A Sacred Conversation on Race

These thoughts were submitted to the United Church of Christ news blog, in response to Pastor Chuck Currie’s comments, “Danville Church Tackles Tough Subject of Race“. For another example of dialogue, have a look at the Philadelphia Enquirer article, “In Pursuit of a Quieter Discourse on Race” (Enquirer, May 19, 2008).

The UCC initiative to openly discuss the “legacy problem” is timely and indeed, welcome.

I left New Orleans in 1995 and moved my family to France (partly because my wife is French and her family needed her…) but also, and in large part because the racial healing dialogue had all but dried up in that city: the city had fallen to mediocrity, abandoned by middle class whites who went elsewhere for work, and before them, by motivated blacks who fled the segregated south for the promising West Coast.

My family and I made repeated efforts to reach out and to integrate (you can read parts of our story elsewhere on this blog). In the end, all was for nought. There was little or anything we could do to change or influence the outcome of a process determined, many would say, from the day Europeans first settled the lower Mississippi.

But the problem goes beyond simply understanding (and that, for some “red state” Americans, could be quite a challenge!). It is as much a matter of re-establishing intra-community, indeed inter-faith trust.

Regardless of skin color, of one’s personal standard for beauty or one’s idea of self in relation to other, there will always be a perception of fairness, or in the case of race relations, of unfairness. And until we can squarely confront the issue of fairness and say we have done our best, the problems of “otherness” will persist.

Otherness can be and should be a blessing. It is the essence of diversity, a sign of wealth and proof of tolerance. Unfortunately, in the legacy cultures of the deep south, otherness is all too frequently a source of insecurity and a threat to self-esteem.

Until we can get over these problems, a “sacred conversation” cannot take place. It is not about “divine intervention” or even about “God’s plan”, it is about trust, acceptance and self-esteem.

I follow these issues from afar but I am truly heartened by the courage of Jeremiah Wright, by the collective intelligence that has been guiding Barack Obama’s bid for presidential power and the UCC for enlarging the debate.

It is not, should not be about electibility

In the “money driven” world of national politics where in November a “winner will take all”, the choice of who to support is both a practical and pragmatic issue. Nobody wants to bet on the wrong horse.

Betting is a matter of risk assessment, of course. But if ever there was a time to “take the plunge” and risk your vote, or your tax deductible contribution, now is that time. The sooner the better, so long as you can sustain (the donations) through November.

Barack Obama, indeed, national healing needs your support.

Of course, “national healing” refers to the black-white dichotomy, the open debate between dominant and dominated cultures, to borrow language from Reverend Wright’s April 28th National Press Club address (for a full transcript see the Atlantic Monthly transcript page).

National healing however, is also about re-cycling urban wastelands and the people relegated by exclusion to live their lives in such environments.

“National healing” is not about handouts or about subsidizing indigent populations. It is about dealing with problems of urban “governance” and social marginalization. It is about the need to mobilize national support for the integration of urban populations and the cities that provide minimum public services into the American mainstream.

The black-white dichotomy and the problems of deficient metropolitan governance were exacerbated in New Orleans where legacy patterns of behavior constituted de facto social and racial preferences. The process of social marginalization works the same in other cities as increasing concentrations of poverty produce a long term trend toward mediocrity.

America’s wealth is the product of an abundance of natural resources skillfully transformed by a motivated, youthful populations striving for the “American Dream”. Not everybody achieves that dream however, and in material terms, most do not.

The Obama campaign is, at least to this observer, about conceiving the American Dream in terms other than “material wealth”. It is about preserving and promoting our urban centers as efficient producers of the national wealth and about integrating urban populations into the American mainstream.

Our great cities must not be allowed to fall to mediocrity.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright: expanding the national debate

As a white person and descendant of pioneer Americans (my Presbyterian relatives arrived from Scotland in 1704), I am heartened by the resonance of the debate sparked by Rev. Wright.

I left the United States in 1995 partly out of family obligations (my spouse is French) and partly because after 25 years, I had no future in New Orleans.

My wife and I were frequent “congregants” at Pastor Paul Morton’s Greater St. Stephen’s Baptist Church, and “worked” hard at cultivating “cross-cultural friendships”, especially where our children were concerned. But after 25 years in the City that Care Forgot” it became apparent that economically and socially we had no future in that city. Legacy “behaviors”, the unspoken behaviors that perpetuate class and racial distinctions were not about to change and no single person could challenge the status quo. Mediocrity ruled.

I can say with conviction that the black church is different but that “different” does not mean “deficient”. The thoughtful defense of Jeremiah Wright’s ministry advanced by John Petty in his blog Hurt Feelings All Around is welcome indeed.

The Obama candidacy and the Obama-Wright debate are truly what we need to awaken from the deep moral sleep brought upon us by great wealth and the industrial transformation of our natural resources, but also by the complacency of a Western world grateful to have been saved twice during the XXth century from total self-annihilation.

For an interesting take on these issues and a book “preview”, readers might have a look at the Boston Globe article by Charles Derber and Yale Magrass(*) which appeared in yesterday’s Boston Globe, “The ‘Wright problem’ belongs to America“.

(*) Charles Derber and Yale Magrass are the authors of Morality Wars: How Empires, the Born Again, and the Politically Correct Do Evil in the Name of Good