Four Episodes from a Consistent Life Ethic, Part III

Four Episodes from a Consistent Life Ethic, Part III February 3, 2019

I want to continue my narrative about the consistent life ethic as I understand–or perhaps it is better to say about how I cam to live it.  You may read Part I and Part II by following the links.  I want to apologize for the long delay between parts II and III.  I have made a new years resolution to blog twice per month, so hopefully I can finish this story.

Part III:  Race and class

Race and class are among the great unspeakable categories in the US.  Race and racism are part of “America’s original sin“, one that constantly is repeatedly put to rest but then forces its way back into our attention.  That racism is a pro-life issue has been recently confirmed by the American bishops in their recent statement, Open Wide Our Hearts (PDF):

As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue. Accordingly, we will not cease to speak forcefully against and work toward ending racism. Racism directly places brother and sister against each other, violating the dignity inherent in each person.

Class is a touchier, but while Catholic Social Teaching rejects the notion of conflict between the classes and necessary, it also recognizes that exploitation of the poor by the rich is a pressing problem.

My own understanding of race and class, and how I came to see them as life issues, has been a long journey in which I tried to understand my own ethnic and class identity.  This has been an evolving picture:  the older I get, the more I understand who I am and where I came from.  So this post involves a very long detour–I found that I needed to explain who I am in order to make sense of what I believe.  Please bear with me; to quote the Psalms,

The boundary lines of my life / mark out delightful country, / my heritage pleases me well. (Psalm 16:6)

Let me begin with my own ethnic and class background.  My father was a Mexican who immigrated to the US in 1939.  Like many before and after him, he did so in an irregular fashion:  he came on 30 day tourist visa and never went home.  After a couple years, some of his new friends in the (Republican) political establishment in town helped him to become a permanent resident.  For a long time he wanted to become a citizen, but was barred from doing so.  Some time during WW II he was drafted, but after reporting for induction he suddenly refused to serve, relying on his standing as a foreign national.  We do not know what happened:  my father never talked about this (his story was that he had flat feet and so could not serve).  After he died my brother found a bunch of correspondence which suggested that the racism he encountered during his induction was enough to cause him to get out.  As a consequence, he was punished by a law passed after the war that prevented him from ever becoming a citizen.

After the war he married my mother, a local woman of German and Norwegian descent (her grandparents had immigrated to the US and settled in Wisconsin).  My mother came from a very poor family; her father died when she was in high school, leaving a widow and a bunch of kids.    My father was, by any measure, a catch:  handsome, charming and he had a steady job as an electrical technician working in a local factory.  As I have sometimes joked, it says a lot about where my mother came from that marrying a Mexican in 1947 was a step up, socially.   They settled in her hometown, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and raised a family.  My father had a job and ran a small business (repairing televisions and radios) on the side.  We were not poor, but were economically solidly blue-collar.  My father was not among the top of the working class, since his company did not unionize until the late 1960s, long after the paper mills and other industry in town had unionized and propelled their workers into the lower middle class.

There was no Mexican-American community to speak of in Green Bay:  the 1960 census reported about 100 Mexicans in the whole county.  And, for reasons having to do with the class structure back home (where my father’s family was lower middle-class) my father did not like to associate with the immigrant farm workers who were the bulk of the Mexican-Americans in Green Bay at that time.   My brothers recall that there was little or no prejudice against Mexican-Americans in their childhood.  There were too few, and most racial animus was focused on the Native Americans in the area or on African-Americans, who occupied an anomalous place, since the most visible blacks were players on the championship winning Green Bay Packers.  Things were a little worse in my childhood and teen years:  I heard a few ethnic slurs and stereotypes and some of them I naively embraced.  (Somewhere in my papers is a picture of me in my “Mexican pimp” costume.)    But at the same time I imbibed from my father a deep pride in my Mexican heritage:  Fr. Miguel Hidalgo, Benito Juarez, Lazaro Cardenas were heros, and the US was the evil empire beginning with the Mexican-American War and continuing through the 1930s.  My father never talked about the conflicts between the Catholic Church and the government, though I knew some passing details (discussed here):  to be Mexican was to be Catholic as far as he was concerned.

This is where things stood through college; my own understanding of race in America only got shook up when I went to graduate school at Berkeley.  There, things came unglued, and I began to realize, slowly and imperfectly, that being Mexican-American had social consequences.  I went to grad school on a prestigious NSF fellowship; mine, however, was from a now defunct affirmative action program targeting African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.  As a consequence, I began to discover that despite my credentials, there was this presumption that I wasn’t as good as my classmates, precisely because of my ethnic background.  And at the same time, I discovered that there was no natural solidarity between me and other Mexican-American and Latino grad students:  I suspect some of them viewed me as a pocho.  Our class and social backgrounds were sufficiently different that we had very little in common.

But this did not prevent the anglo community from seeing me as Mexican.  One incident during my grad school years has had a long, subtle, and profound impact on my understanding both of myself and of racism in America.  One day I was waiting at the bus stop to go to campus when I was detained by two police officers.  They did not simply come up and start talking to me:  they approached me from opposite sides, hands near their guns, demanding my ID and wanting to know what I was doing.  I provided a University ID and explained I was going to class.  They held me (causing me to miss my bus) because, they said, I resembled a suspect in an armed robbery that had recently occurred.  I was detained until another police car pulled up and a cop inside looked at me, shook his head, and called out, “No, I said I was looking for a big Mexican!”, gesturing with his hands to suggest broad shoulders.  (In grad school I was tall and skinny.)  The two officers then left.

At the time I did not understand what had happened:  I was not part of a broader community where this kind of thing happened.  By comparison, one of my wife’s co-workers, an African-American woman from Oakland, saw the whole thing and was, understandably, very upset.  Unlike me, she knew what racial profiling was, and she knew how badly it could end.  (I saw this reinforced a year later when I was called for jury duty.  One of the questions we were asked was:  have you had a bad interaction with the Oakland police?  Every black male in the poor under the age of 40 answered yes and was disqualified.)

Going forward from this day, I slowly became more aware of race and class in America.  I saw how being a Mexican-American helped and hurt my search for a job (mostly hurt) and I began to understand the peculiar advantages I had which made it possible for me to succeed:  the social capital which I had which a number of other minority students I knew lacked, and the obstacles that this threw up in front of them.  I could adopt an individualist reading of my background, focusing on “hard work” and “dedication” and “sacrifice”.  All of this would be true, but would be woefully incomplete.  My father’s class background in Mexico gave him a different understanding of education:  it was something he wanted but never fully attained.  My mother saw college as chance to escape her background–it was beyond her reach, but something she was determined to have for her children.   I grew up in a blue collar mill town, but in the twilight of the New Deal it still invested in public education, and the relative lack of racial prejudice meant I could take advantage of it.  I did extremely well at tough schools, but at least for graduate school affirmative action gave me the chance to succeed.  And my future career was built on the foundation of a post-graduate fellowship from the Ford Foundation specifically for minorities in academia.  (I wrote my first book during the leave this fellowship provided.)

Finally, teaching at a small New England liberal arts college, one where over 50% of the students received no financial aid (when I left the cost was $60,000 per year), exposed me to class privilege in ways I had never seen before.  It was here that I got to meet students whose race and class background were two strikes against them, who had the privilege of attending the school, but in many ways were not welcome.   In response I taught a seminar on race and class:  an extended intellectual exercise where I thought out loud about these things, and tried to get my students to do the same.

So, having said all this, let me go back to the question that I am trying to answer:  why are race and class life issues?  They clearly are matters of social justice, and so fall within the purview of Catholic social teaching.    But why do I think (as do the American bishops) that to be pro-life one must address these questions as well?  In trying to answer this, I find that I keep coming back to a line from Gospels:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.  (John 10:10)

If our life in Christ is to be the fullness of life, then this is what I must want for all people:  this is what it must mean to be pro-life.  And anything that detracts from the fullness of life–as the Fathers of Vatican II said in a quote I gave in full in the first post–“whatever is hostile to life itself,” “whatever violates the integrity of the human person,” “whatever is offensive to human dignity,” must be opposed.  And racism and the barriers thrown up by our current economic class system do all these things.  Race and class had a pernicious impact on my parents, even if I must be honest and say that, relatively speaking, they did not have it that badly.   I saw my students held back, and listening to the stories of what they left behind, I saw that they were also lucky:  for every one that succeeded, others never had a chance.    I see my own Church, wherein there should be “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor…male and female” wounded by its own history of racism and exclusion.

I want to conclude this narrative by mentioning my long pondering of Zizek and some of the other 20th century continental philosophers.  As I thought about the promise of Christ that we are to have “life to the full” I remembered a distinction drawn by Giorgio Agamben.   Driven in part by the analysis of stateless refugees after WW II (whose plight is mirrored in that of the Palestinians to this day), he described a distinction between “bare life” and the “good life.”  Bare life was to exist physically, but to be cut off from the political/social community.  You have no place in the state or in society:  you are alive, biologically, but you have no “life.”  The good life, on the other hand, is to be incorporated into society into society, to have role, to have a voice.  As the history of race and class in the United States show, they have worked to reduce far too many people to bare life:  the slave, the sharecropper, the coal miner, the migrant farm worker, all were “alive” but were cut off and prevented from having life to the full.   And when they asked to share in the good life, they were killed, oppressed and marginalized.  To be pro-life then, is to seek the “good life” for all, most especially those reduced to “bare life.”

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