Tag Archives: racism

FAILURE AS AN UNDERLYING NARRATIVE by Christa Fisher, 3rd year M.Div. Student

“Your son is at a high risk for failure.” The school principal’s words settled on my chest like a leaden mantle. Unprepared for this phone call, I stammered a confused response. “What? Why? You must be mistaken.” My three-year old son was sitting at the kitchen island coloring, his small fingers gripping a fat red crayon. The principal assured me the call was not an error – she was speaking about my son, about Jacob. A week prior Jacob had participated in a 60-minute early-childhood education readiness assessment and according to the principal, Jacob’s test results warranted the phone call.

In the days following the call I was consumed with the need to understand how Jacob could be at a “high-risk for failure.” After Jacob was born I left my career to stay home and care for him. Needing order and predictability in my life, I created a schedule of activities to fill our days. We attended play groups, visited museums, hiked in the woods, baked cookies, made blanket forts, painted self-portraits, learned the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors, and spent hours upon hours reading. As Jacob became older and craved more time with other children I enrolled him in a highly respected preschool program. His preschool teachers were perplexed by the school district’s assessment. Not only was Jacob doing fine in preschool, they assured me his skills were age appropriate, he came from a safe, loving home, with two devoted parents, who were both college educated. I shared my confusion with a neighbor, a professor of early childhood education. According to her, there was nothing about Jacob which suggested he was at a “high risk for failure.” My husband and I did not enroll Jacob in the specialized program the school district had created for “kids like him.” Instead, we continued to do what we were already doing and hoped this label would not follow him into kindergarten.

After much thought I deduced the school district’s assessment was colored by racism. You see, Jacob is biracial. My husband is black and I am white.

I should not have been surprised by the school district’s assumptions about Jacob. I grew up in a community of people who showcased their racism with pride and am therefore keenly aware of the assumptions we white people make about people of color. As a young mother I worked hard to ensure people had no reason to make such assumptions about our family.  As I focused on maintaining our image, however, I worried my efforts to shield my children from racism were actually depriving them the opportunity to claim their true character. I also worried that my actions were born, at some level, out of my own racism.

My mother-in-law once told me that by marrying her son I was black by association. At the time I didn’t take her seriously. Andre, my soon to be husband, and I were in our early 20’s and living in Berkeley, California. As a biracial couple in the San Francisco Bay Area we were in the norm. Surrounded by the appearance of racial unity I speculated within a generation or two racism would cease to exist. It was easy for me to be so hopeful. I had not yet experienced racism.

When Andre and I moved to Wisconsin I became acutely aware of the differences between the ways people treated us as compared to my previous relationships with white men. When the waitress escorted Andre to one table and me to another, we pitied her for her ignorance. When the mechanic refused to service our vehicle, we moved our business elsewhere. When Andre was defamed at work and offered no recourse, we swallowed our anger and bemoaned small town life. But when our children were born we could no longer simply joke about ignorant behaviors or tolerate inequality at work. Our precious children deserve better than that.

Shortly after Jacob started kindergarten we began receiving notes from his teacher, all assuming parental incompetence. In addition to urging us to read to Jacob for “just 5 minutes each night,” we were also cautioned to limit Jacob’s exposure to television, and to provide him a healthy diet, among other things. Though she did not know us, the teacher assumed our parenting skills were inadequate.

I met with the school principal to discuss the notes, which she quickly dismissed. The teacher was acting out of concern, the principal insisted, and I was over-reacting. In retrospect I should not have expected her to understand – she was the one who informed us Jacob was at a “high risk for failure.” Unprepared to fight this battle, we chose to ignore the teacher’s notes and continue parenting Jacob as we always had.

Andre and I are now more proactive regarding our children’s educations. At the start of the year we meet each of our children’s teachers to tell our story, beginning in the Bay Area where we received our educations and continuing to our present situation in Madison, Wisconsin. By the time we finish, the teachers know us well enough to refrain from applying stereotypical ideologies to our children or making uninformed assumptions about us as parents. Thankfully, both of our children are thriving in school – academically and socially.

Though I am concerned our children will suffer for having a white mother, I recognize that my race can work to their advantage. We are welcomed into places and conversations and afforded greater choices and opportunities due to my whiteness. Teachers and doctors, people who hold critical information, are generally more comfortable communicating with me than with my black husband. I am the primary driver in our family and do not fear racial profiling on the road. As long as our children are with me, I do not worry they will be attacked, physically or verbally.

Yet my whiteness will only benefit our children as long as they are dependent upon and near me. Eventually they will be functionally independent. Then when people look at Jacob with suspicion, whether a police officer, a college professor, or a vigilante citizen, Jacob will have to fend for himself. Under great pressure and amidst intense emotions, Jacob will be responsible for diffusing their anger by demonstrating that he does not warrant fear and is someone worth befriending rather than attacking.

While I still disagree with the school district’s assessment of Jacob, I now recognize a truth in their conclusion. Jacob is at a “high risk for failure” though not for anything he or we have done or failed to do. Jacob will likely experience failure in his life – we all do. Unlike Jacob’s white peers, however, his failure will be inseparable from an underlying narrative of antagonistic racial bias. This insidious evil, which began sabotaging Jacob’s potential before he could even write his entire name, will never just disappear. It is embedded in our institutions and communities, increasing peoples’ risk of failure by limiting their opportunities and choices. Racism, the underlying cause of racial disparities in incarceration, unemployment, poverty, and serious health conditions, justifies racial profiling and minimizes hate crimes. Whether or not Jacob recognizes it, he is in an abusive relationship with racism, from which there is no escape. Unprepared to battle this exhausting, humiliating, and dangerous intruder, we can only hope we are providing him the skills he needs to manage this relationship, so it is unable to consume his life, robbing him his true character and potential and ultimately rendering him a failure.

BOOK REVIEW: THE NEW JIM CROW Reviewed by Alan Berndt-Dreyer

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2010 and 2012). Xvii and 312.

Reviewed by Alan Berndt-Dreyer, M.Div. Senior

It has been a long journey for me from the rural, yet diverse community of Western Nebraska to the streets of the Harambee neighborhood in Milwaukee and back to seminary. Along the way I have had the opportunity to encounter races other than my own and more importantly, my own aversion to defining race that has led to colorblindness. This colorblindness has not been helpful for me or for others.  Through the course of living a year in a predominately African American neighborhood I have seen the effects of my and the nation’s colorblindness in helping to create and maintain, as the author rightly calls it, a racial caste system.

Through her book, Michelle Alexander lays out argument after argument, fact after fact, to support her thesis: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Alexander points to the very same constitutional amendment that abolished slavery as the one that allows the one who is a criminal to be a slave to the state. As we know; one must pay their debt to society.  Just 110 years after the emancipation proclamation and a decade after a successful civil rights movement, the start of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration moved in to redefine racial minorities, particularly African Americans, in terms of being a criminal. Being labeled a criminal puts every obstacle in the way  of reintegration into society. Who wants to argue on behalf of one labeled a criminal?

Michelle Alexander successfully argues that this “New Jim Crow” has been created through the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs was started by President Ronald Reagan on the verge of seeing penal prisons on their way out.  The War on Drugs systemically has given police in our country the legal right to racially profile along with the financial incentives to do so. Moreover, prosecutors have incentive to pick all-white juries, as well as try to bring as many charges as possible against people of color. Though drug use and sales are equal across the races in America, blacks and browns are targeted unfairly, but legally, through many cases judged by the Supreme Court to be constitutional. Furthermore, drugs that are common to those who are white carry a much lighter sentence than those more common to those who are black. These are just a few of the hundreds of cases and examples that she brings forward to support her case.

Though Alexander’s book is devastating in example after example of racial discrimination and the effects of that discrimination, she remains hopeful and determined that this new racial caste system should and will fall. The core of the book comes not in the first five chapters where she builds the case that a new racial caste has been created, but in the final chapter where she addresses colorblindness. Colorblindness to an issue doesn’t mean that the issue isn’t there. As we are made aware of the issues of race that still pervade our society and will continue to as sinful human institutions it becomes clear that colorblindness to racial disparities equals endorsement. It becomes increasingly important to focus on race, not because we want to endorse racism, but because race is a factor in how a person is treated. It is a responsibility that a person act on behalf of brothers and sisters who are put most at odds with society. By naming the evil in our society, even if that means giving up our illusion of a colorblind society that has moved past racism, we are able to continuously be concerned with those who are often positioned as the least. By becoming aware of our false colorblindness we are able to discuss frankly the welfare of not only our neighbors, but ourselves as well. We are all affected when one is affected. This is the crux of the book and the hope that this new Jim Crow will be the last.

FREEDOM TO LOVE AS GOD LOVES by Lynn Robinson, WTS, 2012

 As a sixth grader I stood in front of the 12th stop in the cycle of the Stations of the Cross. It was a time to reflect and commemorate the death and life of Christ standing at each station. As a sixth grader I was already experiencing the joys and sorrows, the anguish and grief of life: abandonment, abuse, hunger and thirst.  I felt compelled to stop and look at Jesus hanging on the cross: nails in hands and feet and crown of thorns.

 God so loved the world that God sent God’s only Son. I thought, “God, if this is true, if you are real and are who they say you are, and if you possess such love, then I want to know it. God I want to know that I am included in that love.” And as I prayed I felt a strong inward response saying, “I am real and you will know me. I love you and you will tell others about me.”

 Crowds followed: the despised ones, those kicked around by the nations, laborers enslaved because of the demands of the ruling class. Looking around in the world today, the crowds could be made up of those who are marginalized, oppressed, hated, homeless, victims of genocide, victims of racism and classism, a woman who might soon be beaten to death in her home, the hungry, the poor, the grieving families who’ve suffered loss of loved ones in the name of country, in the name of  self-preservation; those in the wilderness between Mexico and the United States; those standing their ground; those on the ground; the politically correct, the high, middle and low on the economic ladder. Can it be said that all want to see Jesus?

 But Jesus said, “Time’s up.” The time had come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. The continuous, unlimited power to draw us through this present world and on into eternity comes from Jesus laying down his life for us. No one could take it from him.

 In spite of the conditions of the world and the crowds’ context, the death of Jesus, the true light which enlightens everyone, has come into the world. The ones who believe need not walk in the power of the world, living in darkness. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overtake it. In the death of Christ the believing ones can have communion and fellowship with God in Christ and be children of light for themselves and for the world.

 In the language of liberation theology: the inexplicable, reprehensible, oppressive spirit of racism, classism and gender inequality is no longer empowered to determine voice, identity or station of persons. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Living according to the world’s expectations, the world’s vision and the world’s way of doing things destroys life. We are called to be countercultural. Loving the world as God loves the world, in Christ reconciling the world in love, is a reckless counterculture love. It is eternal.

 Christ, lifted and crucified will never stop drawing us in because God in Christ has reconciled all to God’s self. It is finished. It is complete. Walking in darkness means our vision is restricted to that darkness.  We serve God in Christ when we follow after Jesus in love.  God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

 There will be many occasions where conditions in the world trouble the soul but the believing ones continue to walk in the light of liberty and freedom.  In the world there is the darkness of isolation, abandonment, marginalization and compartmentalization, mistreatment and misunderstanding, and yet none of these conditions inhibit the love of God in Christ or relationship with God in Christ. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ there is freedom to love one another just as God in Christ has loved us.