Monday, January 18, 2010

A Day to Reflect

Today we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who stood with him in the Civil Rights Movement. In light of this observance and the election of President Obama, many are discussing whether we have become a “post-racial” society in America. The answer is, of course, “No” and “Yes.”

No, race is still important in America. If we do not take race seriously, we cannot understand who were are and how we interact with each other. In one recent seminary class I quickly discovered that all of us were Baptists, but that an African American church operates very differently from the predominantly Euro-American congregation of which I am a member. One reason is that the African-American church has played a unique role in our society, providing empowerment, direction, and leadership that African-Americans could not find elsewhere.

Race should not be ignored. Racial pride grew out of marginalization. When a race is subjugated, the members of that race make choices: they can give up their identity, they hold on to what is really important and work within the larger culture, or they can strictly resist assimilation. Most of the people in my family rejected their Native American identity, and I am a poorer person for that. We should value our roots. On the other hand, if one holds too closely to their racial identity (such as resisting learning the dominant language), they will continue to be marginalized. Living with this tension is not easy.

I grew up with the idea that American was a “melting pot”—differences in culture were “boiled down” to a stew with a common consistency. When ethnic groups came to this country, they left their ethnic identity behind and embraced the “American way.” In reality, this was a long slow process and some of that ethnic identity still survives today (think about Saint Patrick’s Day!). Sometime in my young adult years, I was exposed to the idea of our country as a “mosaic”—different races and nationalities making their own unique contribution on the larger landscape of American life—valuing their identity but offering it to strengthen the society. I like the mosaic idea better, but it presupposes a stable base on which to build that mosaic. In our country, the base is the rule of law and a tolerance for those who differ from us.

On the other hand, race is not as important in some areas of life as it once was, and I am grateful for that change. Different races work, live, and worship together in ways that they did not fifty years ago. Is there still prejudice? Yes, but it is not codified and responsible people struggle to deal with it in society and in their lives. Is there racism? Yes, just as there is greed, lust, rebellion, and corruption. All of these sins exist in society, but we do not honor them or encourage their practice.

Race continues to be a key issue in American life. People of good will must continue to talk, pray, and deal with this issue. To argue otherwise is to miss the opportunity to improve ourselves and our society.

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