Why the dream has been deferred

King-Jr-Martin-LutherYou can’t say the N word anymore. You get sued if you racially discriminate in your hiring process. White kids grow up listening to rap music and (if they’re not too “Christian”) going to public school with the black kids. We have a black president. How dare you say that racism still exists in America? Right? White people are very defensive and paranoid about racism, which has come to mean little more than saying “politically incorrect” things when you’re drunk or otherwise off-guard and getting Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to bring their beloved TV cameras to your front door. This trivialization of racism as having to do with little more than “speaking correctly” is one of the reasons that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream has been deferred. But the main underlying problem is that the backlash against the civil rights movement that began in the early seventies has created a radically individualist moral vision in which Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself is basically meaningless.

The ethos of American suburbia is the sublimation of segregationism. What I mean is that race, as such, is no longer an official part of the ideology, but the ideology still results in teenagers getting profiled and ultimately murdered for walking around at night dressed like a “thug” (even if Trayvon were high when he went to buy some skittles, he would have been no different than the white potheads who comprise the majority of our neighborhood high school in the third wealthiest county in America and never get profiled by neighborhood watchmen because we live in the “safe” part of town).

The justification for segregationism when it was okay to be openly racist was to say that white women needed to be protected from the wild libido of black men. This indeed was the principal theme of the 1915 silent movie blockbuster hit and propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation. Black men have ceased to be identified explicitly as the threat to the purity of white women. Instead, what we find in many sectors of white suburban Christianity is a world of purity culture where every young man, regardless of race, outside of the church youth group, private school, or homeschooling enclave has the potential to be the “black man” who deflowers your daughter.

“What in the world are you talking about? Haven’t you heard of that little thing called the sexual revolution? You can’t turn on the TV or even walk around in a city without seeing the trashy images of sex everywhere. How dare you call purity culture racist? If you had a daughter, you would want to put her in the purity ball too!” I recognize that there are other real forces that contribute to the white suburban hysteria about the sexuality of their daughters. And chaste sexuality is absolutely a worthwhile pursuit.

But when purity culture becomes an obsessive hysteria, it needs an “other” to define itself against. Even though the hysteria of purity culture isn’t necessarily caused explicitly and officially by the fear of men with African origins as it was under segregationism, the hysteria creates its own form of “black men” to be afraid of: the drug dealers, gangsta rappers, and other menacing thugs at the public high school who make it “unsafe” for white suburban Christian daughters not to be homeschooled or private schooled.

Morality today in white suburban Christian culture is almost entirely a question of purity. It’s about staying away from the wrong people so that you can get through high school without any babies or drug habits, and then go to a Christian college with all the other 5% of kids who kept their virginity, marry one of them by the time you graduate, and have a safe and stable family of your own to repeat the process.

None of these things are bad (except for the marrying young part which has caused a lot of divorce among the young evangelicals of the Reagan era). What’s problematic is when being pure is the extent of your morality because that means loving your neighbor is an optional bonus. When people see their primary moral responsibility as keeping their nuclear families safe from all the bad people out there, there’s no longer a sense that we’re all in this together.

It’s very curious how any sense of the common good became a “liberal” idea once the segregationist order ceased to exist (I suspect we stopped being a “Christian nation” at roughly around the same time). Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t scandalized by high taxes or massive public works projects like the interstate highway system. As long as everyone knew their appropriate place and side of the train tracks to live on, there was no reason to presume that the government was corrupt and everyone else in society was a lazy leech. The timing of our nation’s libertarian shift in ideology is a very interesting coincidence.

Sure, we suburban Christians engage in “ministry to the poor” to the extent that our ideology needs justification for claiming that the government shouldn’t be helping the poor (the mirror opposite of talking about what the government should do for the poor to justify your personal lack of involvement). But we aren’t opening our homes to poor people or taking them to our doctors or even inviting them to our small group Bible studies.

In most of the “ministry to the poor” that we do, we reinforce new categories of “white” and “black” which are no longer skin color per se, but rather who is wearing a volunteer badge, latex gloves, and reasonably fashionable clothing (white) and who looks a little bit less kempt and more likely to be homeless or at least poor (black). An interesting experiment for a black suburbanite would be to forget your volunteer badge when you go to the soup kitchen and see if you get treated like a client.

So what do we do about all this? Insofar as I’m speaking to fellow Christians, everything starts with our understanding of who Jesus is and what His cross meant. A morality which stresses purity and staying away from bad people is reinforced by an understanding of God as a royal curmudgeon who wants purity for purity’s sake and whose infinite anger at our imperfection must be satisfied by the blood of His Son on the cross. A morality which stresses being Christ to others and seeing Christ in others is reinforced by an understanding of Jesus as the Word of God who came to Earth to make Himself dirty with the dirtiest of people and open our eyes to the plight of the world’s crucified by displaying our sin against them on His cross.

Obviously these are oversimplifications (I’ve written about all the nuances of the cross plenty of times). But the justice God demands is not an impersonal, abstract insistence on purity. Purity is only relevant (and it is very relevant) insofar as it frees us to be outwardly focused and capable of genuine solidarity with the downtrodden people whose suffering is the injustice that makes God burn with wrath. Jesus rebukes our protests of blamelessness quite explicitly. If there is a Lazarus outside our gate to whom we are oblivious, then we are damned (Luke 16:19-31).

We do not fulfill Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream by being a people who don’t say the N word or officially discriminate on racial terms. Only a culture of genuine solidarity in which we are proactively seeking the shalom of all people, and not just the purity of our nuclear families, is a culture that is living his dream.

  • Benjamin

    Lots to unpack in this essay, Morgan. One thing observation is that it’s critical to understand racism beyond the interpersonal realm and to understand the role it plays at the institutional and structural levels. In Christian-speak, we have Ephesians, which tells us quite powerfully that we wrestle against “powers and principalities” (cf. Walter Wink’s amazing analyses).

    As an African-American man, it gets tiresome to have conversations that reduce racism to whether or not white folks like non-white folks (e.g., interpersonal realm), which never really gets at the reality of systems that operate to privelege (and oppress) individuals, regardless of personal sentiments I have about a group of people. An unfortunate effect of these discourses is that they reduce solutions to sentiments and the interpersonal realm rather than taking a deeper look as systems.

    Finally, I would encourage folks to read Dr. Camara Jones’ outstanding essay “Levels of Racism: A Theoretical Framework and a Gardener’s Tale”: http://www.cahealthadvocates.org/_pdf/news/2007/Levels-Of-Racism.pdf

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks very much for sharing that resource. Yeah people really need to understand that racism today is mostly systemic though it does materialize in subliminal ways on the interpersonal level. And of course some people are openly racist.

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  • http://www.reclaimingthemission.com David Fitch

    We need a practice of reconciliation or “solidarity” otherwise it devolves into a concept. This is why racism has been absorbed and preserved into an egalitarian culture which claims its victories over racism. Cone’s “Martin and Malcolm: Dream or Nightmare” has taught me how much more I need to learn and listen and be present within the culture/neighborhood dynamics … searching for ways even today … as I saw MLK on the TV .. Blessings good post ..

    • Morgan Guyton

      Very true. Need to get beyond theory into praxis.

  • http://gravatar.com/aspiringholyfool aspiringholyfool

    I think we are all trying to fulfill Dr. King’s dream, but we aren’t good at it yet. Keep doing it.

    We fly to Haiti and Mozambique, spending thousands and thousands of dollars to install a well. While at home in our big white church we sit and sing with other old white people.

    At the same time, behind the scenes, a handful of members of our church quietly go about inviting local homeless people in through a basement door under the church every Wednesday, and feeding them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and applesauce cups for lunch, and providing them with a hot shower. Fresh clean dry towels are always waiting for them when they get out. And some fresh clean clothing is there for them to consider switching to if they need something cleaner.

    No judgement, just love. Under the radar, because other members of our church would probably be scandalized if they knew these unworthy ones were getting away with this.

    So then, this is who we are. We do it right and we do it wrong. We try to do it like Jesus would and usually we are not close. But we decided to follow Jesus because, on the whole, this is the right way to go, even if it means doing it wrong most of the time.

    We know we don’t do it right. We look for ways to do it better. But we will not stop trying to do it because we can’t get better at it if we stop.

    This is why, despite our failures, I am willing to be called a Christian, even though to so many people that means someone who condemns people when it should mean someone who frees people.

    Perhaps that is the thing we need to focus on. Let us ask ourselves that question, “Does what I do condemn people or free them?”

    Am I pointing up or down?

    We had a wonderful saying on the left in the old days, “There is no such thing as a free and happy starving person.”

    We can’t change that from the bench. We have to change it on the field. That’s why I show up every Sunday with all the other old white people. Because worship is the springboard. Church is still the dugout where we prepare for the game. We go on the field from there. And when, once in a while, we get it right, the power of the Holy Spirit using us as its instrument of love is priceless.

    In the parable of the sower we often think of ourselves as the ground. Think of yourself as the substitute sower, a relief pitcher for Jesus.

    “Now pitching for the Followers, “YOUR NAME HERE.” The crowd goes wild. Some boos are also heard. Keep saying to yourself, “Remember, When the seeds fall on the good ground they produce a hundred fold.”

    Don’t stop spreading seeds just because all the ground is not good, or you will miss the good ground along with the bad. By all means try to toss more on the fertile ground, but don’t stop just because some of it ends up on the sidewalk.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Good stuff! It’s important to stay hopeful and yes there are many very good things happening quietly.

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