It’s Not the 60’s Anymore

Our leader opened the workshop with these words, “Chris Brown (African American R&B singer-songwriter, dancer and actor) had an anger issue after he appeared on Good Morning America this past week, and people have been calling him a thug.  Charlie Sheen, (white actor and former star of the hit TV show Two and a Half Men) has also gone off the deep end with anger and addictive behavior, and we view him as adorable.  That is racism.”   

Last Friday I participated, along with 250 business, religious, academic, and non-profit leaders, in the Partners for a Racism-Free Community Annual Forum in Grand Rapids.  By attending, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of how I, as a white person, contribute to the systemic perpetuation of racism.  I also hoped to develop clearer insight into my role as the superintendent of the racial-ethnic churches in the Grand Rapids district: Hispanic-Latino, Vietnamese, multi-cultural with Korean origins, and Native American.  

We started the day by acknowledging the difference between racial prejudice and racism.  Prejudice is pre-judging someone else without having all the facts.  We display prejudice against other people based on negative and unsubstantiated assumptions concerning race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability, age, gender, or religion. 

Several weeks ago Virgil Peck, a member of the Kansas State House of Representatives, suggested during a House Appropriations hearing that violence might solve the state’s immigration problems.  Peck was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying, “Looks like to me, if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a (solution) to our illegal immigration problem.”  He was comparing controlling the undocumented presence of Hispanic-Latinos to the state’s plan to control its wild hog population by shooting them from helicopters.

At first Peck said he was just joking but later apologized.  Our United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race responded by writing Peck a letter urging him to resign.

Whenever we label or pre-judge people of other races, we display racial prejudice.  Racism, however, is more than race prejudice.  Racism occurs when the dominant group’s racial prejudice is supported and encouraged by a society’s institutions, granting privilege and power to the dominant group and limiting the power and opportunity of other racial groups.

Lurking beneath the expressed desire of our founding fathers that all people in the United States would experience freedom was the unwritten intent of reinforcing the dominance of white society.  This inevitably led our country down the path to personal prejudice as well as institutional racism.  Even after segregation was outlawed in 1954, we have been on a long journey to free our country of racism. 

The key learnings of the morning were found in small group dialogue around the question, “Is our country more or less racist than it was in the 1960’s?  Have things really changed since the Civil Rights movement?”  Our discussion was robust.  How are things better than they were in the 60’s?

  • Blacks and other ethnic minorities are more empowered politically.
  • There are more people of color in leadership positions in the work force, with a growing middle class.
  • We now have laws that protect people from discrimination.
  • More people have access to communication and connection through technology.
  • Inclusivity is a popular theme in churches, schools, business, and government.

How have things become worse or at the least remained the same since the 60’s?

  • Racism has gone underground and become much more subtle.
  • Fewer rewards and privileges for people used to being in power provokes fear and anger.
  • A disinvestment in our urban school systems reinforces racism.
  • Immigrant targeting, Muslim stereotyping, and worsening conditions for migrant workers is increasing.
  • DWB, being stopped by the police simply for “driving while black,” is a reality, even in West Michigan.
  • Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week in America.

Our continued struggle with racism is a conundrum since the just released 2010 US Census shows that the United States is becoming more ethnically diverse than ever.

  • The Hispanic population grew 43% and surpassed 16% of the US population, accounting for half of our national growth since 2000.
  • Whites make up 64% of the US population as opposed to 69% in 2000. 
  • Of our 308.7 million people, there are 196.6 million whites, 50 million Hispanics, 37.7 million blacks, and 14.5 million Asians, who grew more rapidly than any other race.
  • Nearly half all children in our country are other than white.

At the same time poor African Americas are 3 times as likely and Hispanic-Latinos are twice as likely as whites to live in deep poverty.  America has one of the highest levels of income disparity in the world.  For full-time workers, whites earn 22% more than equivalent African workers and almost 34% more than Hispanic-Latino workers.  African Americans make up 12% of the population but account for 40% of all arrests, 50 % of the prison population, and 50% of inmates on death row. (Statistics from the Eisenhower Foundation’s Forty Year Update of the Kerner Riot Commission Executive Summary of February 2008)

Why is it important for the church to understand the dynamics of personal prejudice and systemic racism?  For starters, we claim to follow a Savior who continually identified with the least, the last, and the lost, and messed with the power structure of Judaism.

By associating with sinners, welcoming tax collectors, eating with unclean people, talking to a Samaritan woman, and lifting up the poor as examples of faith, Jesus both irritated and threatened those in power.  In the same way, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to challenge any individuals, structures, or institutions, including our own, that oppress, devalue, or intentionally maintain white power and privilege. 

Another reason to be intentional about confronting our own racism is that The United Methodist Churchis missing the boat by our inability to reach out to the rapidly increasing racial-ethnic population in our country. The fields are no longer just white for harvest, they are multicolored for harvest.  Yet the number of ethnic churches in our denomination lags far behind the population.  In addition, existing ethnic congregations often struggle because of a lack of leadership, financial and human resources, language barriers, poor understanding of United Methodist structure and doctrine, and isolation from other congregations, ethnic or white.  Our denomination will surely grow in strength, grace, and numbers when we are willing to invest in ethnic diversity.

I am very pleased that the West Michigan Conference has just organized a Hispanic-Latino Committee, which is committed to starting new Hispanic-Latino ministries as well as connecting and supporting existing ministries.  In early March the director of the National Hispanic Plan in The United Methodist Churchmet with Bishop Keaton and the Area Ministry Team of the Michigan Area, as well as with the Hispanic-Latino Committees of both conferences.  The 2010 census showed that the Hispanic population in Michigan increased by 34.7% since 2000.  God is calling us to reach out to all people with the good news of Jesus Christ, not just those who look like us.

It’s not the 60’s anymore.  Yes, we have made great strides in combating racism, but we’re not there yet.  If TheUnited Methodist Church is going to fulfill the Great Commission, we must examine ourselves and ask some hard questions, right now in 2011.

  • Are you willing to look at your own attitudes and deeply ingrained ideas about people of color?
  • Are you willing to address the ways in which our churches, schools, businesses, and government perpetuate systemic racism?
  • Are you willing to share the institutional power you have simply by being white?
  • Are you willing to identify, nurture, train, and empower ethnic leaders?
  • Are you willing to intentionally connect with our existing ethnic churches by sharing stories, building trusting relationships, understanding cultural differences, partnering in ministry, and dreaming dreams together?
  • Are you willing to embrace ethnic diversity in your own congregation by welcoming people of other races, families with multiracial children and adopted children from other countries, and refugee families?  
  • Are you willing to start new ethnic ministries within your own congregation?

Will you commit to the journey toward a racism-free church and society?  I pray so.

Blessings, Laurie

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