Sunday, June 21, 2015

Racism Didn’t Take a Vacation While You Were Out

This post was first published on on June 18, 2015. 

This blog post is not about convincing you racism is real. This blog post is not about how talking about race is not the same as racism. This blog post is not ranking people of color groups from least to most oppressed. This blog post is not going to explain the basics (You can check out the first chapter of Race in a Post-Obama Era).

Nobody wants to be called a racist. 

We in the U.S. tend to think the only racists are the white supremacists on terrorist watch lists. The rest of us are… what? Just innocent, yet well-meaning bystanders to the real problem?

I was the Online Conversation Curator for the NEXT Church 2015 national gathering. At the opening, planners discussed the NEXT Church’s commitment to talking about racism. I was struck by the invitational tone with which the NEXT Church strategy team stated its opposition to racism and its commitment to talk more often about race. Anyone who can read statistics knows that the PC(USA) remains overwhelmingly white in a country that is decreasingly so. 

I said to a friend (also a person of color), “I want to tell people ‘welcome to our party.’” She said, “Don’t you mean ‘welcome to our s***storm?!!’” The Covenant Network also announced that it will put its considerable energy behind the drive for inclusion, working on issues of racism after the almost-passage of the Belhar Confession. While I’m very sure the NEXT and Covenant Network folks were shaping their message for other white people, and probably to those who are not accustomed to talking about race, as a person of color who talks/thinks about/lives race every day, and who has been around people committed to working on issues of racism for years, I felt as though they were finally catching up with our reality. 

The church used to talk about race and racism. And then, like every other mainline denomination, the PC(USA) made cuts that effectively eliminated full-time antiracism work at a systemic level. Individual synods, presbyteries, and churches have, of course, continued on. And the national offices does have a position for racial and gender justice (yes, one position for two justice categories). But the last major policy on racism was passed in 1999 (EDIT: a significantly revised version, including study guides, was approved in 2016), before anti-Arab racism commingled with Islamophobia so effectively in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 that men from majority-Muslim countries were asked to register at offices of Immigration and Naturalization Services (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and this registration resulted in indefinite detention and deportation for many; before the U.S. as a society started talking about the explicitly racist and disproportionate rates of arrests, sentencing, and incarceration of people of color; before the term “microaggressions” made it from purely academic parlance to more widespread cultural usage; before the wealth inequality gap widened to today’s shocking proportions, thanks in no small part to the recession and uneven recovery. In the 2000s, the Presbyterian Center moved away from anti-racism work toward cultural proficiency. (Because the issue isn’t racism, or power, right? It’s just that we’re not culturally proficient. Right…) The church went along with U.S. dominant culture’s drift in the 1990s away from addressing racism to multiculturalism.

And in 2015, racism is back in vogue. 

I don’t mean it’s suddenly showing up again. Racism doesn’t take a vacation. Some of us don’t have the luxury of talking about it some decades and then not talking about it other decades. Some of us are in it every day 

Do you know the parable of the laborers in the vineyard? Some of the laborers showed up bright and early and worked hard all day. Some of the laborers showed up toward the end of the day. All the laborers were paid the same. I’m fortunate enough to know some of the laborers in our church who showed up at 6am. They have been working hard, and when I showed up at noon (I’m still under 40, okay? When I was 21, I was still late to their s***storm.), they were nice enough to take me under their wing. When this latest “let’s talk about race” thing happened, it was like laborers showing up at 5pm. 

Jesus said, “ I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you” (Matthew 20:14). I’m the laborer who grumbles in verse 12.

I roll my eyes when white people talk about racism as though they just noticed it in Ferguson, MO, or Baltimore, MD, or McKinney, TX. But honestly, I’ll give it to Jesus. He’s right in that parable. He is allowed to do what he chooses (v. 15). And sometimes he chooses people who just started having this conversation yesterday.

I would rather have anyone as a partner than not have anyone at all. I might forget I said this, and grumble, but we are both still a part of this church. We need each other. All our labor is valuable, because we need all of us in this work of ending racism. While all of us need to keep studying up on it and learning about contemporary manifestations, historical roots and causes, ways to end it, some of us want to see some work get done. 

You want to fight racism? 

Enough talking. Let’s do something concrete. Here are some ideas.

1) Are members of your church and community capable of having a conversation about race and racism? Do they possess the vocabulary and the tools to make such conversations fruitful? If not, consider building the capacity of your community to talk about, identify, and work to end racism. You may begin by doing some reading and having conversations. A beginning list of good reads might include: Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds, A Different Mirror, Lies My Teacher Told Me, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, The New Jim Crow, The Anti-Racist Cookbook, and White By Law.

2) After doing some studying up, you may be ready to hire consultants to work with you. Set aside funds in partnership with other churches, your presbytery, community groups, to provide trainings and other resources. A training can lead to an action plan that is informed, contextual, and has buy-in from the community. There are many organizations that will provide training. 

3) Find out how the community around your church participates in or benefits from or is penalized by institutionalized racism. Perhaps your neighborhood is gentrifying, and lower income residents, especially people of color, can no longer afford to live there. Work with your local city council person to ensure new housing includes a certain percentage of housing for lower-income residents. Maybe your police department has a tendency to over-police communities of color, which experience disproportionate rates of stops and arrests. Find out which organizations are working with the police to increase community oversight and improve relationships, and lend your voice or some volunteers, or provide funding and a meeting space.

4) Is talking about racism hard? Stay with it. I have elders in the Asian American, African American, Arab American, Latin@, and Native American communities who have been working against racism their entire lives as a matter of survival. I even know a few white people who have been committed to ending racism throughout their lives. Ending racism can’t be just a fad. White privilege isn’t just a bandwagon you hop on because everyone else is suddenly talking about it, and then hop off when something else catches your attention. Some people I know read that Peggy McIntosh article when it was published decades ago, and have been talking about it and working on it for that long. Find a community that provides accountability and support for the long work ahead. Some communities (such as Kalamazoo, MI) have set up accountability groups to help provide support throughout the life-long process of ending racism. 

5) Racism is part of our society. The manifestations of racism are always changing, even as they stay the same. Stay updated on what is happening in antiracism circles, and keep an eye on the news. The more you watch what is happening around you, the more you will see the places racism needs to be rooted out. Good sources of news on social media include Colorlines. Lots of civil rights organizations and organizations specific to various racial and ethnic groups also provide community-specific news.

6) We’re all consumers. Support companies that are committed to racial and gender diversity. Support companies that pay their lowest-wage workers well, as people of color are disproportionately represented among low-wage workers. 

7) Support voting drives in underrepresented communities (often these are communities of color). Volunteer to drive people to the polls. Volunteer to be a poll watcher to ensure people aren’t being turned away for frivolous reasons. Support candidates who support voters rights, not those who support restricting voting on the basis of Voter ID laws.

8) Keep the conversation about racism happening in your church, at your presbytery, at the national level of the church. Support funding for trainings, capacity-building, and staff whose role is to support the church’s commitment to ending racism. Many mid-councils struggle to meaningfully include minority populations in leadership, decision-making, and conversations (whether they are working parents, immigrant pastors, or youth). Work with your presbytery to ensure better access by finding out what the barriers are to access, and addressing those barriers. Periodically check to make sure this access is more than just token representation, but a systems change for the better.

There are other important issues besides racism, aren’t there? Yes. There are. So many. But racism cuts across all of them. Think about it. There are women of color. There are gay, lesbian, queer, bisexual, transgender people of color. Some of them probably want to get married. There are children of color. There are poor people of color. There are young people of color. (See? I think I covered it.)

But taking a concrete step is a step in the right direction, even at five in the afternoon. Every little bit helps. 

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