The March on Washington remembered

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington from which we gain many of our most iconic images of that era and the Civil Rights Movement. Thousands have arrived in DC today to remember that moment. Here is a youtube clip of Martin Luther King’s speech:

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And here’s a link to catch current coverage (as of 2pm EST):

nbcnews coverage

President Obama will give a speech approximately at 2:45pm. It might be interesting to compare and contrast King and Obama’s speeches, to understand better what has changed and what has stayed the same.

 

 

Race Talk in Colorblind Churches

In the wake of the weekend verdict over George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, my Facebook page was ablaze as various news outlets repeated the same story and as some friends expressed shock and a few fear. In the midst of this a colleague asked her friends for their reflections on how churches in America ought to respond to this moment that clearly bespeaks of the continuing racial divides in our nation. She sent us to noted progressive evangelical Jim Wallis’ reflections as a conversation starter. It got me thinking that I had left tabs open to several blog posts from noted Protestant Christian clergy, so I took it as an opportunity to synthesize the comments with Wallis’ post to start.

Wallis’ words are engaging as always. He joins some Christian bloggers in using this moment to speak directly about the anti-black racism in our nation, and how Christian can work against it. What focused my attention was his solution, the importance of multiracial churches, churches that have no more than 80% of its congregants reflecting one particular racial group. From here, Wallis contends, white and black parents can speak with one another, learn from one another and ultimately stand with one another against systemic injustices that are targeted against some but not others. Noted conservative evangelical John Piper echoed the same point in more theological language of “reconciliation.” His point is the same as Wallis; reconciliation requires some kind of exchange where individuals and groups address a grievance and restore a broken connection. Such an exchange presumes a preceding relationship, and for many Christians the relationships at church take precedence. Hence for racial reconciliation to be effective, multiracial churches must be part of the solution.

While I advocate the importance of racial diversity in our churches, I am not confident in their efficacy to raise the kind of awareness that many are calling for. Sociologist Korie Edwards observed a predominantly African American church as it tried to transition into a multiracial church.  Her observations were telling: even when African American Protestants led the church and were the larger numerical group, the culture of the church conformed to the new members who were white. Rather than an equitable exchange and compromise among both (or all) groups, inclusion of whites in non-white congregations often results in acquiescing to their perspective and cultural assumptions.

This results in colorblindness in matters of structural racism, while still maintaining the veneer of diversity. That is, a lot of churchgoers like the idea of diversity these days, just so long as we agree to “focus on Jesus” and remain silent and ignorant about injustices that affect people of color, women, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. So we can look like a racial mosaic while never really understanding that our fellow church members don’t experience their day-to-day lives the same way.

But again I want to support the importance of these churches because these form the largest voluntary organization in the US, and sadly the most segregated. Frankly, if we were to take Wallis’ idea to heart, American Christians have more opportunity for interracial interaction in the workplace and in some neighborhoods as well, much more so than their churches at present.

And yet, I suspect that even in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workplaces, there is still limited conversation on matters of racial injustice. If my guess is right, our everyday discourse is individualistic at its root; each of us, in theory, is only responsible for our own outcomes. Even when we are in a group, a team, a business, a church, the default attitude seems to be individualist. This way of thinking and seeing the world is so taken-for-granted that many bristle when someone makes mention of anything systemic. It feels artificially injected somehow to bring up talk of racial inequality. So if Wallis’ point is that multiracial churches are key because they allow for conversations among Christians across different racial groups, I would say, let’s look at all the other contexts that different Americans should be having these conversations, in theory, and ask why aren’t we having more conversations outside of church?

To be sure, African Americans, Christian or not, are having these conversations. And the shared sentiment of lament, moral outcry speaks to me as a sociologist: the patterns of interpretation are so consistent and racialized. Compare the reflections from Wallis and Piper with theologian Reggie Williamscampus minister Sean Watkins, and Wheaton College professor Shawn Okpebholo. While not an ideal setting, their posts have helped bring their voices to my mind when I have no one in my network at my place of work who echo a similar sentiment.

While there’s no study out there I know of that can document whether this can work, I suggest that the key is to dialogue within deep relationships that engage the mind, the emotions, and the body. I picture this: coworkers in the breakroom talking about anything but work; one of them mentions this “thing he read in the news the other day” which seems, from his perspective, like racism. Repeat this scene on a semi-regular basis, and perhaps someone might speak up and say “yeah something like that happened to a friend of mine last week.” At first some coworkers will find this unbelievable, exceptional, and dismiss it off hand. But if the stories keep coming in, and different coworkers speak up as well, then we are witnessing a conversation that brings structural racism into the fore. Regular exposure to this kind of structural awareness may nudge more people, churchgoer or not, to reconsider the notion of colorblindness.

For multiracial churches to promote structural awareness, they have to raise the community’s consciousness away from the trappings of individualism both in its beliefs and in its practices as an organization. Frankly this is a very difficult road to travel and requires more commitment intellectually and relationally than most people want to give to a congregation. Churches may have the advantage of more opportunity for relationship building than the workplace, but few have the wherewithal to create real deep relationships that demand giving up “me time” for the sake of getting to know others who face struggles that are completely foreign to one’s experience. It’s not surprising then that many churches emphasize “me and Jesus” Christian individualism. And if a church emphasizes “us and Jesus” Christian collectivism it can still suffer from colorblindness, even when the church is noticeably diverse. All you need is a community culture that does nothing to promote deeper engagement with others beyond a hearty handshake and hymns sung in unison for 60 minutes once a week.

Beyond the challenges facing a typical congregation that would like to have richer relationships across racial boundaries, we should consider the education of the clergy themselves. To what extent is their theological training in any way equipping their worldview to think in terms of structures (apart from the church)? I suspect that today’s seminaries too often describe racial difference in paternalistic tones or in a tourist-y/ buffet-style understanding of culture. It’s this thin understanding of culture that can create a church that has a sense of “we-ness” and still be oblivious to systemic inequalities. Of course it’s important to know that some traditions worship differently; it’s more important to know how these traditions reflect the way blacks and whites have lived in American society as sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson explained.  Understanding the historic role of systemic racism in cultivating theological traditions and practices is a first step that seminaries can take in creating structurally-aware multiracial churches.

For now, perhaps we can heed the suggestion of Eugene Cho, a pastor in Seattle:

Can we just take some time to hurt and mourn with many of our Black brothers and sisters?
Can we take some time to hurt with many Black churches and communities?
With our black friends, co-workers, and neighbors, can we commiserate with them – however limited we may be in that commiseration?

For us – as Christians – if our Black brothers and sisters in Christ are hurting…If they are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ; And if we are truly the Body of Christ as we profess…can’t we just shut up, listen, and mourn with them? Can we possibly try to listen, hear, and capture a glimpse of why they are upset, concerned, anxious, worried, and even fearful?

The Social Construction and Comfort of Soul Food

Did you know that “gumbo” is “okra” in the Bantu dialect of the peoples in southern and central Africa? That’s just one of the tidbits I learned from this fascinating new documentary which I would encourage university libraries to carry and for faculty to use in the classroom. Soul Food Junkies chronicles the social history and contemporary experience of consuming foods originally created by African Americans from slavery through emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era through today. It’s a fascinating journey for anyone who learns effectively through visual and experiential means, and it can be an effective tool to help students understand the way race works in the structures of our society both historically and in the present.

Use of food as a way to introduce cultural diversity is more difficult than it sounds. On the surface few would pass up the opportunity to explore new flavors, colorful plates, and unfamiliar ingredients. But the deceptive problem occurs when we leave the discussion of food and culture to our consumptive likes and dislikes. Instead, the use of food needs to be more instructional: what are the origins of these dishes? How is this cuisine tied to the history of the US? How are social structures and inequalities reflected and how are they relevant today?

Soul food is one example of what sociologists describe as material culture, the physical components of a group that signify values, norms, and social conditions of a group. An instructor can help students better understand the impact of migration, the context of reception of new people groups, and how those people groups adapt to their new surroundings. Okra for example was a vegetable common to many Africans who were brought to the US as chattel slaves. Obviously taking what food they could would be a source of comfort during the harrowing journey across the Atlantic and the brutal conditions of slavery in the American South. Through soul food, we can learn that the meals of most slaves consisted of the remainders of crops and the scraps of meat product like chitterlings, a word originating from the European Middle Ages to describe the less desirable parts of pigs consumed by peasants. Given the absence of education for the majority of slaves, it comes as no surprise that this term would eventually be called “chittlins”. More so, the fact of the low quality of the food given to chattel slaves speaks volumes to the value accorded to this people group. What is a source of sustenance for the oppressed is the afterthought of the oppressor.

With emancipation little changed in the dietary patterns of freed blacks due to institutionalized segregation. With little access to the resources of southern whites, southern blacks made do with the foods they were accustomed to prior to their liberation. After the Civil War, African Americans were politically equal to whites, but in the South, state laws, first called the Black Codes, and later the Jim Crow laws defined the social boundaries that ensured that federally protected equality would have no bearing on the day-to-day lives of whites and blacks. Clearly aware of this inequality and their very survival day to day, it should not be a surprise that soul food retained its comfort significance.

The Civil Rights Movement, whose crowning achievement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, augured new hope for African Americans. New hope called for celebration, and a new sense of empowerment and pride in one’s people. “Soul food” received its name around this time when various elements of African American culture suddenly had “soul” attached to it to distinguish itself from the spiritual emptiness of white-dominated mainstream society. But just as progress appeared in the political realm, the economy changed once again, and African American socioeconomic conditions fared no better than before the 1960s. Jobs that required little education were exported to developing nations and were replaced by service sector jobs which paid very little and demanded little physical exertion. The stress of not being able to make ends meet in addition to sedentary work increases the health risk put on by soul food consumption. Moreover as America remains highly segregated spatially, the availability of healthy food options grows scarce where poverty is concentrated. So even as the documentary showed the possibilities of healthier soul food, such potential may only be available to higher income African Americans.

Through the use of the Soul Food Junkies documentary, one can teach about the ways in which social structures in American society have a racial inflection that has had forward repercussions on African Americans today. The meaning of soul food is inextricably tied to the history of African Americans, and thus an important part in the education of all young Americans. With new visual education like Soul Food Junkies and mindful teachers everywhere, we can introduce new students (and not a few older ones too) to the social history of race in US society and what it means for us all today.

Hmong, Indian, What’s the Difference?

Recent news on the higher education scene has turned attention to the Asian American case, or cases we should say. A team of education researchers led by Dr. Robert Teranishi used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of California higher education system to make the case that Asian American ethnic groups are not all performing in the “model minority” way. As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.” When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. Take for example, last year’s Pew report on Asian Americans. Using the American Community Survey, Pew shows an aggregate figure for bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income in 2010 for Asian Americans. As the title of their figure states “Asian Americans Lead Others in Education, Income.”

 

Teranishi and colleagues’ report disaggregates, that is, splits into smaller groups, the Asian American classification using the same data, and this is what they find. In this first graph we see bachelor’s degree attainment across multiple Asian American groups and we find surprising differences across the board. At the one end, Taiwanese and Asian Indian Americans report over 71% within each group with a bachelor’s degree. At the other end, about 12% of Laotian and 15% of Hmong Americans claim the same educational attainment. So while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level attainment.

Now let’s look at household income. Using the median household income ($66,000 according to the Pew report) for all Asian Americans, Teranishi et al. disaggregate that figure and show the following.

As you can see, at one extreme, Asian Indian Americans exceed the Asian American household income mean by over $21,000 on average. Hmong Americans are below that same mean by almost the same amount. In fact 9 out of the 15 groups are below the Asian American mean. And 7 of these groups are lower than the white American average.

What this suggests is that Asian Americans are highly diverse socioeconomically. To the extent that the model minority myth is applied to this collection of SES-diverse groups, it masks the evident differences among them. Read the full report here to find out more about the benefits of disaggregation especially in higher education within the University of California system. Similar kinds of analyses were conducted by Dr. Paul Ong and associates who disaggregated homeownership and cash public assistance rates across Asian ethnic groups in several different areas of the US. The slide show report on some of their findings is here, and the regional reports are here. Like Teranishi et al.’s report, disaggregation of Asian American homeownership, other assets and public assistance shows that the rates of these socioeconomic patterns vary a lot by Asian ethnic group.

Some might ask: then why is the overall Asian American average so high to begin with. The answer is a matter of population size. Look back at the disaggregated figures. Pick out these groups: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. These groups take up 83% of all Asian Americans. Statistically, the other groups are not numerically large enough to alter the educational attainment or household income average of the largest six groups since they take up a greater share of the population. We should remember too, sizable numbers of Asian Americans in the larger groups do not share in the picture of “success” that their same-ethnic peers experience.

In our racialized society, we like our groups to be simple; we prefer to ignore the diverse realities within the groupings we create. By using “Asian American” as shorthand for “the successful minority” we mask major differences in the outcomes that presumably all Asian Americans share. Notably, our social programs often utilize this assumption and give next to nothing for vulnerable Asian Americans. This in turn makes Asian American inequalities invisible.

Hopefully more leaders and concerned citizens will grow aware of the problem we create when we use the stereotype of “the high –achieving, hard-working minority.” Reports and studies, like the one produced by Dr. Teranishi that disaggregate the Asian American data story expand our own understanding that this story is not just diverse culturally, but socioeconomically as well.


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