How are Non-White Americans forced to live today?

This is part one of a series of reflections on Charlottesville via Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech “I See the Promised Land” (text and audio here). See the Intro here.

I can remember [applause], I can remember when Negroes were just going around, as Ralph has said so often, scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. [laughter, applause] But that day is all over. (Yeah) [applause] We mean business now and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.

What is the rightful place for black people in God’s world? The naturally-following question is more blunt: How are non-white Americans ‘forced to live’ today?

Just this week, a story emerged locally of a man deported in February leaving behind a wife and 7 kids. He is only 2 years older than I am. I cannot imagine being ripped from my family and removed thousands of miles away. I would probably die of sadness. Compare this to the relative ease with which Irish immigrants came to the US 100 years ago: granted ease of passage for being white. The notion that the road is equal for white and non-white Americans is simply not supported by statistics.

  • See HERE for disparities in the criminal justice population.
  • See HERE for income disparities.
  • See HERE and HERE for educational disparities. See HERE (pdf) for a huge federal report from 2013.

Add to these realities the function of historical trauma. This refers to the difficulties of particular groups of people to escape the pains of their ancestry. You can see this trauma in Native American groups where addiction has decimated entire tribes, essentially finishing off ethnic-based atrocities begun generations earlier. The black community is still feeling the economic ripple-effect of slavery. They are feeling the economic ripple-effect of segregation. they are feeling the economic effects of mass incarceration.

It’s weird, I don’t see anyone forcing black people to live poorer than me. But the invisibility of these disparities is designed into the disparities themselves. I don’t see the income gap, because I live in a lily-white town. I don’t see the disparities in education. I just happened to go to a private Christian college and saw the percentage of black classmates drop from 40% to 1%. I think you get the picture.

In this context of systemic disparities in America, what then is black America’s “rightful place in God’s world”? What then must be done for the black American to gain that rightful place?

The first is a spiritual matter. The second a spiritual-political one.

Spiritually, it seems obvious that black Americans ought to be free. Free to be who God is calling them to be.They ought to have equal access to housing, healthcare, education, opportunity, etc. as anyone else. It seems to basic and obvious to me that it seems almost shameful to have to say it. Why would a nation who so values money NOT want to unleash the productivity of half of its population? Why would a nation who prides itself on opportunity not want to grant full access to the creative powers of its peoples?

The simple answer is the best one, in this case. Black America’s rightful place in God’s world is to be free and to seek and find the abundant life God has for them.

Closing the gap between current realities and God’s will for black Americans is a lot tougher (The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates remains the seminal work). I’m not sure its because the answers are all that complex. I more think that the pathway to true freedom and equality for all people is BOTH spiritual and political. And often the political is dominated by current matters. Spiritual matters are slower and elusive. Of course, public policies need to eliminate disparities in the public sphere. But spiritually, there needs to be a further growth within white people for black equality to be a reality. The growth is in terms of awareness of black inequality, honesty within white America regarding our complicity in systems of oppression, a deep concern for non-white Americans that leads to radical change in white Americans and an collective effort to acknowledge wrongs and commit to set those wrongs aright.

As I encounter Dr. Kings’ last speech in light of an ascendant white power movement embodied at Charlottesville, I see so much about what he writes that is still unresolved 40 years later. This intersection of black America’s “rightful place in God’s world” and the powers forcing black Americans to live dramatically less free is today’s enduring work for enlightened and conscious people. The work is multifaceted: artists, politicians, clergy, educators, historians each have their role. I worry that there is too much work and too little will power for true equality. But ultimately, these spiritual matters are God’s will. Don’t I want to be in that will?

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