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Posts Tagged ‘racial reconciliation’

DO_THE_RIGHT_THINGIt’s hot in Chicago. Summer is officially doing its thing. Like so often with the weather here, one day you’re shoveling snow from the driveway, the next you’re listening to the A/C crank up and praying that the sump pump kicks in after the latest monsoon.

So here we are again in 90-degree heat and humidity, and I’m thinking, How appropriate, given that this summer marks the 20th anniversary of Spike Lee’s classic and enduringly controversial film Do the Right Thing. The movie first hit theaters on June 30, 1989.

Those of you who have seen the film will recall that it takes place on one of the longest and hottest days of the summer in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyevesant neighborhood. Lee begins the film slowly and deliberately, painting a picture of a predominantly black neighborhood made up of a diversity of people, characters, and races that each bring something unique to the urban landscape. It’s not Norman Rockwell harmony, but it’s a real-life community where disparate parts manage to get along. But, as is usually the case when it comes to race relations in America, tension and unrest are simmering beneath the surface.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, please forgive (or avoid) the spoilers that follow the original 1989 trailer below.

Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man for Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American whose restaurant has been on the same corner since old days (i.e., before the neighborhood became mostly black). The blacks in Bed-Stuy have a sort of love-hate relationship with Sal’s Pizzeria. While it’s nice to have a spot for tasty pizza in the ‘hood, there’s an ambivalence about the fact that one of the community’s primary businesses is owned by a white man. During the film’s climax, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) confront Sal to demand he put a black face among his all-white wall of fame. A fight ensues, and when the police show up, Raheem is choked to death by an NYPD officer, which sets off a horrible riot.

This 1989 review by critic Roger Ebert offers a good overview of the movie. Suffice it to say, Spike Lee’s film, like any good piece of art, is open to a variety of interpretations. He doesn’t tell you what to think, though it’s easy for some to come away with the sense that, ultimately, the film is a call for some degree of black nationalism and militancy—or for black folk to at least keep the option available.

An obvious question for us today is, how does Do the Right Thing play in this so-called “age of Obama”? Is it still relevant? I’ll resist calling this era “post-racial,” for I’m sure many of you could quickly tick off a thousand reasons why it’s not. But we’ve clearly moved into a different and better era of racial understanding from what we faced in America 20 years ago, right? (Let the debate begin.) We’ve survived Rodney King, the O.J. trial, Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and the first couple seasons of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. What’s more, we elected an African American president.

Ironically, it turns out that Do the Right Thing was the film that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date, and it consequently holds a special place in their personal history. Newsweek wonders why this seemingly minor but potentially significant fact didn’t get played up more by the media during the presidential race last year, when Obama’s opponents were looking for any and all evidence of his racial and political militancy. And TheRoot.com thinks it’s odd, though not surprising, that Obama himself rarely mentions that aspect of he and Michelle’s first date. (Though, when one listens to Obama’s ruminations on race in America today, you can hear his desire to acknowledge the multiple points of view that usually exist on the different sides of the color and class line in our nation.)

Also at TheRoot.com, journalist Natalie Hopkinson offers a fascinating reassessment of the film’s message and legacy. While she concedes the film’s cultural importance—and confesses that she reveled in the righteous indignation that the film inspired in blacks who had felt oppressed and wrongly profiled for much too long, in retrospect Hopkinson questions the film’s underlying message of angry black nationalism. She suggests that what will be needed for true racial uplift today is not a spirit of racial separation but one of multiracial cooperation. She writes:

In 1989, Do the Right Thing rightly railed against police brutality and institutional racism that reduced the life chances and quality of life of many black people in urban areas. If combating those conditions, which still exist, is what we mean by fighting the power, I will be the first to put on boxing gloves.

But 20 years on, Buggin Out’s kind of fight feels futile. Symbolically and literally speaking, we are the Power. We need Sal’s Famous Pizzerias in the neighborhood, and we need the Mookies of the world to open their own businesses, too. It’s messy. It’s sometimes tense, often uncomfortable. We won’t always understand each other. But come on back. We need that slice.

Hopkinson’s essay, I believe, rightly calls us to “do a new thing”—that is, to allow forgiveness and solidarity to trump our lingering racial resentment, bitterness, and fear. But I don’t think her change of heart about Do the Right Thing necessarily diminishes what the film was trying to do those two decades ago.

Ultimately, Spike Lee was challenging his viewers to wrestle with their prejudices and misconceptions about the American condition. To his credit, Lee understood that this would mean different things to different people, and provoke different responses based on each person’s life experience. In that way, Do the Right Thing was—and is—a bold piece of filmmaking and a disturbing but effective tool for an honest discussion of racial reconciliation in America.

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CheckAll130x200Interesting timing. On the day that we posted an UrbanFaith.com interview with author Sundee Frazier about being “Multiracial in the Age of Obama,” this Associated Press report hits the circuit as well. The AP report says multiracial people have become the fastest growing demographic group in America.

Our UrbanFaith interview with Frazier, the author of an important IVP book titled Check All That Apply, explores the multiracial experience, what it has meant to have a mixed-race president, and some of the challenges that remain despite our nation’s progress on race issues. Please check it out and leave some comments; we need some action over there at UrbanFaith.

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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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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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An article in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention this morning. It’s about the “Ebony Experiment,” an Oak Park, Illinois, couple’s controversial mission to “buy black” and spend their money exclusively with black-owned businesses for an entire year. John and Maggie Anderson’s purpose is to encourage the growth of African American business and entrepreneurship and help solve what they call “the crisis in the black community.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“More than anything, this is a learning thing,” said Maggie Anderson, who grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami and holds a law degree and an MBA from the University of Chicago. “We know it’s controversial, and we knew that coming in.”

But the Andersons said they also have known that a thriving black economy is fundamental to restoring impoverished African-American and other “underserved” communities, and they have discussed for years trying to find a way to address the problem.

What they came up with is provocative. One anonymous letter mailed to their home accused the Andersons of “unabashed, virulent racism.” “Because of you,” the writer stated, “we will totally avoid black suppliers. Because of you, we will dodge every which way to avoid hiring black employees.”

Apart from that letter, a solid majority of comments they have received have been encouraging, the Andersons said, adding that most people see the endeavor as beneficial to all.

“Supporting your own isn’t necessarily exclusive,” said John Anderson, a financial adviser who grew up in Detroit and has a Harvard University degree in economics and an MBA from Northwestern University, “and you’re not going to convince everybody of that.”

The undertaking “is an academic test about how to reinvest in an underserved community” and lessen society’s burden, John Anderson said. Focusing the estimated $850 billion annual black buying power on black businesses strengthens those business and creates more businesses, more jobs and stronger families, schools and neighborhoods, the Andersons and other advocates said.

In today’s crippled economy, is there a place for the Kwanzaa principle of Ujamma, or cooperative economics? Furthermore, is there a legitimate place for this kind of activism in the lives of people, like many of the readers of this blog, who desire racial and social reconciliation in an already fragmented nation?

This issue elicits many questions, particularly the one alluded to in the excerpt above concerning the criticism that if members of the white community promoted something as brazenly separatist and racialized as this, they would be immediately castigated as racists. And that suggestion of a double standard is understandable. Yet, whether we agree or disagree with that contention, I think it’s important to acknowledge the complexity of our national history around the issues of race, slavery, segregation, and social justice. Though we’ve long since repudiated and attempted to move forward from our nation’s biggest failures on the matter of race, a lot of the residue of our failures continue to inform our personal and institutional relationships today. To ignore that fact only hinders our efforts toward true progress and reconciliation.

This commentary by blogger Fredric Mitchell presents some interesting food for thought that, at the very least, can help bring context to our thinking on topics like the Ebony Experiment.

Still, there’s so much to ponder here: Isn’t this Ebony Experiment inconsistent with the Obamaesque notion of a “post-racial America”? Is there a place for an ethnically-exclusive approach to economics in our day and age? And, if so, what does it say about our commitment to diversity, justice, and reconciliation?

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It’s not every day that you see a former KKK member apologize for the attrocities he committed decades ago, but here’s proof that God is still in the reconciliation business. I’m a little late to the party on this one, but this is such an incredible story that I thought I’d post on it anyway, just in case anyone missed it.

UrbanFaith.com has a great article about it, and Anthony Bradley did a fine post about it more than a week ago. Breaking news it ain’t, but this is one of those stories that hopefully will be told again and again.

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FYI – We just posted a new article on UrbanFaith.com about some of the recent racial incidents on Christian college campuses. One of the themes of the article: How will the emergence of an African American president influence matters of race and diversity on Christian college campuses?

Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, Newsweek has a poignant and thought-provoking piece about Doug Paul. A former Wheaton College student, Paul, according to the article, typifies the Joshua Generation — the young white evangelicals who are more progressive in their politics than earlier generations of evangelical Christians. Reaching out to the Joshua Generation, says Newsweek, was one of Barack Obama’s keys to making headway with evangelical voters.

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Amazing. First America elects an African American president, and now Bob Jones University releases a statement to apologize for its racist past. It’s cold here in Chicago. Are the temperatures dropping in Hades, too?

Okay. I’m just joking. I apologize for sounding cynical, because I’m not. My bumbling sense of humor often doesn’t translate well in the blogosphere. I’m actually thrilled to hear about this development, and I thank BJU alumnae Joy McCarnan and Camille Lewis for bringing it to my attention.

This is no small occurrence. Bob Jones University’s infamous history has long been viewed as emblematic of the bigotry and narrow-mindedness of Christian fundamentalism and, by extension, American evangelicalism as a whole. But now, BJU is repenting of its past. I was particularly struck by this portion of the statement:

For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.

In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

Recently, many of BJU’s students and alums have implored their school to issue this kind of public declaration, and I believe a major campaign was underway to publicly challenge the school to acknowledge its past sins and take a stand for racial reconciliation. (I’d welcome some folks more knowledgeable than I on this matter to chime in.) Camille Lewis, who was a part of this reconciliation effort, says she and others were thankful for, but genuinely stunned by, this development.

A few of you have asked my opinion of the statement, particularly whether it seems a little too strategic and convenient. Is it genuine or just a stunt to counteract the unwanted controversy of that alumni campaign? I have no idea, though I would hope this gesture is just the beginning of a greater, ongoing effort by the school to pursue racial and cultural diversity and model the kind of Christian unity mentioned in the statement. I think the school has now obliged itself to become a leader in this regard.

Though some call me naïve, I’ve generally tried to take a “give them the benefit of the doubt” approach to things like this. I want to assume the best from BJU’s leadership. I have no right to judge their motives. Instead, I want to rejoice in the potential for reconciliation that’s happening here. I hope that this noteworthy act will cause an outbreak of grace and unity throughout the church, which still struggles with sins of segregation and intolerance that extend way beyond Bob Jones University.

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Little Bill

If you haven’t read Linda Leigh Hargrove’s funny and thoughtful post about her recent reconciliation epiphany, please check it out. It concerns Little Bill, the gently instructive animated series from Bill Cosby that I used to watch all the time when my kids were younger. (I think one of the more bittersweet byproducts of our kids growing up is that we don’t get to watch certain TV shows anymore; I can’t tell you how much I miss VeggieTales and Blues Clues.)

In any event, I always appreciate Linda’s insight and vulnerability. For those of you who don’t know her, in addition to being a blogger she’s also an accomplished novelist. You can get info about her latest books here.

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The big storyline from Barack Obama’s selection of Senator Joe Biden as his presidential running mate is that Biden compensates for Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience. But a secondary theme is one of racial reconciliation. Back on January 31, Biden’s off-the-cuff remark about Obama being “clean” and “articulate” was criticized as having derogatory racial overtones, and it pretty much doomed his announcement of his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Later, Biden had to apologize again for racially insensitive comments he made while campaigning in New Hampshire. “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent,” he had said in an ill-fated attempt at humor. Still, most folks agreed that Biden was not a racist; he just suffered occasional bouts of foot-in-mouth disease.

Marc Lamont Hill of The Root suggested several weeks back that a Biden pick would underscore the Obama campaign’s spirit of reconciliation, and at least one other political blogger made a similar observation today. I do hope this theme gets some play from the media. With race being invoked and manipulated in such an ugly way earlier in this long presidential battle, it’s nice to see such a prominent example of racial reconciliation in action.

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