Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s been several weeks since the Zimmerman verdict and I can’t escape the feeling that race discourse in America has gone nowhere but down and round and down again, like a bug circling a drain.

Not that I expected a great deal of cross-racial empathy or visible transformation in the public square – remember the cries for better gun control after Newtown? But still, one could hope for at least a few weeks of shared mourning and lament before folks began firing their favored weapons across the usual divides.

To cite one example, Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Krista Ramsey tried recently to say something honest, deeply personal, and (to my mind) courageous about race relations, responding directly to President Obama’s remarkable press conference some days after the verdict. Whatever one thinks of Krista’s reflections, note the vitriol in many reader comments that follow. Here’s the thing: I’m not sure such comments can be dismissed as atypical, blog-raiding “outliers.” I wonder if they aren’t representative of how vigorously, in fact, many whites will resist any calls to think a little more deeply, much less talk and listen to one another, about race.

How to explain such resistance? Some suggest that the scandalous economic divide in the country is breeding fresh resentment among whites who are losing their tenuous hold on the middle class, stable family structures and neighborhoods, and a host of other taken-for-granted privileges of whiteness. It’s not hard to imagine that for such whites any talk about race relations — especially from the lips of a black president – might feel like still another hammer blow to the crumbling ego-foundations of social privilege and power. Enter Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck to stir up in all of us “good law-abiding folks” a sense of collective victimhood. One can also imagine a lot of blacks shaking their heads right now and asking, “How does it feel to sit in the back of the bus?”

To be sure, it’s easy to give nodding support to programs (and hard-bought civil rights laws) that have tried to level the playing field for minorities so long as I have a secure job and a couple months’ wages in the bank. But when layoffs loom and the college savings disappear, how much empathy can I really spare for the “other”—the unwed mother, the poorly-educated black kid, the sick without health insurance, the undocumented?

Meanwhile the “Job Creators” will keep on building Wal Marts, drone plants, and federal prisons on the outskirts of town – where the rest of us poor blokes (“the Takers”) can fight over crappy jobs without health care and a living wage.  Unable to vent our rage at venture capitalists, absentee landlords, or the tax-sheltering 1% whose lobbyists own Washington, we direct it at each other.

…circling down and round and down the drain.

But let me get back to Trayvon’s death – and here I don’t think I’m in too much danger of armchair quarterbacking. This story has been very personal for me and my wife Lauri, as adoptive parents, as it hits painfully close to home for every parent of a young black child, teenager, or young adult black male who must learn to navigate “white” America.

My wife and I don’t have the privilege of a pulpit. Nor do I teach in a seminary. But until our priests, seminaries, and lay formation and adult education programs in the church tackle the subject of race systematically, at more than a cursory level – studying the works of Bryan Massingale, Shawn Copeland, Cyprian Davis, Jamie Phelps, Jonathan Kozol, and Michelle Alexander (good luck getting James Cone on the reading list) – how will deeply inspired and responsible critical thinking (i.e. informed by careful research) about race ever find its way to ordinary folks in the churches, i.e. Catholics and Christians of all colors who teach the next generation by their words and deeds, and sit on Neighborhood Watch committees?

Not once in the last six years can I recall a single occasion, at any parish I’ve attended, in which the priest said anything related to race from the pulpit – not after Obama was elected, not after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, not even the Sunday morning after the Zimmerman verdict. If such “oversights” are painful for me, imagine the black Catholics sitting next to me in the pew, some of whom are elders in our current parish.

When I spoke with one local pastor here – who is also a friend – about the possibility of initiating conversations around race in his church’s adult education program, he asked me, in so many words, “Why would I want to stir up that hornet’s nest”? Though I was taken aback, on reflection his frank hesitation helped me to grasp the complexity of the situation. For starters he worried about being perceived as the “well-intentioned white guy” tearing the scabs off of old wounds that pre-date his tenure in the (mostly black) parish. He knows the racial wounds are there – as every thinking person does – but when it comes down to it, it would seem to take a special combination of trust, courage, and vibrant lay leadership to initiate the conversation around race — resources not plentiful in many parishes that I know of right now.

For myself and other Catholic scholars who have the privilege of teaching at the university level, I wonder how to cultivate relationships between our institutions and folks in the churches from which collaborative and mutually fruitful conversations might be launched. One of my hopes in writing Hope Sings was to provide a resource and starting point for such conversations. I wish the evidence suggested otherwise, but I’d guess that most white suburban Catholic parishes won’t touch race with a ten foot pole, even where bountiful resources already exist. (A recent article from Catholic News Service seems to bear out the truth in these general perceptions.)

For example the failure (willful refusal?) of music directors at so many parishes to incorporate the rich legacy of African American Catholic worship music into the Mass, even where circumstances especially recommend it, alternately befuddles and infuriates me. Really? Not a single hymn from Lead Me, Guide Me during the month of February?

At first glance the non-denominational churches seem to be light years ahead of Catholics on race – but then I wonder how many of these really get beneath the surface to advocate on the structural and political (and deep theological) issues.

And so, as Dr. King once asked, where do we go from here? Our next generation of Trayvons and Zimmermans and ordinary kids all over the country needs our help.

I suppose we keep talking, praying, and begging for courage and grace to walk the difficult road together. Please: I welcome your comments below! And I ask for your prayers as I bring the conversation more explicitly into the classroom this semester.

Update: Another cautionary perspective from Matthew Whitaker, professor of history at Arizona State University, on the “racialized political culture in Arizona.” (Aug 8, 2013)

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