The Unfinished Business of Race

An open discussion about racial prejudice unmasks a spectrum of emotions, as students, staff, and faculty at Yale Divinity School discovered this year.

Committing themselves since Fall 2012 to a series of workshops, assigned readings, and dialogue, they faced the ironies of racism today – how stubborn it is, and how hidden it can be . They pondered the tenacity of prejudice lodged in our assumptions about others even 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. They encountered their own discomfort in talking about racial bias. They learned the importance of listening. They were stirred to seek better definitions of twenty-first century social justice and faith-driven activism.

Their discernment period culminated in February when Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State, came to YDS to speak about her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). Reflections invited a group of students to summarize their thoughts after a memorable season of soul-searching and awakening. Here’s a sampling.

The Pain of Dismissal

By Mercy L. Herrera

Herrera photoRacial prejudice persists into the twenty-first century. However, just as the earth’s geography continually shifts, so too does the racial landscape, giving rise to changing demographics that will redefine us. With such shifting comes opportunities for transformation. But how do we avoid repeating the errors of the past? How do we embrace a truly multiracial community?

Evaluate your assumptions. Be open to learning. Racism is gigantic, but gigantic objects can be broken down into a multitude of tiny pieces. Each piece is a person. Each person has power. Daily, in small and large ways, from public policy decisions to coffee shop interactions, people use their power destructively and constructively. One negative use of power is through careless dismissal. Dismissing on the basis of race people’s voices, experiences, cultures, or ideas perpetuates racism.

As a woman of color, I often experience the pain of dismissal. In fact, it happened again yesterday. A white cashier had been chirpy and endlessly smiled at the white woman in front of me. When it was my turn, her demeanor visibly changed. I cannot fault anything but racism, however latent. That is not the last time I will be dismissed, I am sure. But my reaction was (and is) not hate. I understood that this cashier had been born into the same culture as I, one marked by a history of segregation that relied on an “us vs. them” mentality. That mentality is rooted in ignorance, a lack and distortion of knowledge on which the monster of racism feeds.

But every monster has its kryptonite – racism’s is critical awareness. Through diligence and humility we can embrace our diverse histories, rich traditions, and varied experiences, potentially creating genuine community along the way. We seek not the “melting pot,” a thing of the past. Rather, we engage a landscape that is far more colorful, where difference and commonality exist in dynamic tension, not competition, both valued, neither suppressed. Herein lies the key for hope and positive change. A quote from Arundhati Roy comes to mind, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

An anti-audism and anti-ableism educator, Mercy L. Herrera will receive her M.A.R. this spring, after which she will continue working with faith communities seeking to become more accessible to people with a range of disabilities.

The Yes and the No

By Jamall Andrew Calloway

student photoDuring the fall semester of my second year, professor Andre C. Willis asserted that “race is the worst invention of modernity.” And during the spring semester, professor Emilie M. Townes stated, “It seems like it is much easier for students to discuss class and gender than it is to talk about race. Tension rises when race is brought up.” Both statements touch the edges of my recent experience with the concept of race. Dr. Willis’ statement takes seriously the intellectual history of race as an invention intended to classify by denigration. Dr. Townes’ statement speaks to the lived experience of people dealing with their inherited classifications and feelings of unwarranted denigration.

W.E.B. Du Bois was correct. The burden of the twentieth century was all the socio-political and theological baggage that comes with the problem of the color line. Will that ever disappear? Will America’s original sin ever be forgiven and forgotten? Some will say, “No – racism is much too ingrained in the American mind. There will be racism as long as there is evil.” I understand that response. It sadly makes sense. But I believe that those who proclaim it bear a responsibility to do what’s necessary to prove themselves wrong. No one should sit comfortably with evil.

Others will say, “Yes – we have made progress … a biracial president, a Hispanic pope and look, more black and brown students.” They’ll argue that racism will fade as long as evidence of progress continues. I understand that response. It ironically makes sense. But I’d ask them to look again at the statistics. The vast and growing prison-industrial system alone proves that Jim Crow never died, he just found a more lucrative business.

As students of religion, we should be careful of the myths we choose to believe: No one should sit comfortably with harmful illusions. Will racism ever disappear? I’m unsure. But what I do believe is that we will make real progress when both sides – the no and the yes – become honest with themselves. Racism is alive and we can’t succumb to nihilism or get distracted by naïve illusions of progress.

“Will racism ever end?” The only response I have right now is, “I don’t know, you tell me …”

Jamall Calloway ’13 M.Div. will study French while pursuing his Master of Sacred Theology degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York this fall.

This Hyphenated Life

By Stephanie Wong

student photo“What are you?” I get asked the question pretty often, by people who aren’t sure what to make of my multi-ethnic appearance. As a teen, I often felt jealous of those who could claim simple cultural identities, like my cousins who were either wholly Dutch or wholly Chinese. It seemed that most people – whether “Latina,” “black,” “white” or “Asian,” etc – at least possessed something pure and recognizable, whereas I could only explain myself as an ethnic derivative drawn from other categories … not really white, not really Asian either.

But I’ve come to appreciate not only that “hybridity” can be positive; it also offers a more accurate picture of just about everybody in society. At Yale, I’ve met friends who are English- Singaporean, Korean-Australian, Kenyan-Haitian-American, and much more. When I first started dating my “white” American fiancé, I quickly realized that his Scots-Irish southern background was not at all of the same “whiteness” as my mom’s Californian Dutch family. The linguistic shorthand of color labels too often short-circuits any full appreciation of another person.

In the church, we do have a model for meditating upon hybridity as a good thing. Theology looks to Christ and praises the fact that he is both human and divine. But does the church really appreciate the implications for society? Unfortunately, the Christian community resorts to exclusive categories as quickly as the rest of American society. People throw around terms – black versus white, conservative versus liberal, first-world versus third-world – as if these are clear packages of meaning that never overlap. After all, Christ did not cling to the purity of “divinity” but willingly took on the messiness of being a god-human, preaching healing in this world and salvation for the next.

My hope is that we overcome the tendency to abbreviate people into essentialized race categories. This will take patience, and a willingness to share and hear all the hyphens in our lives. I’m now more willing to give a real answer when people ask me what I am: I’m Chinese and Catholic, Dutch-American and evangelical, confident in some situations and shy in others. I appreciate it when people hear the hyphens. I know that every other person’s life is equally complex and rich, so I am grateful when others take the time to share the hyphenations in their backgrounds too. By embracing the hybridity in each other, we claim the “both-and” of the Gospel.

M.Div. candidate Stephanie Wong graduates this spring and plans to pursue Ph.D. work in theology at Georgetown University

Dreams Unfolding

By Marilyn Kendrix

student photoIt’s spring break, one year since I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for the first time. One year ago, I awoke to the plight of so many of my fellow Americans, trapped in a system that relegates them to second-class citizenship, unable to escape from the permanent punitive policies of our thirty-year War on Drugs. One year ago, I dreamed of a time when every member of the YDS community would also read this book and engage in a school-wide discussion about mass incarceration and the intractable poverty that it has created for our poorest, darkest citizens.

This year’s YDS All-School Conference was the culmination of that dream. In her lecture, attended by more than 600 people at various locations and via live streaming, professor Alexander recounted how well-meaning counselors advised her to give up on the book and not jeopardize her future in a fight that seems impossible to win. Yet she understood that if people of faith, if people of conscience, knew the devastating consequences of the nation’s policies of mass incarceration, they would be moved, as I was, as she was, to do something about it.

Later in the week, we participated in lunch discussions where students, faculty, and staff shared their reactions to the book, ranging from shocked amazement to righteous indignation. We watched a documentary film, Broken On All Sides by filmmaker Matthew Pillischer, which showed an unjust criminal justice system from the vantage point of the incarcerated and their families.

As much preacher as law professor, Alexander spoke directly to our Christian call to justice, imploring us all to be “stone catchers.” She cited the text in the Gospel of John where Jesus is brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and is reminded of the Law that would have the woman stoned for her sins. Jesus challenged those who would judge her, saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” As people of conscience, Alexander said, we must go further than just drop our stones; we must be willing to become stone catchers, advocating an end to the inhumane system that the War on Drugs has created. This call to action, sending us forth to do justice in the world, makes me hopeful for our future as a society in the twenty-first century.

Third-year M.Div. candidate Marilyn Kendrix is serving as Minister of Faith Formation at Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, CT.

Keeping Pessimism at Bay

By Brooke Girley

student photoThinking about the future of race in this country, I often find myself challenged not to slip into pessimism and cynicism. This challenge becomes infinitely greater when I read a work like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Her argument is not wholly novel to me. Indeed, I have known this intuitively, especially when I practiced criminal law. Yet I still found her work jarring because it compiles disparate data and coherently articulates America’s current expression of systemic injustice, the use of the prison system to lock up disproportionately huge numbers of African Americans and other minorities. What unfolds before the reader is a reinscribing of oppression along racial and class lines that dates back to this nation’s founding. Therein lies my proclivity toward pessimism: How can a nation eradicate such an egregious flaw so deeply embedded in the fabric of who it is?

As a child I thought I knew the answer to this conundrum. Inspired by the work of civil rights legal pioneers like Thurgood Marshall and Medgar Evers, I set about to become a civil rights lawyer and fight injustice through the legal system. However, as a civil rights lawyer I quickly realized that the practice of law is not the answer I sought. To be sure, much work is needed on the legal front. Yet I learned that systemic injustice does not just permeate our legal system but also reaches into our intellectual and spiritual being. Laws codified on paper today but not codified in hearts and minds are woefully inadequate to bring permanent change.

Laws cannot change one’s internal condition. That is the role of faith and religion. One of the reasons I transitioned from law to divinity school is that I realized that the more sustaining work of combatting racial injustice will not be done in the courthouse but must be done in the church.

Racial healing will only come when Christians truly began to live out the Gospel. Reconciliation involves, among other things, confession of past and present sins, the presence of justice and forgiveness. These the Gospel obligates us to do and shows us how to accomplish. The church, not just black churches but all churches, must lead the movement of racial reconciliation within America. If we continue to shirk this duty, then I am afraid my occasional pessimism and cynicism might be here to stay.

Brooke Girley is an M.A.R. candidate with a concentration in Black Religion in the African Diaspora. She plans to graduate next year.

The Reality Down the Street

By Nicholas Alton Lewis

student photo“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These words were often quoted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a time in U.S. history when racial disparities were part of the fabric of our collective existence. Signs such as “whites only” or “for colored” were not only visual articulations of segregated public services; they were salient signifiers of the entire Jim Crow system. After numerous acts of civil disobedience against this system were met by violent, brutal resistance, the truth of racial inequality became starkly apparent, ultimately prompting the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In our so-called post-racial age, the signs and signifiers of racial inequity are not nearly as visible as they once were. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander makes a compelling case for the existence of a new-millennium manifestation of a racial caste system in which black and brown people have been corralled disproportionally into a prison-industrial complex under the auspices of the War on Drugs. It has been perpetuated on our watch, yet it remains “out of sight” from our self-congratulatory post-racial culture and “out of mind” of our collective sense of social conscience. As students within the walls of a divinity school, the temptation is to remain insulated from the sight of such injustice. YDS stands only a few blocks from Newhallville, a community where the adverse effects of racial inequity are not hidden from view. What is our responsibility to see? In an 1853 sermon that clearly influenced MLK, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

As people of faith, we must trust that that arc of the moral universe bends according to God’s will. As people of conscience, we must strive to see the societal circumstances of suffering so that we may know the places and spaces where we must continue to do the work of social justice – even (and especially) when they reside only a few blocks away.

Nicholas Alton Lewis, president of the Student Council of Yale Divinity School, is an M.Div. candidate who graduates this spring.

The Sacred Space Inside

By Carmelo Sorita

student photoPaul’s Letter to the Ephesians (2:19) declares: As a consequence, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of God’s household.

I have gathered some questions designed to challenge us, including myself, to build inclusive communities not only of tolerance but also of deep compassion and genuine respect.

These questions are jolting and painful, and I find myself getting defensive or offended. But letting them sink in, I find them humbling and liberating, creating space for my old, ignorantly bigoted self to transition into a more mature and loving Christian. They are like the spit of Jesus mixed with earth that opened the eyes of the blind beggar and enabled him to see Jesus’ vision of the glory of God’s reign.

Here then are a few of these questions:

How do we feel about the foreigner, the alien, the refugee, and the immigrant in our midst, occupying our familiar space?

If we meet any of these differently looking folks and find out that the person speaks good English and is from Chicago or California, do we restrain ourselves from asking, “But where are you really from originally?”

African-American, Latin-American, Middle Eastern-American, Asian-American, Caucasian-American: Why can’t we just get rid of the hyphen and simply call all of them “American”?

Why must we call someone white or black?

What about those who don’t fall into this binary?

In our spiritual life, can we feel at ease if we imagine Jesus Christ not as Caucasian but rather Oriental, Middle Eastern, African, or Asian?

What if this same Jesus with spit and dirt on his hand were to try literally to touch our eyes and our tongue and ears in order to share with us his vision of God’s kingdom?

Wait, what? Spit with dirt heals? Obviously, Jesus belongs to a culture different from us.

Inclusivity demands that we be open and even take the initiative. Like smiling and greeting the shy elderly Chinese couple we come across on Prospect Street.

We need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for two miles.

Building bridges and inclusive communities starts first with building these sacred spaces for inclusivity within our hearts.

Sisters and brothers, in the name of all that is holy and by the faith of the Risen Lord, let us welcome one another as fellow citizens in the household of God.

M.Div. candidate Carmelo Sorita graduates this spring and plans to serve as a chaplain/clinical pastoral care resident at a hospital in Florida.

First Anger, Then Action

By Jewelle Bickel

student photoDuring this time of conversation about race and ethnicity, I found myself challenged. I already had some knowledge of the problem of racism in this country, and I was not ignorant of the many socio-economic policies affecting race. Yet my perceptions changed as I learned of the full extent of the suffering of many in this country. When I read Michelle Alexander’s book, I felt both anger and guilt: anger at the facts and figures that showed a deep trend of prison injustice of which I was once only vaguely aware and with which I was now being confronted head on; and guilty because I hadn’t been fully aware of the realities faced by so many and also hadn’t been an active advocate for change.

For me, the knowledge of these injustices was the push I needed to act. I can imagine some might feel, as I did before, that these problems are so removed from their lives that there is no reason to respond. But the church is in the business of helping the neglected. Wherever injustice reigns, there we as the church must respond. Confronting these issues this year as a school has not only educated me but has prepared me to commit to the conversation concerning them. This time of inquiry allowed me to converse with students from so many different backgrounds, and many of my friends spoke honestly with me about how issues of race had impacted their own lives. I am resolved to continue the dialogue I have already begun with my classmates.

Jewelle Bickel is an M.A.R. candidate concentrating in philosophy of religion. She graduates in May.

The Calculus of Belonging

By Tyrone E. McGowan Jr.

student photoOur social world is constructed on a logic or ethic of separation. The very core of this racial separation is one of violence that seeks to destroy the fabric of our common humanity. This logic is intent on managing who belongs to whom and dictating how social belonging should function.

It radically distorts our God-given identity. But in many ways, our religious institutions are guilty of replicating, reproducing, and reinscribing many of the same social structures that help maintain and police this rigid methodology of separation and belonging. As an emerging church leader, I believe people of faith must find creative and redemptive ways that allow us to reimagine an alternative calculus of belonging.

Some contend there is no need for any such new calculus because we now live in a post-racial society. This idea could not be further from the truth. The post-racial is an intense yearning, not a reality – a yearning to get beyond race without first going through painful issues of race. But we have to deal with the questions that the race issue places upon us and not simply sweep them under the rug. Although a person of color occupies the highest office in the land – making an African-American male the leader of the free world – we nevertheless continue to see people of color in the weakest position globally.

No, we are not post-racial. We have more work to do. We must combine issues of race and class, issues of poverty and culture, and begin to examine seriously the economic effects upon communities of color and people who have traditionally been marginalized. Only then can we start to envision what Maya Angelou calls, “These yet to be United States.”

Tyrone E. McGowan Jr. is a third-year M.Div. candidate from Chicago, IL.

Racialized Bodies

By Justin Crisp

student photoThis semester’s close study of contemporary issues of race has given me not only a kind of shock at the sheer magnitude of the suffering leveled at racialized bodies in the U.S. but also a real fatigue in the face of the immense systemic obstacles to remedying such pain.

I think this reaction often happens when we do the all-too-necessary work of plumbing the depths of systemic oppressions. Seeing just how complicated the issues are, realizing the true extent of their institutional fortification, recognizing the frightening level to which the animating prejudices and ideologies have polluted not only our common sense but our imaginations – all of this can put one at a loss for even knowing where to start. What’s necessary, then, is not only a more honest public conversation about our nation’s racial past and present but also some way of empowering us for the tough work of social change.

This is the function of real hope, a hope that does not whitewash our past and present in the name of “progress” but can make evident all our present failings while sustaining efforts to remedy them, with God’s help. It is essential that we ground our efforts for social change in something larger than ourselves. It is critical that Christians mobilize a robust public theology that is attentive to racial and ethnic oppression – a theology capable of furnishing a vision of a future worth striving toward, with a conception of human dignity strong enough to animate our participation in God’s work of transformation and reconciliation.

Justin E. Crisp is an M.Div. candidate (class of ’14) at YDS and the Institute of Sacred Music and a Diploma in Anglican Studies candidate at Berkeley Divinity School.

Divine Challenge to Social Darwinism

By Samuel L. Caraballo

student photo“What then must we do?” This is the inevitable question faith communities across the nation face when dealing with racial and ethnic divides within their congregations and in society at large.

If it is true scientifically that there is no such thing as racial superiority, then we should ask ourselves, how is it being sustained? If we fail to challenge the staying power of racial privilege in our own settings we might lead people to believe that such privilege in fact indicates inherent biological or social advantages, eventually leading us back to social Darwinism. Instead of racial reconciliation we might end up promoting racial remediation, which leads to paternalism and condescension toward those deemed “unprivileged.”

The uncontested acceptance of “whiteness” as either a social or biological advantage can only be maintained by systemic racial “usurpations.” Any ideological assertion of racial superiority depends on the systematic denigration of those who do not abide by such racial categories. The goal of reconciliation should not be to help the “unprivileged” obtain what the “privileged” already enjoys, but rather to dismantle the assumptions that led us to the attribution of biological or sociological “advantages” to a given group in the first place.

From this standpoint there is no racial reconciliation without racial restitution.

By restitution I mean several things. First, restitution entails a change of focus that gives priority to the neglected voices at the opposite end of the racial spectrum. No one can better inform our reconciliation agenda than those directly affected by the lack of it.

Second, restitution implies a lifelong process of meaningful exchanges that disrupt the conventional ways in which we treat each other. In other words, our relationships need to strive to understand the “other” and constantly deconstruct our own inherent racial bias.

Finally, my rendition doesn’t see racial restitution as merely a human initiative but a Spirit-led enterprise where the supernatural presence of God in the midst of our communion enables us to transform our individual and societal brokenness for the sake of honoring the divine image that permeates us all. May the Lord give us the strength to do that which we must do.

Samuel L. Caraballo is a third-year M.Div. candidate who is originally from Puerto Rico and is currently seeking ordination in the American Baptist Churches.