Friday, November 9, 2012

Race Matters and 2012 Elections: Implications for Churches

Twelve days before the elections, I went on one of my usual rants here and noted my frustration with some of my fellow Catholics with whom I'd been talking about race and the coming elections at the Commonweal blog.  I wrote,

And I feel enormous shame that a significant percentage of those privileged white citizens who are "so sick with white racism and white privilege" that they are not even aware they are making political decisions on racial grounds are my fellow Catholics.  Who--as I've said repeatedly, and apparently to deaf ears, on the Commonweal blog in the past day or so--imagine that they can cast their political lot with overt racists while not being in any way tainted by racism themselves.  

I've just posted a piece which, to my mind, cites abundant evidence that race was everywhere as a never-hidden subtext--and more than a subtext: an outright narrative--in the 2012 election cycle.  As I look at that abundant evidence, the questions that leap out at me are the following:

If so many people with good heads on their shoulders can see the problem, why is it that so many of my fellow Catholics and so many other American churchgoers seem entirely incapable of recognizing that racism strongly persists in American society and seriously taints our national political discourse?  How is it, in other words, that the churches have so conspicuously failed in this regard--that they've failed to help us form good consciences about the pernicious and ongoing effects of racism in our society?

To ask the last question is actually to point to what is at the root of the problem, it seems to me.   The Commonweal blog discussion I was referencing in the posting to which the preceding link points is one in which not marginal, but highly influential, well-placed, and seemingly thoughtful Catholics of the center of American Catholicism were hotly denying that there's any racism at all in our American political life.  And that racism has any effect at all on almost anyone's political choices--certainly not the political choices of Catholics.

Because I find the mind-boggling blindness of these assertions so frustrating to deal with, and because I approach problems of race through the lens of my experience growing up in a society that practiced legal segregation and then went through a wrenching moment of having to wrestle with that system and the racism on which it was based, which sensitized me early on to these matters, I sometimes express myself in a frank way that apparently offends those listening to my responses.

And so at least one reader of the Commonweal discussion I'm referencing here emailed me to tell me he thought I had been unfair and uncharitable to an iconic Commonweal figure who is highly regarded by contributors to that blog site, a white married man who is a deacon.  The man who emailed me is also a white married man, though a liberal rather than a conservative, as Mr. #1 is.  And in my reply to Mr. #2, I've been trying to work with him to figure out why a liberal white married Catholic man immediately leaps to the defense of another conservative white married Catholic man when a gay Catholic man criticizes Mr. #1.  

It appears to me that in discussions like this, unrecognized power and privilege that have everything to do with heterosexist male entitlement within Catholic structures trump recognitions about race--and about the marginalization of women and of gay and lesbian people within those same heterosexist male-entitled structures.  It also appears to me that until we in the churches who care about the moral implications of racism (and misogyny and homophobia) succeed in bringing to the forefront of our discussions issues of racism and misogyny and homophobia, we will never get very far down the road towards understanding the new America that the 2012 elections tell us is coming into being with the re-election of Barack Obama.

And to say this is also to say that the churches are a very big part of the problem in American society, when it comes to addressing racism and misogyny and homophobia.  The most highly churched part of the United States, the bible belt in which I live, voted overwhelmingly for the "old America" represented by Mitt Romney in this election.  

In the lead-up to the election, my Facebook page was plastered by announcements cousins of mine were making on their Facebook pages to which I'm linked as a friend: pictures of a beaming Mitt Romney holding beaming white children; pictures of a simpering white Anglo-Saxon Jesus with instructions to click if you like Jesus and Mitt Romney; x-ray pictures of a crucifix dangling inside someone's chest, with the inscription, "I have Jesus in my heart."

Photos of 1950s schoolchildren saying the pledge of allegiance, with inscriptions about how far our nation has fallen from God.  Snapshots of paraplegic American soldiers and American flags and slogans reminding us to vote for God and show our gratitude to those who have fought for our religious freedom.  Bibles heaped on bibles.  Commands to seize control of our country again for the righteous, so that our children will grow up as we did, in a good and godly society.

This went on and on for days at my Facebook page, as I listened in, entirely unwillingly, to the chatter going on at the Facebook pages of cousins who clearly move in different religious and political circles than I do.  They've now all fallen ominously silent, except for one cousin who posted a comment yesterday chastising people who feel compelled to scream and rave about the election results and God's condemnation of America around her children, and telling them to get over it and move on, as she herself is choosing to do after casting her vote for the losers.

What motivates all of this?  Since the cousin most fervently sharing these messages hasn't darkened the door of any church in years and cares little at all for religion (or the bible whose pictures she plastered across her Facebook page in the lead-up to the elections), I have to assume that there's some other explanatory factor for her newfound zeal for Jesus and crucifixes and bibles and patriotic schoolchildren and God-serving soldiers.

And I know full well what that explanatory factor is.  It's race.  She lives in the Arkansas county in which her mother and mine grew up, a county that, as of the 2000 federal census, was 49.58% African American and 48.46% white.  I have every reason to believe that the 2010 census will have shown an increase in the African American population and a decrease in the white population.

She lives in the city that is the county seat of this county, which is now well over 50% African American.  She has responded to the demographic changes in her county with fury about the loss of control of "her" county.  "Her" county voted, in fact, for Obama in this election, as did the county in which I live and as did all the counties along the Mississippi River in the Arkansas Delta--counties with a large majority of African Americans.  The rest of the state went solidly red.

It went solidly red this election cycle, and, with lavish infusions of Koch brothers money, swept into office everywhere in the state an astonishing assortment of tea party knaves, fools, and bible-pounding con men, for one reason and one reason alone: race.  All this was in direct relation to--in direct reaction to--the election of the nation's first African American president in 2008 and his impending re-election in 2012.

This in a state with churches on every corner in every nook and cranny of the state.  A story replicated all across the American South . . . . 

The churches have conspicuously failed to christianize the most self-declared Christian people in the nation.  And the choice of the U.S. Catholic bishops to make common cause with the religious right, whose stronghold is in this bible-belt region of the nation, is rapidly precipitating the same effects among American Catholics--the same noxious brew of half-digested bible verses, self-righteous condemnation of targeted Others, and outright racism with its inbred cousins of misogyny and homophobia.  

Even as the nation itself moves rapidly towards a multicultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, gender-inclusive and gay-inclusive composition that these churches and their adherents refuse to understand and which they regard as an outright threat to their gospel message . . . .  How have we gotten into the mess in which we have found ourselves as a nation of late, and for which the new coalition of voters the current president has put together seems to many of us a promising solution?

The churches bear a large share of responsibility for bringing us to this state.  And if there's any solution to the well-nigh intractable problem of deeply rooted racism in American culture, that solution lies squarely with the churches themselves.

That's crystal-clear in the bible belt.  But I think the same conclusion applies to the Catholic church in the U.S. as well.

The graphic is an illustration by Stokely Baksh at the Color Lines website.

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