Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism
by Drew G. I. Hart (Herald Press, 2016)
American Analysis Reveals American Dilemma
by Prince Brown Jr.
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” –W.E.B. Dubois, 1903
This review of Drew G. I. Hart’s book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing The Way The Church Views Racism, is a commentary on American culture and society that is intentionally polemical. Hart’s central thesis is that the white Christian Church has not taken seriously the teachings of Jesus and his call to build the Kingdom of God on Earth, which Martin Luther King Jr. popularized as the “beloved community.” The result is that: In the country with the largest Christian population in the world, the Christian Church does not shape racist white dominant culture; rather, racist white dominant culture shapes the Christian Church.
As the historian J.M. Roberts writes: “Then there was the psychological asset of Christianity. Soon after the establishment of settlement this found a vent in missionary enterprises, but it was always present as a cultural fact, assuring the European of his superiority to the peoples with whom he began to come into contact for the first time. In the next four centuries, it was often to have disastrous effects. Confident in the possession of the true religion, Europeans were impatient and contemptuous of the values and achievements of the peoples and civilizations they disturbed. The result was always uncomfortable and often brutal. It is also true that religious zeal could blur easily into less avowable motives. As the greatest historian of the American conquests put it when describing why he and his colleagues had gone to the Indies, they thought ‘to serve God and his Majesty, to give light to those who sat in darkness and to grow rich as all men desire to do.’” Indeed, it was in a short essay titled: “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” that W.E.B. Dubois, the foremost historian of the African American experience, conceived it appropriate to use the word holocaust, to describe European misguided adventurisms in Africa and the Americas. Note that this is the first (1903) known use of the word “holocaust” in English.
Hart uses historical facts, social science research, and critical analyses of biblical passages and parables to argue that Europeans use Christianity as a tool of oppression, rather than an instrument to liberate themselves from the excesses of their own culturally-driven desires and wants. He starts the book with an in-depth analysis of the development of his own self-identity in a society that does not allow one to simply be human—without labels that objectify. Socialization in America forces one to be a particular kind of human, burdened with traits carrying highly negative connotations having nothing to do with how Jesus lived and what he taught. People are assigned to a race, ostracized because of their sexual orientation, and discriminated against due to their gender/sex. But, even more importantly, we need to understand that this socialization is not natural, it is not unintentional, it is socially constructed, and its effects are devastating. It is identified by social scientists using the following terms: whiteness, racism, homophobia, classism, race, white supremacy, and sexism. Classism, racism, and sexism are core American norms.
Hart offers his analysis of American culture and society from the vantage point of a member of a group whose faces, according to one writer, are at the bottom of the well. He is a graduate of a Bible college with a Ph.D. in theology and ethics. He focuses on the manner in which western culture, and specifically white American culture, grew out of an obsession with whiteness in the early years of the founding of American society. Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s iconic renaissance man of letters, championed the ideal of whiteness; and while he opposed slavery, he did not believe in racial equality. The focus on whiteness serves several purposes for the one-percenters of that era as it does today. Whites claim that they were able to subjugate non-whites not just because of the use of extreme violence, but because their membership in the white race made them biologically superior. Nevertheless, being white did not prevent the poor among them from being socially stigmatized and economically exploited.
Poor whites vote for the same political hucksters, foxes Jesus calls them (Luke 13:32), who tell them they don’t deserve health care or a livable wage. Indeed, whiteness, in the imagination of those who label themselves as such, has become confused with greatness, and made evident in American culture in the person of the white male. We are presented with two such figures from among those regarded as founding fathers: one, Thomas Jefferson, remains the country’s most widely admired, slaveholding philosopher of freedom; and George Washington, anointed the country’s father, berated an enslaved black woman for disrespecting him by running away. The white imagination even made a first century CE Middle Eastern Jew named Jesus into a white man. Pray tell, what form of Christianity, acceptable to God, could possibly evolve in a society founded and dominated by a nation of slaveholders? White Christians are a strange lot.
Hart calls attention to just a few of the hundreds of social science studies that are available to the public in making his case. One private study, commissioned in the 1940s, resulted in the publication of a book titled An American Dilemma. The title reflects the author’s contention that white Americans are troubled by their apparent inability to treat non-whites in accordance with the ideals expressed in national creeds like the Constitution and religious ideals. Surely, Jesus wept at this pronouncement. Hart cautions that the power of unconscious socialization is not to be underestimated. He warns non-white Christians not to be seduced by the lure of money, pretended respect, and token power; and, in so doing, contributing to their own oppression. We Christians talk much about Jesus, but few of us want to act like him.
The dilemma for all, but particularly white Christians, is framed by the facts of American history. That history begins with 245 years of slavery, 100 years of legal discrimination, and a present culture in which racism has become so routinized as to appear normal; using coded words like thug, welfare queen, lazy. What the history renders undeniable is the fact that American society is racialized, hierarchical, and morally flawed. It should surprise no one that a single individual preaching ethnic hatred and religious intolerance can dominate political discourse in a nation of 320,000,000 people. The phrase, “white supremacy” is used to explain the dominance of whites in the societies they colonized. Surely, in a racialized society, the example of a poor black man being choked to death in the middle of the day on a crowded street by a white officer of the law for working as an un-licensed vendor, televised to the world, rises to the status of a biblical parable.
Hart suggests that in the midst of all this turmoil and chaos, one can discern Jesus’ guiding hand. When Jesus admonishes those who would follow him to take up their beds and walk (John 5:8), he is, in fact, ministering. The sick man he healed had been blessed to understand the purpose of Jesus’ ministry: to bring into being the “beloved community,” to include those who know God by another name. The blessed have the responsibility of walking the path illustrated by the life of Jesus, which is not without hardship, suffering and want. Always, when the moment seems darkest, Jesus sends one of his under-shepherds to comfort us. You know them as Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Mahatma Gandhi. None of them were perfect beings; but they understood that discipleship is about serving rather than being served, loving rather than hating, giving rather than receiving; that is, creating the “beloved community.” Hart’s book can best be understood as a hopeful lament. It is directed to all, but particularly, white Christians, urging all of us to pick up our beds and walk.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
by Matthew Desmond (Crown Publishing, 2016)
Housing Instability Links to Poverty
by Elizabeth Brown
There seems to be a new civic effort underway to address poverty. Perhaps the catalyst is embarrassment at growing income inequality in our society where some are super rich and others survive in extreme poverty. These “new” programs involve traditional solutions, primarily more effective workforce development and better education for children of low-income households. In his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond focuses on the lack of stable, affordable housing as key to understanding and addressing poverty. According to Desmond, “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”
Desmond is a young, Harvard sociologist who received a MacArthur genius grant in 2015. His book is receiving a lot of attention with a major review in the New York Times and interviews on NPR. Evicted is very readable, narrative nonfiction. It follows eight families in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee. We get to know the tenants who are struggling to pay rent and the landlords who are struggling to make a profit on the low end of the housing market. He shows us the people behind the statistics and labels.
The book is based on Desmond’s research using the ethnographic method of living within the culture, embedding himself into a world different from his own, in this case a primarily white trailer park and a black inner-city neighborhood. He followed up with extensive survey research and combed court eviction records. Although his research was done in Milwaukee, its housing market is similar to Cincinnati and most Midwest cities.
Evicted looks at the private, low-income housing market. Most previous academic research about poverty and housing has been on public housing or the voucher programs because government data is readily available. However, only one in four eligible low-income people live in subsidized housing. The others rent on the private market, paying most of their small incomes to rent places that are in poor condition. They have trouble keeping up with the rent, so are usually on the edge of being evicted. Even when they pay the rent, forced moves are common due to landlord foreclosures or buildings being condemned. Desmond’s survey research showed that one to eight renters experienced a forced move in the last two years.
This high rate of housing instability and forced moves keep people in poverty. It results in losing jobs, disruption of children’s education, trauma, and even illness. Based on his research, Desmond concludes, “Public initiatives that provide low-income families with decent housing they can afford are among the most meaningful and effective anti-poverty programs in America.”
In my work in the non-profit housing sector, I’ve seen how being constantly on the edge of losing housing affects families. The fear of being homeless and not being able to keep your children safe is traumatic. I have become an advocate for affordable housing in Cincinnati, but find the message quickly becomes dry with discussions about statistics, market, and housing finance. Matthew Desmond in Evicted has made a strong case for affordable housing with sound research while putting a human face on the problem. I hope his work is widely read and has an impact on public policy.
Matthew Desmond Coming to Cincinnati