Why the dream has been deferred (purity culture as the backlash against the civil rights movement)

Why the dream has been deferred (purity culture as the backlash against the civil rights movement) August 28, 2013

Public Domain: Martin Luther King's March on Washington
Public Domain: Martin Luther King’s March on Washington

You can’t say the N word anymore. You get sued if you racially discriminate in your hiring process. White kids grow up listening to rap music and (if they’re not too “Christian”) going to public school with the black kids. We have a black president. How dare you say that racism still exists in America? Right? White people are very defensive and paranoid about racism, which has come to mean little more than saying “politically incorrect” things when you’re drunk or otherwise off-guard and getting Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to bring their beloved TV cameras to your front door. This trivialization of racism as having to do with little more than “speaking correctly” is one of the reasons that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream has been deferred. But the main underlying problem is that the backlash against the civil rights movement that began in the early seventies has created a radically individualist moral vision in which Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself is basically meaningless.

The ethos of American suburbia is the sublimation of segregationism. What I mean is that race, as such, is no longer an official part of the ideology, but the ideology still results in teenagers getting profiled and ultimately murdered for walking around at night dressed like a “thug” (even if Trayvon were high when he went to buy some skittles, he would have been no different than the white potheads who comprise the majority of our neighborhood high school in the third wealthiest county in America and never get profiled by neighborhood watchmen because we live in the “safe” part of town).

The justification for segregationism when it was okay to be openly racist was to say that white women needed to be protected from the wild libido of black men. This indeed was the principal theme of the 1915 silent movie blockbuster hit and propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation. Black men have ceased to be identified explicitly as the threat to the purity of white women. Instead, what we find in many sectors of white suburban Christianity is a world of purity culture where every young man, regardless of race, outside of the church youth group, private school, or homeschooling enclave has the potential to be the “black man” who deflowers your daughter.

“What in the world are you talking about? Haven’t you heard of that little thing called the sexual revolution? You can’t turn on the TV or even walk around in a city without seeing the trashy images of sex everywhere. How dare you call purity culture racist? If you had a daughter, you would want to put her in the purity ball too!” I recognize that there are other real forces that contribute to the white suburban hysteria about the sexuality of their daughters. And chaste sexuality is absolutely a worthwhile pursuit.

But when purity culture becomes an obsessive hysteria, it needs an “other” to define itself against. Even though the hysteria of purity culture isn’t necessarily caused explicitly and officially by the fear of men with African origins as it was under segregationism, the hysteria creates its own form of “black men” to be afraid of: the drug dealers, gangsta rappers, and other menacing thugs at the public high school who make it “unsafe” for white suburban Christian daughters not to be homeschooled or private schooled.

Morality today in white suburban Christian culture is almost entirely a question of purity. It’s about staying away from the wrong people so that you can get through high school without any babies or drug habits, and then go to a Christian college with all the other 5% of kids who kept their virginity, marry one of them by the time you graduate, and have a safe and stable family of your own to repeat the process.

None of these things are bad (except for the marrying young part which has caused a lot of divorce among the young evangelicals of the Reagan era). What’s problematic is when being pure is the extent of your morality because that means loving your neighbor is an optional bonus. When people see their primary moral responsibility as keeping their nuclear families safe from all the bad people out there, there’s no longer a sense that we’re all in this together.

It’s very curious how any sense of the common good became a “liberal” idea once the segregationist order ceased to exist (I suspect we stopped being a “Christian nation” at roughly around the same time). Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t scandalized by high taxes or massive public works projects like the interstate highway system. As long as everyone knew their appropriate place and side of the train tracks to live on, there was no reason to presume that the government was corrupt and everyone else in society was a lazy leech. The timing of our nation’s libertarian shift in ideology is a very interesting coincidence.

Sure, we suburban Christians engage in “ministry to the poor” to the extent that our ideology needs justification for claiming that the government shouldn’t be helping the poor (the mirror opposite of talking about what the government should do for the poor to justify your personal lack of involvement). But we aren’t opening our homes to poor people or taking them to our doctors or even inviting them to our small group Bible studies.

In most of the “ministry to the poor” that we do, we reinforce new categories of “white” and “black” which are no longer skin color per se, but rather who is wearing a volunteer badge, latex gloves, and reasonably fashionable clothing (white) and who looks a little bit less kempt and more likely to be homeless or at least poor (black). An interesting experiment for a black suburbanite would be to forget your volunteer badge when you go to the soup kitchen and see if you get treated like a client.

So what do we do about all this? Insofar as I’m speaking to fellow Christians, everything starts with our understanding of who Jesus is and what His cross meant. A morality which stresses purity and staying away from bad people is reinforced by an understanding of God as a royal curmudgeon who wants purity for purity’s sake and whose infinite anger at our imperfection must be satisfied by the blood of His Son on the cross. A morality which stresses being Christ to others and seeing Christ in others is reinforced by an understanding of Jesus as the Word of God who came to Earth to make Himself dirty with the dirtiest of people and open our eyes to the plight of the world’s crucified by displaying our sin against them on His cross.

Obviously these are oversimplifications (I’ve written about all the nuances of the cross plenty of times). But the justice God demands is not an impersonal, abstract insistence on purity. Purity is only relevant (and it is very relevant) insofar as it frees us to be outwardly focused and capable of genuine solidarity with the downtrodden people whose suffering is the injustice that makes God burn with wrath. Jesus rebukes our protests of blamelessness quite explicitly. If there is a Lazarus outside our gate to whom we are oblivious, then we are damned (Luke 16:19-31).

We do not fulfill Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream by being a people who don’t say the N word or officially discriminate on racial terms. Only a culture of genuine solidarity in which we are proactively seeking the shalom of all people, and not just the purity of our nuclear families, is a culture that is living his dream.

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