Race in a Post-Obama America (David Maxwell) - Review

RACE IN A POST-OBAMA AMERICA: The Church Responds. Edited by David Maxwell; Foreword by Otis Moss III. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xix + 139 pages.

                Racism is referred to as America’s “original sin.” It is a sin that led to the genocide of much of the Native American population. It was expressed in chattel slavery of persons brought to this continent from Africa. It was also expressed in laws that denied persons from Asia from either immigrating or gaining citizenship in the United States. It has also been expressed in the treatment of Latinos/as—a community of peoples, many of whom trace their ancestry to a time before much of the Southwest was part of the United States. The ramifications of these original sins remain with us. We might like to believe that all of this lies behind us, but the truth is, racism remains a scourge on the American psyche. Many hoped that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States would mark the dawn of a new post-racial era. While his election was an important milestone in American history, the past seven years has seen not the decrease of racism but an increase in its public presence.

                Even as attempts are made to build relationships, educate against racism, and reform institutions change has proven to be slow. Indeed, the names Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown that gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, along with the rise of the Birther Movement, and growing Islamophobia are all signs that there is much work to do. Simply claiming to be color-blind will not suffice.  

                As a white male Christian, reading books about race and racism isn't comfortable. Neither is acknowledging white privilege. Even if I don't embrace white supremacy, there are certain privileges accorded to me, whether I ask for them or not, that are related to my color. By understanding that these privileges exist I put myself in a better position to stand as an ally with those who because of their ethnicity and race do not share in these privileges, but in the end I still have privileges. It is important to understand that these privileges have little to do with economics and everything to do with color. 

                As an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am expected to participate in anti-racism training. This training is designed to sensitize clergy to the realities just mentioned so that we can help our congregations move forward toward being anti-racist communities. Educating ourselves to these realities is important, and there is an increasing number of books and resources that help us in this regard. One of these books is Race in a Post-Obama America

                This book has its origins in conversations on the part of the faculty at Presbyterian-related McCormick Theological Seminary. It is edited by David Maxwell, the acquisitions editor for Westminster John Knox Press, the publisher of this book. This is a committee-written book with ten contributors, including the editor and the author of the foreword—Otis Moss III. All except Moss are Presbyterian. Ethnic identity is not noted in the bios, though names can suggest an ethnic background. Thus, this is a book that represents a conversation among a group of people with a shared concern for the church and the broader world. One of the contributors, the Rev. Mary Gene Boteler, writes in the introduction that the book is especially written for white Christians living in the United States so that they might "read, discuss with others, and initiate or continue a plan of action to confront racism" (p. xviii). The book both educates and calls the reader to action. 

                The book is divided into two parts. Part one defines and recounts racism in six chapters. The authors define terms, explore the relationship of the Bible to racism, and then offers four chapters that provide a historical overview. In chapter three we explore the years 1492 (the date of Columbus' fateful voyage) to 1790. The later date marks the beginnings of the American nation. Chapter 4 covers 1790 to 1954 (the latter date being the moment of "Brown v. the Board of Education," the Supreme Court decision that overthrew separate but equal legislation. In the next chapter the timeline grows shorter. It takes us from 1954 to 1973, a period in which racism went from being overt to covert. Finally, in chapter 6 we explore the post-Civil Rights movement era. This final era was supposed to be the time when things would change. But in reality racism simply changed its stripes. This is the period of the New Jim Crow when mass incarceration disenfranchised large swaths of the African American community. It is a period where anti-Arab racism emerged, in part due to the war on terror. Moves toward multi-culturalism emerged but were often resisted. 

                If Part I offers definitions and recounts history, Part II focuses on the realities of racism today. There are five chapters in this section. The first chapter asks the question of whether the election of President Obama ended racism. The current election cycle offers us an important reminder that racism continues to exist. Chapter 8 is a difficult chapter to read for it raises the question of segregated churches and whether they imply racism. While Martin Luther King decried the reality that eleven o'clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week, the authors aren't so sure that the continuing existence of ethnic churches is a necessary sign of racism. While truly integrated worship is to be welcomed, a case can be made for, at least it this moment, the continuing existence of ethnic churches. But if we do move toward multi-cultural worship it needs to be more than simply a reflection of the dominant culture's preferences without allowing for other expressions to exist. The authors write that "dominant-culture hegemony is akin to the melting-pot metaphor in which all ingredients are welcomed but are expected to surrender their distinctiveness to assume the flavor and texture of the soup" (p. 80). Better is the metaphor of the salad, where distinctive elements are present and celebrated! We have a long way to go before this reality is widespread.

                Chapter nine addresses the issue of police brutality, inviting us to consider its causes, ramifications, and offers insights into how we might as the church respond. For we who are white the police are often seen as protectors of our safety. I have very good relationships with the police in the community in which I live. But then I'm white. I've not had the negative experiences that many in communities of color have had. So I must listen and respond as requested. The reality is that in communities of color the police often are brutal in their treatment of the people. This must be stopped.

                Chapter ten is addressed primarily to white people like me by contributors who are white. This chapter addresses the challenges of white supremacy and white privilege. It serves to remind us that racism is more than prejudice. It is systemic. We who are white often miss the signs. It is telling that 80% of white youth and young adults don't like talking about race and assume that they live by a color blind code. So, what do we do? The authors provide us with eight excellent suggestions for how we who are white can address white privilege and work toward the elimination of racism. Among these include recognizing our privilege, along educating ourselves as to what this means, and then speaking up and showing up. Again, the chapter is not a comfortable read, but then it's not supposed to be.

                Finally, in chapter 11, we turn to the church's response. While we may want to quickly move toward a color-blind beloved community, they tell us that there must be justice before there can be reconciliation. That will take a lot of work. It means addressing questions of reparations and looking at the way in which we engage in mission. The authors conclude that "racism is hard-wired into this country from its founding and then through its constitution and religious, social, economic, and political life. Undoing it will take more than reading a book or going to one protest. But change and transformation and hope are also in the DNA of the Christian Disciple" (p. 124). Addressing the challenge won't be easy, but this should not deter us or lead to complacency. That is not an option.

                It's a tough read, and that is to be expected. It challenges and educates. If I have any critique is that the conversation remains too binary between black and white. While the challenges faced by Native Americans, Latinos/as, and Asians are addressed, it's mostly on the margins of the conversation. If we're going to engage in true redeeming experiences, we'll need to broaden our horizons. Nonetheless, as the current political situation reminds us, there is much work to be done if we're to truly become that Beloved Community envisioned by Dr. King. The goal is not becoming color-blind, for that simply negates the wonderful diversity that is humanity. Rather it is a move toward respect and celebration of our diversity so that out of the many we might be one. 


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