Thursday, October 28, 2010

Some Midterm Election Thoughts

Like many people I will be glad when next Tuesday, November 2 comes just so I won’t have to watch all the annoying, disinforming political ads and won’t be getting the robo-calls for this or that candidate. However, as we come to these midterm elections I do have a few random thoughts.

The anti-Washington Rhetoric
Have you noticed how many candidates are “campaigning against Washington?” It strikes me as very strange that there are so many people working so hard to get to a place they are so critical of. In this scenario Republicans have the edge, but if Washington is such a terrible place, why are they spending so much time, energy and money to get there? I realize that this is just a marketing strategy, but the people who advise candidates need to get more creative. I am sure there is a significant percentage of voters who will go along with the anti-Washington rhetoric, but really candidates, could you please come up with some sort of clear idea of what you will do when you go to Washington because 2 or 4 or 6 years from now, someone will be calling you a "Washington insider."

The Myth of the Political “Race”
Nearly every night for the last 3 months or more, we have been hearing about how the respective candidates are doing in their “race’ against each other. Emails tout that one is pulling ahead or closing the gap. If I didn’t know any better, one would think that the candidates were involved in some sort of cross-country marathon. The fact is on November 2, we show up, we vote, the count is taken and the winner is announced. It’s a singular event in a singular day, not a marathon (except for those of us listening to the reports).

The myth of “the race” is created by the media to bring drama to an otherwise singular event. It keeps them from using their news time to actually give us information on the candidates’ experience, their past actions and their stated positions. Instead of giving us information that can help us evaluate the ads that barrage us, they report on the ads themselves – how nasty they were and how much they cost. They run endless polls trying to determine who is voting, and what they are finding is that a huge percentage don’t know or aren’t telling. When they day comes, they will vote.

There is no “race” – that’s another media create illusion. Instead of getting us caught up in a mythical drama, how about taking time each night to share the fruits of an analysis and investigation of where candidates stand, and what they have done in the past; the drama will be in informed voters voting intelligently rather than emotionally.

My Thoughts on the Democrats
The other evening I received a call from the Democratic party (not for my specific candidate) but the party as a whole. Two years ago I gave money to Obama’s campaign and they wanted to know if I could help them out again. When I declined, the caller asked “Is it for political reasons?” and I replied “No, I am still voting Democrat.” The call quickly ended, but afterwards I wish I had said more.

This is what I wished I had said (and will, if some poor unsuspecting volunteer from the DNC calls me again.).

 “I am voting Democrat not because I am so enamored with the Democratic party; in fact I am profoundly disappointed. With a 60% majority in the Senate, a significant majority in the House, and a President with progressive ideas, the Democrats blew it. They could not pass a Health Care bill that really provided coverage for the most vulnerable; could not bring significant reform to the way Wall Street operates; wimped out when the President proposed to raise taxes on the wealthy Americans; and got us more deeply entrenched in a pointless, unwinnaable war in Afgahnistan. They were as easily persuaded my lobbyists’ money as their Republican counterparts, and when it came time to push thru some important legislation, time and time again, they had no spine. Many blame Obama for the sluggish economy, but I blame the bank and corporate executives who were able to get bail out money and gave themselves bonuses, while holding back on hiring folks and foreclosing homes; I blame the lobbyists from the insurance, bank and financial institutions who poured record numbers of dollars into the pockets of leaders on both sides of the aisle, so that they would shout and holler and do nothing to change the system as it is; and I blame the Democrats in Congress who did not back Obama when he tried to stand up to them.  When Obama’s party needed him, they wimped out. They aren’t a party with any clear agenda or principles, they are simply a fund-raising machine.

“Now you, DNC, call me asking for money with all sorts of scary scenarios about what the Republicans will do. I am sincerely concerned about the polarity amongst our political leaders. I am concerned about the “take back America” language coming from political conservatives; that can only mean even worse times for the poor, the immigrant, the person of color, and the marginalized in our society. I am concerned about the mean-spirit I hear in the Tea Party rhetoric of God, guns and patriotism. Yes, I am scared, so I will vote.

“But give you money, so you can put attack ads that distort the record and do nothing to inform the public of what a candidate actually said, did or believes? Not going to happen.

“Go and make some significant campaign finance reform. Reverse the Supreme Court decision that made it possible for corporations to give as much in campaign contributions as they want, with no stipulations. Take the money you are raising to improve inner city schools, or provide housing for people losing their homes or making health care accessible to all or putting real gun-control legislation in place; instead of those annoying adsa. But to support the kind of disinforming drivel that I have been watching for that last several months?

No, I don’t think so – so have a nice day.”

Real Democracy

I have long ago taken a cynical perspective on electoral politics (I know its not that obvious!), but I still believe in democracy; not the game that goes on in Washington, but real people getting together at the grassroots community level to make decisions about the health and welfare of their community. As I have said before what goes on in “the halls of government” is not democracy, but plutocracy (the rule of the rich). In order to get and stay elected a person must have or have access to a lot of money. A man or woman with leadership abilities and great ideas, but no money, is unelectable. However, at the grassroots level people can come together to make a difference.

When I was living in southern Minnesota in the late 1980’s I participated in the caucus system where residents came together to discuss issues and vote for the primary candidate of their choice. Then representatives of that local group went to the regional meeting which did the same thing, and then went on to the state. Those meetings were filled with impassioned, substantive political debate and while we did not always get our way, we were informed and our voice was heard

I have worked with a church in West Philadelphia that helped organize its community and got the city to board up or tear down dozens of abandoned buildings, and is now in the process of negotiating to get affordable housing for the people of that community. When a young man was beaten up by police officer, they called the residents together and had the police and city come and hear their concerns. I have also sat with residents at a local high school debating and discussing what they want for their kids and how they want their school to be run; again this was meaningful, substantive democracy in action.

Regardless of what happens on November 2, the real democratic process will continue, and we will tolerate the games that go on among the plutocrats who like to think of themselves our leaders. I still believe in Barack Obama and his agenda. I share his community organizing spirit, but he needs help; so in the mean time I will put my energies into real democracy at the grassroots level.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

White Anti-Racist Heroes

Every fall semester, I teach a course entitled “Race and Ethnic Relations.” A major component of the course is studying the history of racism and ethnic discrimination beginning in medieval Europe to the present day, and examining how that history can both help us understand the current status of race and ethnic relations in North America, and then guide us in our exploration of the way forward toward a multi-cultural society where all racial/ethnic groups have an equally accepted and authentic voices. As the history of racism is reviewed, most white students and some students of color are not only shocked by the intentional oppression of African, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other peoples of color, but also deeply distressed by the active complicity of Christian leaders in that oppression. Usually my white students are left with overwhelming feelings of guilt, despair and powerlessness in the face of the horrific historical facts.

A few weeks ago the class, which is primarily comprised of white and African-American students, came to that point of despair. The African American students have many heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights Movement after whom they can model their activism; figures such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, Rosa Parks and many more come to mind. However, the white students feel like they have no such models in their attempts to develop an anti-racist lifestyle. At that point I exhorted them to find white anti-racist heroes after whom they can model their lives. While the sacrifices of white anti-racists are great, they in no way approach the sacrifice of those people of color who challenged the white establishment. Even so white anti-racists models from the past can point the way forward whites who want to work alongside their counterparts in building a society free of racism.

What follows is my brief list of the anti-racist heroes who have served as an inspiration and guide for me as I work to contribute to the building of the Beloved (multiracial ) Community that Martin Luther King spoke about 50 years ago. May the examples of these folks serve to inform all whites that they too have anti-racist ancestry upon which they can draw.

Some White Anti-Racists from U.S. History

William Wilberforce – Member of British parliament whose tireless efforts eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade in England.

Elijah Lovejoy – abolitionist journalist killed in Alton, IL for his anti-slavery views.

 Thaddeus Stevens –Congressman from Pennsylvania during the pre-Civil War era who argued tirelessly for the abolition of slavery.

John Woolman – Quaker farmer who in the 1700’s personally convinced 100’s of Quaker slave-owners to renounce slavery and set their slaves free. By 1787 when the United States became a nation, hardly any Quakers owned slaves thanks to John Woolman.

Levi Coffman – Quaker abolitionist in Ohio who supported the Underground Railroad.

John Rankin – Presbyterian minister in Ripley, Ohio who safely ushered hundreds of runaway slaves to freedom.

John Brown – avid abolitionist who sought to ignite a slave rebellion thru his raid on the US Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

AJ Muste, - labor organizer who was also active in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

Myles Horton – founder of Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, which was a meeting place for black and white civil rights workers in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Clarence Jordan- founder of Koinonia, an intentional multi-racial community established in the 1940’s in South Georgia.

Jimmy Carter –former US President and tireless Civil Rights advocate.

Will Campbell – Southern writer, minister and activist who actively sought to befriend members of the KKK to change their minds and attitudes.

Alice  and Sarah Grimke – early suffragettes and abolitionists in the pre and post Civil War era.

Susan B. Anthony – early advocate for both women’s and African-American rights.

Charles Finney – Baptist evangelist in the 1800’s whose evangelistic message always included a call to fight slavery; the founder of Oberlin College.

Dorothy Day – Co-founder of the Catholic Worker and advocate for the poor and oppressed.

Curtiss DeYoung – evangelical pastor/writer who has tirelessly advocated for racial reconciliation.

Chris Rice – long time member of Voice of Calvary (now at Duke University) who along with Spencer Perkins (until his death) lived in intentional inter-racial community and writes extensively on racial reconciliation.

May this list guide and inspire other white anti-racist to actively live into the hope and promise of a society where racism is not tolerated and diversity of all kinds is embraced.

Perhaps you who read my “hall of heroes” can add to the list.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Will the Elders Please Step Up

This past week as part of the Urban Studies residency I had the opportunity to spend an intense week with a group of talented, highly motivated graduate students preparing to work in urban communities across North America. However, my most impressive encounter was not with a student but with a grandmother in West Philadelphia who spoke to some of my students about her ministry with young people in her community. This woman, who I will call Clara, moved into the neighborhood from her suburban home and decided that instead living in fear of the young people on her block, she would open her home to her grandson and his friends to teach them some basic life skills such as cooking and maintaining a home. Every week she repeats the act with a widening group of teenagers.

She sees her effort as a contribution to the quality of life in her neighborhood. On that same day my students (who were walking the neighborhood looking for positive signs of God’s activity in the community) met three other senior citizens who likewise had decided to reach out to the young people on their block. They also heard from a 51 year old father who every Friday night brings together 20 adolescents just to talk about the struggles in their lives. What we saw were elders who decided that instead of complaining about young people, they would step up to offer their services as elders, mentors and caregivers.

Contrast this with efforts by many elders to put distance from themselves and the younger generation. Not far from my suburban home, there is a gated community for people 55 and older; the homes start in the $350,000 and no children are allowed to reside in the community. Senior living communities dot the area. In this same area there is a taxpayer group again made up of the community’s older citizens who fight every effort by the school board to raise revenue for the schools, even though our district has the lowest tax rate in the county. So I find it quite striking that Clara and the others I met this week decided to open their lives to young people rather than shut them out. No doubt there are seniors like Clara in my community and elsewhere who reach out to young people in their own way, but unfortunately there are far too few.

While it is easy for those of us who are older to shake our heads at the lack of care and concern in the younger generation, what is needed is for many of us to step out like Clara and open their lives and their homes to them. We talk about the aimlessness of kids, but are we willing to serve as mentors, guides and friends to these young folks whose lives may be shattered? When parents can’t or won’t serve that role, where are the elders who are willing to step in and love kids in spite of their faults, attitudes and craziness?

Thank you Clara, for reminding all of us, that it is never too late, nor are we ever too old, to provide young folks with the guidance and love they so desperately crave.