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

The Problem with Obama

It has become evident, as it must be to any socially conscious American who lives or has lived in one of America’s major urban areas, that Mr. Obama’s blackness is a problem, but not in the usual way. He is an attractive man who I believe is fully qualified to represent America and me before humanity’s highest authorities. Obama’s problem rather, is that his core constituency and political base is urban. The support of rural black and small town voters is almost incidental, secondary.

The traditional American political cleavage–upstate versus downstate, urban versus rural–may now be characterized, which is not to say, caricatured, as red-state/blue-state: states with a high percentage of urban voters versus states with a predominantly rural and small town mentality.

This became apparent in reviewing county polling results between Clinton and Obama in the Pennsylvania primary and should be apparent again in Indiana and probably in North Carolina.

The question, becomes then, “is America ready to elect a ‘big city’ candidate, one who is a reflection of globalization? Will we continue to ignore the world or will we take stock of our responsibilities in shaping world outcomes while remembering that we have much work to do in our own communities?

The question for Democrats then, should be which coalition has a greater chance of winning the 2008 general elections: the feminist, social-democrats or a healing coalition of urban blacks and middle class whites frustrated with the status quo?

Beyond electoral politics, the question for Americans might be, how can we redefine our attitudes and expectations to account for the reasonable expectations of America’s underclasses?

If John Kerry was not electable why would Barack Obama be any more so?

Moving On

Paul Rogers’ article in today’s issue of Open Democracy, Pakistan’s Peril, is a vivid reminder if ever we needed one that life moves on and that there is no advantage to finally settling the moral issues surrounding Bush the Younger.

It is in fact, of little interest that we are “on the ground in Iraq”. What seems to matter is that once extracted from the ground war in Iraq, we must redeploy. Most have not thought beyond the issue of withdrawal to consider what to do with standing forces of over 1 million men and women. Do we need such a force?

If we are committed genuinely to a course of peace and ethical behaviour, would we need a standing army to secure energy supplies and guaranty access to natural resources?

America’s survival requires that we learn whatever lessons we can from the last 7 years, indeed, from the last fifty years, in order to avoid a repeat of these errors. And whatever these human errors–cronyism, special interest, zealotry–they must ultimately be placed in the context of the infinite and unforgiving.

Let us work for a more just society at home and more fairness in our relations with our neighbours. Let us rid ourselves of prescriptive notions that our truths are universal truths, that there should be a universally accepted standard for appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.

Multi-tasking and Local Responsibility

The Huffington Post persists in calling attention to the antics of the United States Senator from Louisiana, David Vitter, ironizing on his ability to multi-task, that is, attend to personal affairs while representing his constituents. The scroll reads: “Multitasking: Vitter received calls from DC Madam during House votes”.

This is not and should not be of any interest outside of the State of Louisiana.

Louisiana has the representation is deserves. And what America thinks of Louisiana’s delegation to Congress is of little interest and immaterial. With time, the social system that makes Louisiana function as a cohesive polity will prove itself or be replaced. That’s the way it works.

What I would like to know however, is how Louisiana is reacting to the Senator’s new clothes and whether the State will retun Mr. Vitter to the United States Senate in 2010.

Public Service, Equity and Merit

I’ve had enough Bush bashing.

The world of political comment, the blogosphere is humming. It is comforting to know that we Americans, wherever we may be and whatever our political pursuasion, are reclaiming the center of the party of Abraham Lincoln. It may be too late however, to redeem the “silent majority”. Indeed, that great rhetorical invention and group with which my own father so identified, that silent majority has been too long silent. But that is another story…, or is it?

The issue is no longer “get rid of Bush”. A far more pressing issue is to know what lessons we might learn from the mistakes and complacency of the past eight years.

Three lessons appear critical to me. I will deal with each separately over the next few posts.

1) Take the money out of politics. Politics is about community relationships and a shared commitment to the organization of “public services”. Money in politics only begets more money in an endless spiral of influence mongering. Such “influence mongering” is all the more destabilizing when the “civil service” are constrained by short term considerations and serve at executive pleasure.

2) Equity is a core value in any republican democracy. The basic rules of fairness dictate that every man, woman and child should live in equity, in fairness according to his or her just merits. This is a basic tenant of a tolerant, free society and is totally discredited when large portions of society cannot afford access to education, health or legal services. The principle of equitable acces to public services needs to be safeguarded.

3) Recognize and reward achievement. Achievement is personal merit earned by dint of hard work and ingenuity. Our system fails when we confuse “ability to pay” (priviledge) with personal achievement. The two are not related and we all know the difference.

As we reflect upon our responsibility in choosing a course for the United States, let us reflect upon these things and let these become a mantra for 2008: public service, equity and merit.

A Look in the Mirror: It’s time for a closer look at our elites

Noam Chomsky advocates radical self-criticism.

How refreshing. Where else can one get a good look in the mirror?

Foreign Policy in Focus (www.fpif.org), earlier this month (Feb. 16, 2007), published an interview with Noam Chomsky (Chomsky on Iran, Iraq and the Rest of the World)(FPIF, February 16 2007) in which the enfant terrible and critic of the American foreign policy establishment reviews a wide range of subjects, interests and strategic choices available to players on the world stage. Chomsky’s insight is right on and so close to home that such reading should be required of all Americans considering a political choice of governing elites.

We in France are also preparing a full slate of elections. This year we will elect a President, both houses of the legislature and 36,373 municipal councils… talk about participative democracy! As citizens of France we are keenly aware of the need to evaluate our elites in the face of rapidly changing energy, security and social considerations. Our criteria are the hopes and desires we hold for ourselves and for our children, our friends and neighbors, all within a larger European, Mediterranean and hemispheric context.

I suspect we will evaluate our elites on their energy and environmental policies, on their approach to social and fiscal discipline, to law and order and to job creation. As we consider the individual or group to whom we would delegate authority, we consider their respect for the values we hold as our own: compassion, fortitude, perseverance, diligence.

In Europe this is an exercise in interconnectedness, not unlike the process getting underway in America. European interconnectedness however, is rooted in the landscape and extends beyond the limits of a confederation of European states, to the steppes of Asia, to Middleastern desertlands and to sub-saharan Africa. These people with their own hopes and aspirations are at our doorstep, how can we refuse them? What choice do we have?

It is only fitting that our national elites — whether they be French, English, Spanish, Latin- or Anglo-American — act in our interests. The difficult question though, is how are these interests defined? Should we look at ourselves in the mirror and say uncritically, “I like what I see”, and define our interests as a continuation of the status quo? What do we see when we look in the mirror? A society that measures success on the ability to consume? This is perhaps Life. But is it responsible?

I think not. This is how we wound up with an oil and gas lobby, and a special interest White House with an out-of-control war establishment. At what cost energy sufficiency? And why should somebody else pay that price? We cannot afford, indeed, the world will not tolerate another round of complacent partisanship in America.

Cultural Hegemony and “Buying the War”

I am writing from the vantage of not having seen Bill Moyers’ documentary, Buying the War. I have however, read several reviews and feel confident in predicting that the documentary probably does not go very far in asking how the rest of the English speaking world got caught up in the rush to war.

The answer I believe, has to do with the power of an idea, the “American ideal”, America’s youthful charisma and America’s extraordinary economic power. In the English-speaking world there was a lot of pressure to go along. The English language press, wherever found, was “in orbit” around U.S.-centric media sources. The farther one got from the media sources, the less convincing the arguments.

This was not the case for French media, who, while acquainted with U.S. journalistic practices, managed to maintain their distance. France has a long colonial history and enjoys good relations in Arabic speaking and Mediterranean circles, a background that gave French media some perspective on the drumbeat for war and continues to give the French an advantage on the “human side” of multilateral negociations.

Cultural hegemony will continue to be a problem for America so long as we restrict our thought models to people who look and behave like ourselves, who are native English speakers and citizens of the United States. America’s failure in Iraq (as before in Vietnam) could be taken as a lesson in humility to be accepted gratefully.

Maybe during the Cold War we were unprepared to learn our lesson and take the medicine. There is no excuse not to do so now.

Ours has not been a failure of “will” or of “material means”, but of “governance” and “reason”. We can only be the better for learning such lessons.