How Richard John Neuhaus remembered Martin Luther King, Jr.

The First Things blog re-posted Neuhaus’ essay from 2002, reviewing a Penguin biography by Marshall Frady. Since Neuhaus was active in the civil rights movement and knew King, he’s able to review both the book and King’s life in the context of the times and his personal experience. I’d recommend the whole thing if this is a topic that you’re interested in.

As a side note, Neuhaus quotes Frady’s insightful characterization of the national tenor of the civil rights movement: “The civil rights movement became the nation’s latest attempt to perform in the South an exorcising of its original sin, and it turned out our most epic moral drama since the Civil War itself.” That’s a great way to put the usual attitude toward racial injustice in the South, conveniently exonerating the rest of the country. To be sure, a race-based ideology of slavery and the Jim Crow system were coarsely obvious in the South, but the South hardly had a monopoly on personal, systemic, or institutionalized racism. Neuhaus portrays this well (although Malcolm X was already dead by the time that King went to Chicago):

The effort to take the movement to the North, to Richard Daley the Elder’s Chicago, was a disaster. King’s courtly Southern ways did not resonate with the slum dwellers of the North. He was not angry enough. As he said, “You just can’t communicate with the ghetto dweller and at the same time not frighten many whites to death.” At that time, Malcolm X was exulting in frightening whites to death, and King looked moderate—i.e., weak—by comparison.

He led marches for housing desegregation through white neighborhoods of Chicago, meeting with outraged anger. At one point he said, “I have never seen so much hatred and hostility on the faces of so many people as I’ve seen here today.” Frady writes, “He had in fact come up against the innermost reality of racism in America.” The larger fact is that King had no plan for the racial integration of Chicago, nor did anyone else. Nor, except for a few mainly upper-income neighborhoods, has anybody come up with a successful plan for integrating housing to this very day.

Presentation on “Bloodlines”

On November 3, our church livestreamed this presentation by John Piper on his new book, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. You can find a short documentary that goes with the book here, which hits a lot of the same points in less time.

I read the book around this time too. I had heard and read a lot of Piper’s thought on this issue before, so it didn’t have a lot of surprises for me, but it was quite good.

Walter Russell Mead on “The Crisis of the Great Society”

In a perceptive essay, Mead discusses the rise of urban “flash mobs” and the racial tensions that they point to. While he believes (and I agree) that race relations are better now than in the past, he argues that both white and black people have a reduced connection with and trust in the elites. He points to three potential problems that our society is facing:

  1. “The unaffordable nature of the entitlement structure that has emerged from the Great Society and been much added to (and don’t forget the GOP role in the prescription drug benefit) is at the bottom of the bitter budget battles we’ve seen.”
  2. An unpopular immigration policy that will increasingly attract anger: “Our current immigration policy is a prescription for social change of vast proportions.  Since the 1960s, the US has tried an unprecedented and little discussed experiment in social engineering.  In stages over the last fifty years we have combined three bold policies.  First, a race-blind immigration policy with a visa lottery as a kind of affirmative action — so to speak — for people from countries which historically had not sent many immigrants to the US has dramatically changed the mix of people coming to the US as immigrants and over time will shift the ethnic and cultural composition of the population.  Second, the “immigration holiday” under the tight quota system from 1923 (when public concern over unrestricted immigration led to a sharp decrease) through the 1960s was ended, and the number of legal immigrants increased.  Today the US has levels of legal immigration not seen since the World War One era.  Third, for many years immigration laws have been laxly or irregularly enforced leading to the presence of something like 11 million illegal workers and residents in the country.”
  3. A sharp divide in the way that whites and blacks evaluate the impact of racial policies: “The races are very far apart today; many whites believe that by electing a Black president the country has demonstrated its commitment to post racial politics and they expect Blacks to stop complaining about the past and start thriving in the glorious, racism-free paradise of America today.  Many whites look at this Black success, and they think it is time to take down the affirmative action scaffolding that assisted the Black rise.  Why, they ask, should the children of presidents and cabinet officers — to say nothing of celebrity offspring — benefit from racial preference in hiring and admissions?

    “For Blacks, especially those who haven’t made it into the elite, unemployment and the staggering losses in Black wealth during the Great Recession are far more consequential than the success of the Black upper crust.  Much of White America thinks it has done all anyone could reasonably expect by opening the White House doors to a Black politician; much of Black America thinks little has changed.  Many whites think Blacks have effectively used politics to win themselves jobs and preferences; many Blacks think that Black poverty in the age of Obama reveals how pitiful the results of political action really are.”

African Americans and the New Deal model

Walter Russell Mead, continuing his series on what the next iteration of liberalism could look like, takes a look at why African Americans support the New Deal model of government: a government that tries to manage the economy to provide stability and managed development. Mead has been calling this the “blue social model” created by “Liberalism 4.0,” and he writes that African Americans are the single most important group that support the New Deal model and thus encourage the Democrats to continue their support of it. Mead considers racial equality to be one of the greatest achievements of 20th-century progressivism (4.0 liberalism). At the same time, Mead believes that the blue model’s time has passed in these times where the global economy requires and technology enables more flexibility.

Two factors of course jump out: Democrats are more trusted as defenders of the rights of racial minorities and as supporters of the poor through the welfare state (more trusted, at least, by minority and poor voters). Since a disproportionate number of African Americans are poor, both of these factors are most likely important. Mead adds an important factor, though, that I think is important as well: government jobs at the federal, state, and municipal levels have been a key factor in the growth of a black middle class, and puts it in the context of American history:

Today, Blacks hold a larger share of government jobs (pdf) than their percentage of the population would alone account for – and government employment represents a significant percentage of Black middle income families.  Teachers, police, fire-fighters, sanitation workers, health workers: Blacks are often strongly represented in state and municipal workforces, especially of course in urban areas with large Black populations….

The Black middle class isn’t based so largely on government jobs because Blacks aren’t entrepreneurial or because they have some natural affinity for bureaucratic paper-pushing. Historically, municipal government in particular has been a major avenue for the economic advance of different American ethnic groups.  The Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles and many others used their voting strength in urban centers to elect politicians sympathetic to the interests of their group, and over time that turned into municipal jobs for many voters, and contracts for others.  The urban ethnic political machines and their traditions of patronage, wholesale electoral fraud and influence peddling often led to bad governance, but historically that system did help millions of new immigrants bootstrap themselves into the American middle class.  Politicians like Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters aren’t evidence of some peculiar disease of Black urban politics; they are as American as Tammany Hall.

The rise of Black voting power in American cities led very naturally to improved access for Black workers to city jobs – just in the same way that Tammany Hall helped the Irish and other political organizations have helped other groups get that first toehold on the rung of success.  Blacks, whose Great Migration to the northern cities came as World War One and immigration restrictions closed the door to European immigrants early in the twentieth century, were (until the recent Hispanic influx) the last major group to colonize the great American cities; it is the misfortune of Black America to be just establishing its middle class on the basis of government work as the economic foundations of government are shifting.

As Mead notes, this parallels the fact that just as manufacturing jobs finally opened up fully to blacks in the 1970s, the American economy was beginning to deindustrialize. The jobs that drew African Americans to cities, that had helped make many white workers middle class, disappeared from the cities and have been disappearing from the nation.

The poverty that African Americans have disproportionately experienced since the end of Jim Crow has prompted many people to point out that this, that, or the other thing is “the problem with black culture” and to propose solutions. And it’s true that African American culture (along with every other human culture) needs to change, specifically under the lordship of Christ. But let’s not make our judgments about culture without reference to history and the bigger socioeconomic picture in which cultures exist.

I should also note that one thing that Mead doesn’t get into is the damage and dependency promoted by welfare state policies that came from the New Deal model.

Makes sense if you think about it, but still…

Ben Smith at Politico writes:

The exodus of white Democrats to the GOP in southern state legislatures this year is the last chapter of a very old story about realignment, one that — in this homogenous media age — has finally come to the most local levels of politics.

This, in Georgia, is something different — and striking to insider because one of the switchers, Ashley Bell, is a former president of the College Democrats seen not that long ago as a Democratic rising star:

Two African-American Democrats on Thursday announced that they were joining the Republican Party.

Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell and former state executive committee member Andre Walker said the Democratic Party had grown too liberal and they are finding a new home with the Republicans.

Opposing abortion across racial lines

Rick Hogaboam pointed out a series of posts by Thabiti Anyabwile that reacted Brian Kemper’s defense of comparing abortion to slavery and the Holocaust.  Kemper believes that we must make the comparison because of the horrible reality of abortion that parallels slavery and the Holocaust and the denial of personhood that has taken place in defense of all three.  He believes that people take offense to these comparisons because “we have elevated what they consider to be a blob of tissue to personhood status.”

Rick posted a good quote from the first three posts.  Anyabwile’s consideration of this issue spanned four posts:

I wanted to focus on his first post, and you can read his others for his opinions on those topics.  Here are Anyabwile’s central objections to Kemper’s article:

Okay, the argument is basically fine.  But read Mr. Kemper’s opinion piece and tell me how many times he seems to deeply affirm the human pain and suffering African Americans endured in slavery.  He seems quite aware of the Jewish holocaust, referring to monuments and observances dedicated to never forgetting that human tragedy.  But how many such monuments and museums exist in honor of African people treated as chattel?  How many institutions work to ensure there is a deep, abiding recollection of those centuries of torture?  Not many.  Kemper certainly doesn’t mention many.  Now, here’s why some of us say “how dare you?”  Without demonstrating any genuine empathy, any continuing affirmation of the humanity of African people, the comparison simply seems to lack authenticity, familiarity, and empathy.  It merely sounds expedient.  Those who use the argument don’t really sound like they care about black people as such, but only about exploiting the pain of black people as a political expedient….

There’s one more element to this I’d like to highlight.  When I say, “How dare you make this comparison?” I’m also identifying someone who hasn’t shown up to support a lot of other causes I care about.  Not only have you not shown up to support, you really haven’t shown up to dialogue, understand, or persuade.  Most of your political and social positions lie across the river from my own, and though you own a boat you’ve never tried to row across.  Now you show up saying how much I ought to support your cause.  And you tell me how much this cause ought to mean to me, how I ought to care about the death of black babies.  You tell me this as if I don’t already care about the death of black babies.  But when I talk about the death of black babies due to crime, or poverty, or drugs, or slow death from a sub-par education, you tell me that’s my problem.  When you do that, you seem to care more about your political issue than you care about my black life.  You need to know that’s how we see you.  Your comparison reminds us of all of this.

So, yes, how dare you compare abortion to slavery?!  I love you.  But I’m afraid you don’t love me… at least not long enough to hear how your comparison affects me.  I’m in the trenches with you–at least I want to be–but the shrapnel from your rapid fire makes it hard for me to fire with you.

I think that these two objections both deserve attention.  From everything that I know, Anyabwile is first and foremost an evangelical Christian who doesn’t have a vested interest in racial politics and doesn’t subscribe to Afrocentric theology.  He wants to proclaim the gospel to all people, and knows that God is creating a new, multiracial people in Christ.  If he is right about how many black Christians will react to Kemper’s defense, then what he is pointing to is a fundamental mistrust and disconnect between white and black Christians.  I think that’s largely the case in American Christianity today; white and black Christians have such separate institutions and cultures that we often don’t register on each other’s radar.  Anyabwile’s thoughts here highlight the perils of white tonedeafness, but I think that both circles share some of the blame.

I also want to note something in Anyabwile’s article that I’m not so sure about.  We may not have monuments and museums about slavery, but I think that our educational system and the public presentation of history do pretty well with making people aware of slavery and the civil rights movement.  I think that it’s necessary sometimes to point out that America didn’t invent slavery, but that societies across history have had different forms of it.  This is not, of course, meant as a justification, but context is important.  We’ve got a long way to go in having a really just society or even agreeing exactly what that would look like here.  But to me this criticism, while it is surely sincere, does not describe the cultural reality.

Perhaps the bigger problem is the perceptions that white and black Christians have about the other group’s racial attitudes.  Anyabwile thinks that white people aren’t meeting black people in their pain that’s rooted in American history and seems afraid that they don’t care unless they specifically connect with black history.  He even says, “If you have an African American audience with whom you’re using this analogy and you have 30 minutes to win their support, spend the first 20 minutes showing your familiarity with the brutality of suffering and affirming the humanity of the sufferer before you employ the suffering and the sufferer in your cause.  Otherwise, I’m guessing most of your audience is saying, ‘How dare you?!”

On the other hand, I think that white Christians can sometimes be afraid that black people simply want to make them feel guilty about the past.  I can give an example of this.  When I was preparing to go on the Justice Journey in the summer of 2009, a friend from church said that he couldn’t do it, because he wasn’t going to told for a whole week that he should feel guilty.  It seems, although I only have anecdotal evidence at this point, that some white people are afraid that they’re going to be subjected to black indignation and even black rage.  From my experience on the journey, my visits to a few different black churches, and my current involvement in my mostly black church in Kankakee, that doesn’t happen.  I have always felt welcomed and have begun to form good friendships rooted in Christ across racial lines.  Notice, too, that Anyabwile’s comments are not based in rage or the desire to make people feel guilty, but rather in wanting white people to cross a gulf created by the perception that white people don’t care about historical black suffering.

I think that the two perceptions also feed each other.  White people afraid of black indignation can appear uncaring about history, and black people who feel that whites don’t care can appear resentful.

I’m afraid that I’m getting too speculative, so I want to wrap up by saying that we probably need to have some idea of what healing is going to look like.   I hope that at some point black and white Christians will be able to come together without these suspicions.  Right now, it seems like we might need to reverse the attitudes if we want to move toward biblical reconciliation.  Reconciliation will be closer at hand when more white Christians don’t mind exposing themselves to indignation because it’s a part of the cost of healing, and more black Christians explicitly say “slavery and Jim Crow were horrible, but they are in the past — we’re trying to move on in forgiveness.”  Reconciliation would help us to better work together on tackling not only ongoing racism and discrimination (yes, they’re still around), but also abortion.

The Great Migration

I listened to this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air while washing the dishes today.  Terry Gross talked to journalist Isabel Wilkerson about her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  The Great Migration, in which over 6 million African Americans moved from mostly rural settings in the South to cities outside the South, played a major role in charting the course of urban America in the 20th century.  Wilkerson places the dates of the Migration as 1915-1975, although I have seen some dating it as early as 1890.  In Chicago, the earliest part of the migration forged the black community on the city’s famous and infamous South Side, and the later part transformed the West Side into a largely African American area.

Wilkerson made two points that stuck out.  One, she said that the segregation laws in the South included not only the more well-known rules like separate bathrooms and water fountains, but also more obscure local regulations like the ban on white and black people playing checkers together in Birmingham.  The most heartbreaking was that multiple laws existed that required separate Bibles in courts so that blacks and whites could be sworn in on different Bibles.  That’s quite a potent symbol of the evil of segregation.

Additionally, Wilkerson said that her interviews with over 1000 people did not reveal a general consciousness that the migrants were part of a large movement.  It’s not surprising, but it’s a good reminder that people aren’t always conscious of the bigger events that they’re part of.  The communications revolution will certainly be one of the defining historical trends of our period, but I often have to remind myself of how much has changed in just a short period of time.  It makes me wonder what other great historical developments of our age will be seen by historians of the future.