This post started with a commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Brother Ali (a local hip-hop artist … but, if you’re not into hip-hop, don’t let that lead you to underestimate him; Brother Ali is very wise!). The commentary had to do with the recent arrest of MC Hammer in the Oakland area which, for Brother Ali, touched off a reflection of how racial disparities really have not changed despite the obvious successes of MC Hammer, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey … now JayZ, Beyoncé, and Barak Obama. “Would a white person ever need to transcend their race to achieve mainstream greatness?” he asks. (You can read the whole piece here … I highly recommend it.)
Maybe “we” (meaning “white people”) don’t have to transcend our race to be accepted in mainstream society – after all, we are “mainstream society.” But we do need to transcend it nonetheless. When we just accept racism … don’t recognize it … turn our deaf ears and blind eyes away from it, we allow this ugly scourge to perpetuate in our society. Our silent refusal to transcend racism ensures its continuation. That thought drives the rest of this. A couple of things have come across my path since that commentary a few weeks ago.
First up was one of those ubiquitous Facebook posters. That this one was shared by only one of my friends was one of the surprises. But perhaps others are as reluctant as I am to share it because of the firestorm that will surely erupt. The poster features this photo-shop version of Barak Obama’s official presidential photo. (I do admit it would have been more effective if the artist had chosen a more age-appropriate white male hairstyle; what’s in the picture is reminiscent of Justin Bieber.) As used in the poster by Occupy Democrats, the picture is accompanied by some points as to what would be different in people’s reactions to Obama if he were white and not black – starting with “there would be no questioning of his birth or his patriotism or his faith.”
I think it’s true. A lot of the negative reaction that Obama has endured has to do with race. But how can he say that without being accused of self-serving whining? Yet, the examples are many. For example, there was the outburst of “You lie!” from Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina during the President’s address to Congress on September 9, 2009 (a breach of protocol for which the congressman was subject to a Resolution of Disapproval that passed on essentially a party line vote). There was Arizona Governor Jan Brewer wagging her finger in the President’s face as she “greeted” (if that is indeed the word) him on the tarmac at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix on January 10, 2012. The President of the United States of America actually had to “show his papers” because of the endless – and needless! – questioning of his birth in one of our 50 states. (To my knowledge, no one has ever questioned that his mother from Kansas was a US citizen … so does it matter where he was born?). There was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell explaining that the top legislative priority for Republicans after the election in 2010 would be “to make sure Obama is a one-term president.” (So much for working for the good of the country …) Although there was some criticism about this from some conservative commentators and even some within the GOP, the criticism was quietly and softly done. In all fairness, there also have been a number of times when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Representative Nancy Pelosi (whether Speaker of the House or House Minority Leader) have presented themselves as though they were ultimately “in charge,“ more so than the President.
Now leaders among the Republicans are claiming the President owes them an apology. An apology for what? For giving Mitch McConnell no other option but to set the President’s defeat in 2012 as a top priority? For yanking the words “You lie” out of Congressman Wilson’s mouth? For having his black face in front of Governor Brewer’s wagging white finger?
Or is it for trying to lead? For all that he is the President of the United States … for all the votes he has won … for all that he has achieved, he is still a black man. And a black man is automatically inferior to a white man … to any white person … or so goes so the subtle (ill)logic of racism.
But who should say this?
I was going to keep quiet … but then some more things happened. First, I finished the Winter 2013 issue of World & Word. (Here’s the link to that issue.) Among the book reviews was Clint Schnekloth’s review of The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. I read the book with a group this past summer and I recommend it just as much as Schnekloth does it. To echo Schnekloth: “if you read only one piece of theologically informed nonfiction this year, make it this one” (if you haven’t already). One of the strong points Cone makes in his book is the failure of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to see the connection between the lynchings so common in those days and the cross that stood at the center of Niebuhr’s ethical thinking. (If you aren’t into books, here’s a link to some YouTube videos of Dr. Cone discussing the book)
We discussed this point in the group with whom I read the book. I wondered if perhaps Niebuhr didn’t say anything because he didn’t really see anything. He didn’t have to. As a white male of privilege, he didn’t have to see all the lynchings – or even think about them – unless he wanted to. That’s true of those of us who are white; we do not have to see racism unless we choose to. But when I do look and do see it, it is not my responsibility to say something? Being reminded of Niebuhr’s failure caused me to consider where my own silence might be a similar failure (even if a much smaller in range of impact).
Then there was the March 16th “God’s Pause” devotion from Luther Seminary. Dr. Paul Sponheim (one of the teachers I am most fond of from my days there) had been writing that week. The devotion for that Saturday was on the spiritual “Were You There” … and in his brief prayer, Dr. Sponheim used the word lynching.
Since I’ve been working on this post, there have been public comments that the actor cast as “Satan” in The Bible miniseries bears some resemblance to Barack Obama. I’ve seen the pictures … and I can see a resemblance. But I’m not sure I would have noticed it myself. What I did notice is that the producers chose a dark skinned actor for the part. Why not a gorgeous dreamboat of a white guy? Why someone who has one of the darkest complexions in the cast?
It’s racism – whether we say so or not. I frequently drive by the airport where there are signs all over the place reading: “If you see something, say something.” I’m seeing something here; so I’m saying something. I can be silent no more. Back in the February 20, 2013 issue of The Christian Century, Peter Kane (responding to a small news article about petitions for states to secede) wrote in his letter: “The time is long past to name the behavior of certain members of Congress and their talk radio pals for what it is” [“it” being racism]. I agree. And I’m saying so out loud and in public.This is racism. It’s ugly. It does no favors to any of us. Our silence only feeds it. We owe it to mainstream society to transcend it.