compelling (and I see over and over again) is the distinction between personal responsibility and systemic or structural issues is regard to racism.

[Emerson and Smith] point out that blacks and whites view the sources of racial tensions very differently, with whites tending to look at the problems as individualistic and blacks tending to see structural issues as the primary source.  In the interviews they conducted, the authors found that whites were particularly irritated when suggestions were made that anything other than individual responsibility was to blame for the plight of poor blacks.  In fact, whites seemed more irritated by the thought that inequities between whites and blacks might be due to structural issues than they were by the inequities themselves!   (Conde-Frazier, Kang, & Parrett A Many Colored Kingdom; p9)

This is where Cosby made his misstep.  He started talking about personal responsibility instead of the structures and institutions that continue to oppress poor black people.  Interesting, isn’t it; that each side of the black/white division only wants to be talking about the part they can’t control!  At least according to the books and the analysis, black people tend to say, “All the trouble is because of the institutional racism supported by white people in positions of power.”  Meanwhile white people are always talking about how “every individual has the responsibility to deal with the consequences of his or her own choices.”  Suddenly a black celebrity holds a mirror up to his own community and says, “We are not doing a good job with our parenting skills and our attitude toward quality education.  We need to take more personal responsibility.”

What would we be saying to ourselves if we could stand to hold such a mirror up to ourselves?   What part of the system of racism in our nation do you and I have some control over?  Well, of course the answer does not include any specific actions.  The mirror would show us our communal attitudes.  First off, it would be helpful for all Americans to recognize the distinct facets of their culture.  Instead of saying, “I’m white I’m just a basic American, I don’t have a special culture,” you might say, “My people are emotionally subdued, academics who yearn, deeply yearn, for a depth of connection and understanding that is so painfully elusive.”  Or you might say, “My people are hard-working people of the earth who became people of the factory and have only recently in the past generation of two become people of the cubical.”  Or perhaps you could say, “My people were a coldly practical people who burn easily and so do not go to the beach in the summers and I have left them all behind and have blazed a new trail.”  Many of you might say, “My people are no longer my people for I have left them behind.”  But tell me who your children’s people will be?  Detached generic people with no sense of their culture?  This is a major part of our problem.  You may already be those children.

I suspect the next thing we might see is materialism and an unhealthy pursuit appear financially better off than we really are.  That whole ‘keeping up with the Joneses,” we made that up.  And we applaud ourselves for looking like a duck swimming up stream, calm and smooth on top, paddling like crazy underneath.  Living lives of quiet desperation.  That’s us.  And we wonder why young black kids are investing their money in bling!  I had no clue what that word meant a couple of months ago.  “Bling” or “Bling Bling” is showy materialism like jewelry and hot clothes, fancy cars and even attractive people on your arm could be considered “bling” if they are there for you to be showing off. Typically people like hip hop musicians and Donald Trump are people with “Bling.”  I play a part in that.  It’s not a direct cause and effect relationship; of course not.  It is a systemic and institutional relationship.  The sensationalized media and market industry is a reflection of the culture that this nation has chosen.  There are things you can do (and many of you probably are doing) in response to it.

The last thing I think I see in that mirror when I look in our mirror is what I could almost characterize as the love affair our nation has with divisiveness in general.  We can talk about racial division, but we won’t get too far in that conversation with out talking about economic divisions or religious divisions or political divisions!  We seem to breed divisiveness, it’s like there’s something in the water.  We are always ragingly divided about one thing or another in this country.  Of course it has nothing to do with the water, there’s something in our history, several things actually.  We started out as a schism breaking away from the old country.  We perpetuated that division time and again and now it feels like to be American is to be against something. And if there isn’t a group out there to be against, we’ll be against a group of ourselves right here at home.  I don’t know, that’s probably a bigger problem than just American culture and institutional racism; but it sure seems like we’re particularly good at it.

The hope in all this is that the world continues to change and our little ‘two feet by five’ universes keep cracking and opening out.  I read that our nation is becoming Multi-ethnic and multicultural, and that this generation coming of age today is trans-racial, self-identifying with multiple cultures and races.

It is important to move with an eye toward the hope.  This week while I was at my mom’s I was preparing for this sermon and I had several books with me.  I should have been spending more time with the books from 2000 and 2004 but I had brought along two compilations of King’s speeches and letters.  One from 1963 entitled “Why We Can’t Wait” which includes his Letter from Birmingham Jail.  The second is a series of his landmark sermons and speeches including the famous I Have a Dream speech in Washington DC, and the very last speech he ever delivered where he talks about having been to the mountain top and having seen the promised land, thankfully someone thought to bring along a tape recorder that night on April 3 1968.  And because it’s transcribed it has congregational reaction printed in parentheses so it almost felt like I was there.  And I could here the cadence of his voice as he would call on the lines of old Negro spirituals, words from the Hebrew prophets, and symbols of American democracy and weave it all together … and then tell everyone that we need to be dissatisfied, we need to have divine dissatisfaction with the injustices that surround us.  He would speak of the obstacles and the difficulties of staying true to the call for justice and the call of conscious but he would say we must have an audacious faith in the future.  And what’s more we must work to realize that audacious faith into reality today.  We must work to cast aside our divisions and our competitive materialism.  We must work until the freedoms that are written into our American law are made real in the lives of even the least of these.  We must work to call up the beautiful differences that mark us as beloved children of the same family transcending culture, transcending ethnicity, transcending nations, transcending race until the social construct of race slips softly into the footnotes of history.

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men and women willing to be co-workers with God.”

In a world without end

May it be so.