Archive for April, 2009

notredame3Personally, I would’ve loved to have any President of the United States speak at my college commencement. At least then I would be able to remember who it was. As it stands now, I have the foggiest idea who spoke at my graduation. But seriously, as a pro-life Protestant who voted for Barack Obama, I’ve tried to steer clear of the current Obama-at-Notre Dame controversy (lest I tick off my outspoken pro-life friends or my outspoken pro-Obama friends).

I’m such a wimp, I know. Call me a bad Christian,  but I just don’t have it in me to get that worked up over politics and ideology–and I realize that just by confessing this I’ve probably tainted myself in the eyes of those who see the abortion and embryonic stem cell issues as much more than matters of politics and ideology, and frankly I would agree with them. Nevertheless, I’m not wired to get all red in the face about it (for various reasons). I do, however, pray for the precious lives of the unborn (as well as the born). And I pray that our president will stay true to his pledge to help reduce the need for abortions and that he’ll stay open to hearing the views of “the other side,” as he promised. 

As a journalist, it’s interesting to watch the gathering storm form around the University of Notre Dame following its invitation to President Obama. For many Catholics, this has become a deeply personal matter, one which they feel obligated to take a strong stand against. Just witness the news today that Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, a devout Catholic who was to receive a special medal during the Notre Dame commencement ceremony, has now declined Notre Dame’s honor as a protest against President Obama’s pro-choice views. (This commentary at AOL’s new site, Politics Daily, offers an interesting perspective on this latest chapter of the controversy.) For Catholics like Glendon, the integrity of their church is at stake. Still other pro-life folks have seized upon the controversy as a golden opportunity to promote their cause and protest the policies of a pro-choice president. I think it’s good theater but also a healthy outworking of democracy.

I’m reminded of the controversy at Calvin College, back in May 2005, when then-President George W. Bush was invited to participate in the commencement service at that  evangelical school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Though many welcomed his participation, a vocal movement of staff, students, alumni, and community members were against his coming. They even published two open letters to the president and took out a full-page ad in the local paper to publicly air their disenchantment. In the letters–one from students and alumni, another from faculty and staff–the protesters articulated their grievances, particularly noting President Bush’s launching of an “unjust and unjustified” war, his neglect of the needy and “coddling” of the rich, and his administration’s fostering of “intolerance and divisiveness.” You can read both of the letters here.

Interestingly enough, both the Calvin protest and now the Notre Dame uprising are related to issues of life. For the Notre Dame protesters, opposing Obama means standing up for the sanctity of life and the rights of the unborn. For the Calvin protesters, opposing Bush meant standing against war and standing up for social justice and the rights of the underprivileged. Unfortunately, in the heat of protest, it’s often difficult for either side to see what they hold in common, that God calls us to care equally about all issues of life. (Plus, trying to be all diplomatic and conciliatory on these issues gets you branded as a flake and does very little for your fundraising efforts.) 

In any event, I envy the students at Notre Dame right now (as I did the Calvin folks back in 2005). What a great educational experience, to be able to observe and participate in this working out of politics, religion, and civic engagement from their front-row position. Wouldn’t you love to be in one of Mark Noll‘s classes about now?

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This week’s issue of Newsweek features a compelling article about the evolution of race relations at Princeton University (“Black in the Age of Obama”). By looking at the experiences of two African American Princeton students from the turbulent 1960s and comparing them to the college experiences of their daughters some thirty-odd years later, the story highlights the progress made as well as the new struggles faced by students of color on the Princeton campus in what the article calls the “the cutting edge of ‘post-racial’ America, where race isn’t supposed to matter anymore. Except when it does.”

The article is only four pages long, but it’s full of challenging ideas. For instance, there’s the subplot running throughout the narrative that questions the existence of a “post-racial America.” Does an Obama presidency really mean race is now off the table? From the article:

Linked in the public consciousness to Barack Obama, the term “post-racial” has now expanded to encompass the era his election has ushered in. But in the real world, post-racialism is something of a mirage. Detroit is not post-racial. Neither is Congress, nor Wall Street, nor prime-time TV. Black people pretty much refuse to utter the word, Obama included. For most Americans, it’s little more than a convenient cable-news catchphrase.

But the heart of the narrative reveals how two students from the late ’60s, Henry Kennedy (’70) and Jerome Davis (’71), had to endure the racial tensions of the day, and the limited choices they had for survival. “With fewer than 20 African-Americans per class, ‘fitting in’ wasn’t an option,” the article explains. “Instead, undergraduates like Davis and Kennedy gravitated toward one of two roles: activist or invisible man.” In many ways, of course, that same dilemma remains today. 

However, for Kennedy’s and Davis’s daughters, Alex and Kamille, the racial dynamic has been complicated by the fact that racism, or racialization, is no longer as clearcut as it was back in the days of brazen prejudice and legislated segregation. As the article’s authors observe, today “at post-racial, meritocratic Princeton, it’s often impossible to say where color ends and exclusivity begins.” Which, consequently, leads to the current brand of double consciousness that I address in my book–that is, the 21st-century angst of not knowing when something (a comment, a look, a policy) is racially motivated or when it isn’t. Here’s perhaps the article’s most penetrating observation—it’s “money shot,” if you will:

In a post-racial bubble, it’s no longer the initial incident that makes being black uncomfortable; when everyone has “gotten over” race, any controversy can be easily explained away as a joke, or a misunderstanding, or ordinary, colorblind Ivy League exclusivity. But while Henry Kennedy and Jerome Davis had an outlet for their concerns, Alex and Kamille don’t. Even worse, they have the uncomfortable burden of deciding whether they should even be concerned to begin with. As a result, they, like many young, elite African-Americans, can feel boxed in. When injustices do arise, there’s pressure to brush them aside. To do otherwise would be to think too clearly in racial terms—to clash too openly with post-racial expectations. Ignoring them entirely, though, might look like a retreat from community obligations. Everyone’s a loser and everyone shares the guilt.

Though this article spotlights the experiences of African Americans at Princeton, it’s really a case study for the larger issue of race in America today. How we’ve “come a long way,” but how the cost of that progress has been a confusion about our new reality and a tendency to believe that we’ve tackled the problem, when in fact we’ve yet to have ongoing honest communication across racial and cultural lines (Hello, Eric Holder!). What’s more, our current racial progress has beget a new brand of prejudice and racial resentment that threatens to erect even larger barriers to true reconciliation (just check out this news report from today’s Chicago Tribune and look, particularly, at the reader comments). 

“Race” articles like this Newsweek report are helpful in showing us yet another aspect of the cultural landscape today, but they often wind up leaving the reader discouraged or pessimistic about the notion that we’ll ever really move beyond the pain and frustration of race relations in eras past. What the article doesn’t mention is the reality of God’s grace and the power he gives us to heal, forgive, and build bridges across our current chasms. But, of course, first we must agree that there are still chasms.

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nextevangelicalismIf you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly encourage you to check out my friend Soong-Chan Rah’s provocative new book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Today, African, Asian, and Latin American Christians make up 60 percent of the world’s Christian population. The United States and Europe will soon no longer be the center of evangelical activity in the world. With this in mind, the book calls the North American church to break free of its cultural captivity to a Western/Eurocentric/White American mindset and to embrace a new evangelicalism that is diverse and multiethnic. You can find out more here at the IVP site. 

For those of you who don’t know him, Soong-Chan is a brilliant theologian and pastor who for years led Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, a multiethnic, urban, post-modern congregation in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now a professor at North Park Theological Seminary here in Chicago, Soong-Chan has rattled a lot of cages over the years by calling attention to issues of racism and cultural insensitivity in the evangelical church and community. I included a story about the Rickshaw Rally fiasco in my book, Reconciliation Blues, and I blogged about Soong-Chan’s role in the Zondevan/Youth Specialities controversy a couple years ago. In addition, when I was the editor of Today’s Christian, I published an insightful interview with Soong-Chan about the Youth Specialities episode and his ministry of activism. Though he may have gained a reputation as a rabble-rouser in some quarters, I know him as a kind-hearted, passionate man of God who loves the church and lost people.

We’re planning to do an interview with Soong-Chan about his book for that other little blog that I’m involved with, UrbanFaith.com. If you have any questions you’d like to hear Soong-Chan address about the book or his ministry in general, please leave them in the comments area below, or send them to me directly through my website. We’ll publish the interview in the next couple weeks, so send your questions soon. Thanks!

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Love this tidbit picked up today by Rudy Carrasco at his blog. You can read the full report here. Any thoughts from Southern Baptists brethren out there? How is that aspect of President Akin’s message playing in local SBC congregations these days?

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Did anyone else hear the NPR story this morning about how heroin and opium addiction are destroying Afghan families? Sadly, even mothers and their young children are being lured into the grip of these drugs. An excerpt from the report:

“When I smoke this, I don’t experience any unhappiness. My nerves calm down. If I don’t do this I go crazy,” says Karima, an addict who is the mother of six children. She shares her home with her addicted parents and other relatives in a poor hillside neighborhood in Kabul. 

Her young children suffer ill effects of being bathed by opium and heroin smoke since birth. They do not attend school. The oldest is Fahima. At 12, she is the size of a child half her age. She has big brown eyes and bald spots on her head from malnutrition.

Fahima is the one her mother sends out to buy drugs to stoke her habit. “My mom nags me to go get hashish and opium so she can be happy. If she doesn’t use it, she gets angry and hits us all,” Fahima says.

The soaring rates of drug abuse are driven in part by Afghanistan’s widespread unemployment and social upheaval under the Taliban and the U.S.-led war, begun in 2001. Another factor is the flood of returning Afghan refugees from Iran, many of whom became heroin addicts there.

And fueling it all is an overabundance of opium and heroin in Afghanistan, the world’s largest cultivator of poppies in the world.

The addicts say that heroin is a cheap way to forget their miserable existence.

My wife and I were both quiet after listening to this report. We were particulary saddened by the reporter’s final description of the 12-year-old Fahima. 

Please join me in praying for the situation in Afghanistan, especially for the innocent lives that are being devastated by the side effects of war and oppression.

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“Is colorblindness or multiculturalism better for minorities?” I missed this post by Dawn Turner Trice when it first appeared a couple weeks ago. Trice hosts an ongoing, and always lively, forum at the Exploring Race blog at ChicagoTribune.com. In the blog post, she talks about a recent University of Georgia study on “colorblindness” in the workplace. Anyone out there familiar with it? The study’s findings suggest that pursuing a colorblind culture may not be the best approach in a work environment—or in life. From the post:

The study found that “contrary to popular beliefs, workplaces that downplay racial and ethnic differences actually make minority employees feel less engaged with their work,” said [Victoria] Plaut, the study’s lead author. “Minority employees sense more bias against them in these allegedly colorblind settings.”

Plaut said it’s not clear whether the bias is correctly sensed, but research has shown that there’s a correlation between whites who profess colorblindness and racial bias.

“For a long time whites have been told they should not pay attention to race,” she said. “It’s best if we all assume people are all the same, right? But this type of colorblindness often is based on assimilation.” 

That means, in some cases, it’s easier for a white person to be colorblind if the person of color acts white, or fits almost seamlessly into the white norm.

Whoa, that last line is the zinger. I’ve actually been talking about the whole “integration vs. assimilation” issue at Christian colleges and conferences over the past couple years, so it’s interesting to see a report that adds a little academic heft to my anecdotal musings. On the one hand, colorblindness seems like the only way to have a fair and equitable workplace or educational system or insurance coverage or mortgage lending, etc. But when you think about the real-life relationships that go into making a job or a school what they are, it would seem odd and a little unnatural not to acknowledge the reality of race and different cultures. Indeed, I’ve often found some of the most fulfilling aspects of work or school to be chances to rub shoulders with and really get to know people who have cultural backgrounds and life experiences that are different from my own. To wear racial or cultural “color-blinders” would have deprived me of a lot of those rich interactions.

Though I see the wisdom of a colorblind approach on some levels, when it comes to getting along with a coworker or classmate or neighbor, I think we have much to lose by denying the reality of seeing each other as God has made us and, when possible, celebrating our unique gifts and attributes. In fact, I wonder if this is at the heart of the notion of loving your neighbor? It’s a lot easier to “love” people—or get along with them, at least—when we can fit them into our own neat little preconceived categories. And often, it’s just simpler to exclude race or religion or other cultural differences from the equation. But then are we really taking the time to know that other person, to value them, to see them?

Over the years, I’ve had white friends say to me at different times something like this (or its equivalent): “Ed, I don’t even see you as a black person; when I look at you, I just see a person.” On the one hand, that’s a very thoughtful and heartfelt sentiment to express—and I appreciate and receive the spirit in which it was shared. However, on the other hand, such a comment could suggest that there might be something inherently wrong with the fact of my blackness. What’s more, it’s a flagrant denial of a very real aspect of my personhood.

I have a white friend whose family traces its lineage back to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. One day, my friend shared with me a long story about these family connections. Though he apologetically acknowledged the fact that, well, Davis was a Confederate and that there’s some awkward history there for a person of my complexion, my friend was nonetheless proud (on some level) of his family history. As he shared, my first impulse was to say something like, “Come on, man! Do you think I really want to hear that?” But I didn’t. He was my friend, after all, and I could tell this was important stuff to him. Only later did I realize that my listening to his story, and trying to understand his complicated relationship to his family roots, was part of seeing my friend and knowing him in full.

This Tribune blog post on colorblindness actually was brought to my attention by one of my white coworkers yesterday. We chatted for at least a half-hour about issues of race and culture. He shared honestly with me about some of his experiences with people of other races and how one of his older relatives, a child of a more racially segregated era, had built relationships across racial lines even as he struggled with prejudiced thinking. The fact that my white colleague felt comfortable talking with me about race and culture in the workplace was a positive thing. I believe we both gained a deeper insight about the other person. This would not have been possible in a “colorblind” environment. 

So how would you answer Dawn Turner Trice’s question? Which is better, colorblindness or multiculturalism? Or, is that the wrong question to ask?

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Well, March Madness is over and tonight Michigan State and North Carolina face off in the men’s college basketball championship. Every year around this time, there’s a disturbing report or two highlighting the low graduation rates of African American college athletes, particularly in the NCAA basketball programs. This year, a study by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports exposes some of the sad facts: While they excel on the court, most black players in elite college basketball programs leave college without a diploma. And it’s not just because they’re skipping out early for lucrative NBA careers. In “Got Game, But No Diploma,” a story featured today at The Root.com, once again hits us with a sobering dose of reality. Some excerpts:

If the championship in NCAA men’s basketball was based on the graduation rates of black players on the teams, it would be Duke and Villanova taking the court tonight in Detroit rather than Michigan State and the University of North Carolina….

 In general, white male student athletes graduate at 80 percent versus only 58 percent of their black teammates. That disparity represents a slight improvement over last year’s numbers which showed a 24 percent gap….

 None of the teams that made it to the Sweet 16 this year can boast a 100 percent graduation rate for its black players. Two colleges—Arizona and Gonzaga—didn’t graduate any black players at all. Arizona, Duke, Michigan State, Missouri, UNC, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Xavier graduated all of their white players….

 Some critics say that teams with especially poor graduation rates—like UConn with an overall graduation rate of 33 percent and Arizona with an overall rate of 20 percent—should not be eligible for the championship tournament….

 Michigan State had the greatest disparity in graduation rates among those Sweet 16 teams. All of its white players graduated; but only 43 percent of the black players got a diploma….

 Boyce Watkins, a professor at Syracuse University, sees the NCAA graduation numbers as just another tragic chapter in the lives of poor, black young men. “It’s like they back the bus up to the black neighborhoods, load up all the good players, then spit them out in a couple of years when they are done,” Watkins said. And when that happens, they often return to the poverty and distressed social conditions they left behind….

Debates about the treatment of African American student athletes in the big-time business of college sports will certainly continue (Should they be paid? Should they be required to stay in school longer before jumping to the NBA? Should there be greater attention paid to their academic eligibility?). But with literally billions of dollars at stake for the colleges, sponsors, TV networks, etc., I don’t anticipate anything changing soon. Still, as we’re watching those players run the court tonight in one of the biggest moneymaking sporting events of the year, I think it’s important to be mindful of these issues. Ultimately, those players are responsible for their own choices regarding their education and future success, but how complicit are we as consumers (and citizens) in enabling a system that may be doing more harm than good to the lives of these young athletes? And what, if anything, can we do to change it?

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The new Life.com features a collection of never-before-published photos of the events in the hours immediately following Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Here’s an AP story about the photos.

At my Facebook page, where I posted a link to the gallery, my friend Vinita Hampton Wright made the observation, “How ordinary the setting of such a pivotal event.” And I agree. I was especially fascinated by the image of King’s SCLC colleagues gathered in the small motel room after his death. It reminded me of the mood in the house when, as a little boy, I accompanied my parents to the home of a family friend who had just passed away. You can feel the awful silence, that sense of feeling lost but having no other choice but to carry on.

Tomorrow marks the forty-first anniversary of Dr. King’s death.

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