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Friday, January 16, 2015

Can We Solve Racism Without Changing The Status Quo?

There are some people I prefer not to review because I am not sure if I am capable of doing a credible job. Carl Ellis is one of those people. He's a good man who went to Westminster Theological Seminary around the same time I did. While it took a good day for me to be an average student there, he excelled. He has a more complete theological education than I do--which might be difficult for some to believe since I have an AMAR (Almost Master of Arts in Religion)--and he has ministry and seminary teaching experience. I only have the AMAR. And yet, his blogpost on racism in America and what could be done about it needed commenting on (click here  for the article). He is also articulate whereas I struggle in writing.

Though his analysis of the problems Black Americans face have good insights, it's what's missing which requires some comments to be made. Ellis is rightfully distraught over the latest two unarmed Black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were killed by police along with absence of any indictments. He points to racism in America as an ongoing problem and a possible contributing factor to those deaths. But overlooked in our problems with racism and police violence is another factor which Ellis calls the 'elephant in the room': culture.

To explain how culture, besides race, are the two reasons the Civil Rights Movement has had limited effects, especially in the 'hood, Ellis states that a dysfunctional culture adopted by those in the subdominant culture causes self-sabotaging behaviors and attitudes by too many, though not a majority of, Blacks. To illustrate this point, Ellis provides a 2-dimensional model where on the x-axis lies the divide between the dominant culture on the left-hand side and the subdominant culture on the right-hand side. The White culture is the dominant culture here with the Black culture serving as the subdominant one. The y-axis shows the divide between a culture of functionality and a culture of dysfunctionality (see image below for a complete picture).



Enabled by government assistance programs and protected by political correctness, quadrant 4's subdominant's culture of dysfunctionality produces an ineptitude to positively fit in society and fosters destructive tendencies all of which play a major role in preventing the 'hood from being transformed by the advances of past movements. Again, that is not to say that racism doesn't also play a role. Ellis acknowledges that most Blacks have experienced racism from the dominant culture. But values in the subdominant culture have emerged to further separate the two cultures and even causes those in the subdominant culture to attack each other as exhibited by Black on Black crime.

To make matters worse, multiculturalism in the dominant culture is causing it discard our 'historical core' values many of which have been Biblically based, obtained from the Civil Rights movement from the past.

At this point, Ellis seems to give a mixed message that says, on one hand, we must return to those Biblical values, but, on the other hand, we must seek out 'new paradigms' from what the Civil Rights movement employed. Ellis also points out a struggle for Blacks who have been trying to avoid too much assimilation to the dominant culture have been affected by the culture of dysfunctionality. In the past, some assimilation was one of the keys to success.

Part of Ellis' solution to the problems of racism leading to oppression from the dominant culture and a culture of dysfunctionality embraced by too many in the subdominant culture is to return to using theology as a weapon as was practiced by the Civil Rights movement from the past and to acknowledge the role culture plays in problems we are experiencing today.

Ellis finishes proposing his solution by appealing to Nehemiah as he had to face some similar problems with rebuilding after the exile to the problems Blacks face today. We need, according to Ellis, a kind of discipleship mentoring that passes Biblically based values from the culture of functionality.

Again, we need to recognize Ellis' insights. Cultural values do play a role in the kind of lives people live. And Ellis is acknowledging that the difficulties many Blacks are facing can be complex. But as written before, the problems here revolve around what Ellis is not saying.  For example, Ellis is not specific in listing the different attitudes and behaviors included in the culture of functionality for either the dominant or subdominant cultures. Nor does he describe the contexts in which the culture of functionality plays in both the dominant and subdominant cultures. 

Something else is missing here. With the divisions caused by the legalization of same-sex marriage, we need to be specific in terms of which Biblically based values we will be promoting in society. This because the real debate between Conservative Christians and those who are supporting legalizing same-sex marriage is about the position Christianity will have in determining the laws and mores in society. Will the Church be content with having an equal co-participatory rule as other groups do and would be implied by  democracy for society in determining society's laws and values or will it seek a paternal role in society by trying to reestablished its past privileged position? We should note that the Black community has not been the only subdominant culture in America. Those in the LGBT community have also been members of their own subdominant culture. What is currently changing their position is this shedding of our historical core values Ellis referred to in the past.

We should also note that not all of the positive values adopted and promoted by the Civil Rights movement from the past were values garnered from just reading the Scriptures. For example, much of King's commitment to nonviolence came from reading Gandhi and reading what was happening in India. In addition, atheists also participated in and contributed to the Civil Rights movement.

But so far, we have yet to reach the core concern of this blogpost and a point which Ellis neglected to mention. That concern which Ellis might have neglected to mention because of his focus on cultural values could possibly make us realize that sometimes, there can be more than one elephant in the same room. Another elephant that could be occupying the same room as cultural values is our economic system. At least, this is what one of the most revered, past leaders of the Civil Rights movement thought. Martin Luther King Jr. stated on several occasions that problems with racism were strongly linked to problems from economic exploitation. King called for a restructuring of 'edifice' that produces too many beggars and a changing of the road to Jericho which produced too many victims as ways of saying we need to change our system.

Now it isn't that King doesn't see cultural values as playing a role in racism and economic injustice. It is that King doesn't see the need to follow appeal to Biblical values as much as he appeals to human values, not that the two sets of values are disjoint. King saw that our society was a 'thing-oriented society' rather than a 'person-oriented society.' And it would not be until our society changed to being a person-oriented society that we could finally start to eliminate racism and poverty. But King is talking about something different from what Ellis does here. King is talking about changes that need to be made to Ellis' dominant culture. In the blogpost being reviewed here, Ellis expresses concern with changing cultural values in the subdominant culture.

Perhaps, the reason why places like the 'hood have not improved since the days of the Civil Rights movement is not just due to a persistent racism along with a dysfunctional culture. Just perhaps we won't see a serious reduction in racism until we fix our economic system that fails to produce any hope for the future. This economic system has maintained both wealth disparity between the races and it has caused a stagnation in income for those whose income ranks in the bottom 90% in the country. And when we realize how our economic system has changed to make things worse since King was murdered, we should feel a greater urgency to change it. This is because the changes in our economic system since King was alive has produced a further objectification of workers.

It isn't that we should look at changing values and changing the economic system as an exclusive-or choice. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that both a culture of dysfunction and an unjust economic system produce effects in each other. The point here is that without changing our current economic system to one that emphasizes people and justice rather than private accumulation, we will, if King is correct, make no headway in eliminating racism in this country. So we have a choice, we can avoid rocking the boat for the status quo and have delusions about addressing racism without changing our economic system or we can demand  the changes there which will also address racism. We should note that King also linked war and militarism to our problems with racism. Perhaps this blog will explore that further in the future.






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