A COMPREHENSIVE RESPONSE TO POVERTY AND RACISM
A COMPREHENSIVE RESPONSE TO POVERTY AND RACISM
In 1971 Pope Paul VI in a message to all humanity taught us “if you want peace, work for justice.” The continuity between justice and peace is as true today as it always has been.
In 2014 we considered the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to be a wake-up call to take issues of justice and human rights seriously. I do not know what to call the events of the recent past in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. We already have had the wake-up call. A wake-up call is a call to action or should have been. Perhaps these deaths should be the occasion for an examination of conscience. It is an established Christian teaching that we can be held responsible and accountable for inaction in the face of injustice and wake-up calls.
Wake up calls are calls to action. The wake-up call two years ago was a call to start dealing with the multiple facets of injustice perpetrated on the poor. In general, our society, our governments, our churches, did not adequately respond. I contend that a comprehensive approach will be the only successful one.
Some things which can be done by individuals:
1. Experience the life of the poor. A simple visit to the ghetto is not experiencing the life of the poor. Experiencing the life of the poor demands a sustained contact. Chris Rock, a very rich black comic, did not grow up rich. In response to the events of Ferguson he said that he did not condone it (the response of rioting) but he certainly understood it. Human beings who are oppressed and frustrated have a breaking point. In the words of black poet Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—and the run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
2. Acknowledge the reality of injustice, oppression and frustration; if we do not, we share responsibility for their results.
3. Talk to people who are unlike us; dialogue with minorities. We cannot dialogue without becoming aware of how much we have in common. Getting to know individuals destroys stereotypes. Churches, church organizations, dioceses and synods are suited to sponsor such dialogues. An example of a program to promote dialogue can be found at dialoguetochangetoledo.org.
4. Listen to the experienced, those who have lived and worked with the poor and minorities, and not dismiss them as “bleeding heart liberals”.
5. Know what socialism really is and not brand social justice and the helping of marginalized people as socialistic. (Acts 2:44-46)
6. Know what capitalism really entails, admit where capitalism has failed, and be willing to correct it. To criticize the shortcomings of capitalism as it is practiced is not socialistic.
If our society does not change, if poverty and racism do not change, the same things will continue to happen over and over. Can we keep doing things the same way and expect things to change? We have to work to change the root causes of poverty and racism and not only treat the expressions of these evils.
The roots of poverty and racism are (among others): deprivation of opportunity, inadequate parenting, housing discrimination, sub-standard education, prejudicial assumptions, unemployment and incarceration. There are areas about which we need to do better: early childhood education, job training, child care, youth programs, proliferation of weapons of war in the hands of individuals, housing, justice in the legal system, and mental health, among others. Treating one or other of these factors helps, but a comprehensive, wrap-around response is the only thing which will break the cycles.
While poverty itself can cause much of the suffering of marginalized persons, when poor people are also part of a minority their suffering is multiplied.
We have make excuses: it’s a challenge we cannot meet; we cannot afford what has to be done. On the contrary, we cannot afford to not do what needs to be done.
The biggest excuse is blame. As long as we can find someone to blame we excuse ourselves
from acting. We blame. We blame young black men, judges, police, guns, absence of guns, “black lives matter”, misfits, psychopaths, and a host of other things. Rather we need to blame poverty, generational poverty, institutionalized poverty. We need to blame racism, institutional racism, unconscious racism. Do whatever needs to be done to eliminate these two. At the same time be willing to make the sacrifices and pay the cost for a wrap-around plan which treats bad self-esteem, parenting skills, employment skills, and many more deficiencies. As with environmental issues, I believe that this will demand a significant change in the life styles of the wealthy as well as the middle class.
I feel a need to raise the question of black culture because I have heard black culture blamed
for negative and violent behaviors on the part of some blacks. I do so carefully because, although I have worked for and with and in the African-American community for twenty-five years, I do not feel qualified to define black culture.
I will make one distinction, and that is between authentic black culture (extended family, improvisation, functional art, creative cuisine, use of metaphors, clever use of language, living in the moment, forgiveness) and the angry and violent reactions of some blacks, the latter being more a response to oppression than an expression of culture.
As I write this, news comes of the death of three policemen in Baton Rouge. Commentators are struggling for words to express this evil event. Words and statement are only of value if they lead to action, change, and conversion of heart. Persons interviewed are rightfully calling for all to pray. But pray for what? That things change? That bad people change? Or that we change. That we believe that we can change by God’s power. That we can change systems. If we are going to change systems, our priorities will change, our choices will change, our life style will change.
In conclusion, I present this article to spark ideas and encourage further thought and development. It is reflective of my twenty-five years of ministry with at-risk black teens and young adults who had been unsuccessful in the traditional educational system. It is not a comprehensive plan in itself but rather a call for a comprehensive response to the evils of poverty and racism.
Daniel P. Kearns