Failing to tell a story in black and white

b w This is a strange moment for Black America. A major black celebrity frets about its values, while black Christian ministers worry about structural problems. Bill Cosby scolds black men for not being responsible fathers, while civil-rights era preachers encourage their flock to attend job training classes.

I know, the picture is more complex; as The Washington Post notes, plenty of black deejays and new organization leaders are taking up the fight against discrimination. But the picture is not one-sided as Religion News Service makes it out to be.

RNS ran a story by Greg Garrison and Val Walton of the Birmingham News that focused entirely on black ministers’ liberal ends and means:

Pastors in the civil rights era practiced social activism by leading marches to protest issues such as school segregation, separate but unequal public accommodations and unequal access to courts.

Although the federal government brought changes to remedy some of those injustices, remedies for current challenges are not as clear, ministers said.

“We have been able to accomplish and retain some of the civil rights,” Woods said. “It looks like our silver rights continue to be elusive,” he said, a reference to economic disparities.

Today, social activist pastors focus on economic empowerment, enhancing public education, job training and anti-crime initiatives.

The injustices often take the shape of problems such as getting loans or job opportunities, younger ministers said. The enemies are not as easily personified as was Birmingham’s notorious public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor. “It’s not as obvious as a billy club,” said the Rev. Anthony Johnson, grandson of the late Rev. N.H. Smith.

Still, there is a need to address some of the problems with old-fashioned tools, such as marches and rallies, Woods said.

“We have to keep that in our arsenal because it raises the level of consciousness,” he said. “I think marches will be in order as long as there is a human family.”

But the complex problems facing black America today may require solutions other than marches, sit-ins and boycotts.

“The reason for marches was to bring attention to the issues, and they were successful,” Franklin said. “There is new leadership with a new agenda that builds on the work of the civil rights era. It’s a continuation of what Dr. King envisioned. The strategies may be different.”

The Rev. Gerald Austin, former pastor of New City Church and founder of the Center for Urban Missions, has created programs that emphasize job training and technology.

“I believe that the movement that we are faced with is an economic movement,” Austin said. According to the 2000 Census, the median income level for white households in Jefferson County was $45,262, compared with $25,469 for blacks.

Austin, 54, advocates the church taking the lead in tackling the issue of community and economic revitalization by helping its members understand how to take ownership of property and create vital businesses.

The Rev. Steve Green, pastor of More Than Conquerors Faith Church, has taken an active

My problem with the story is not its focus on the ministers’ liberal agenda; for good reason, few observers dispute that black Americans continue to face discrimination and structural inequalities.

My problem is the failure to mention the conservative alternative. The story misleads readers into thinking that black America is unconcerned about family formation and values. In fact, Cosby has renewed a long-running, and heated, debate about this very topic. (The May issue of The Atlantic Monthly features an interesting and well-done story about Cosby’s crusade; it is not yet available online.)

Some GR readers might protest that I want the reporters to write another story instead of theirs. Not necessarily; Garrison and Walton failed to address whether the ministers’ work is religious. As I wrote Friday, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. viewed his ministry as a method of Christian witness, prophecy, and morality. Do today’s black ministers see their work in similar terms or are simply as social work?

That’s an important question. So is the one I alluded to in the lede: How is it that a celebrity is talking more about values and family formation than black preachers?

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  • Mark Ruzon

    The question always seems to come back to individual choice vs. societal or cultural change. This is independent of whether the context is a congregation or purely secular. Change always begins with the individual person, and this is what most sermons are about. It is also true that it’s easier to change your behavior when the people around you are changing theirs, or when laws and policies make that change easier.

    The San Jose Mercury News just reported yesterday on black and Latino students viewing good grades negatively. This is definitely a clash between individual choices and cultural values that religion can address.

    It is too bad the story ignored the other half of the discussion. It is time for more frank discussions of race in America.

  • Jerry

    Garrison and Walton failed to address whether the ministers’ work is religious

    To me it’s way, way, WAY beyond the pale to ask them to judge whether or not some ministers’ work is religious. Did you really mean that or was it an, um, “Freudian” slip? Rather than make the obvious statements about the implications of what you wrote, I’ll just sit back and wait for you to explain it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Why is this beyond the pale?

  • Jerry

    Since when should a reporter pass judgement on whether or not a minister’s work is religious? And of course, if that starts happening, there are some that will say the Pope goes over the line from religion to politics when he makes pronouncements on certain topics. etc

    I would think it should be obviously a bad idea for reporters to make such judgements.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    I am not advocating that reporters pass judgment on preachers’ work; just that they ask informed questions. Is your position that reporters should not ask questions of religious authorities?

  • Dave

    The problem with reporters asking whether a pastor’s work is religious, is that the reporter may have a peculiar or even distorted view of what religion is. The reporter may have had unpleasant childhood experiences with church, and carried away from them a notion that that’s what religion is. (Some famous atheist authors seem to be burdened with such notions.)

    It’s particularly tricky for any reporter to ask a pastor whether the latter’s work is religious or social work, because the reporter and the pastor may draw the dividing line in quite different places; or one may see it as a sharp division while the other sees each as blurring into the other.

  • Jerry

    Dave replied better than I could.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Dave writes,

    The problem with reporters asking whether a pastor’s work is religious, is that the reporter may have a peculiar or even distorted view of what religion is. The reporter may have had unpleasant childhood experiences with church, and carried away from them a notion that that’s what religion is.

    Of course, your hypothetical applies to all subjects, not just religion. By this logic, reporters should not ask politicians about whether their laws help their constituents because the reporter may have a distorted view of legislation or public policy. I think this is dangerous and unwise.

  • Dave

    Mark Stricherz writes:

    Of course, your hypothetical applies to all subjects, not just religion. By this logic, reporters should not ask politicians about whether their laws help their constituents because the reporter may have a distorted view of legislation or public policy.

    The hypothetical you pose is not quite parallel. A precise parallel would be for the reporter to ask, “Is this politics that you are doing?” Since the common wisdom is that whatever politicians do is ipso facto politics, this would be a somewhat hollow question.

    Addressing your hypothetical anyway, if a reporter has a peculiar notion of legislation or public policy, and covers a political beat, that fact will quickly become apparent to his or her editors, and a conversation will ensue. The problem with MSM journalism and religion is that the editor may be as clueless as the reporter about religion.

    I certainly think yours is a good question to ask politians in instances such as, eg, intervening in the handling of Terry Schiavo.

    Reporters who know their own limits often take such questions in other fields to experts outside the story, eg, covering cold fusion and asking a physicist outside the story, “Is this physics?”


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