Resisting a Return to Normal

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Today is tax day. This isn’t the typical time to file taxes. We are much more accustomed to submitting tax returns in the Spring. But then, not much is typical right now.

COVID-19 has upended our lives in a multitude of ways, leading to a lot of provisional and temporary adjustments to make life work. We grocery shop with masks, worship online, work remotely, graduate in drive-by ceremonies, and generally try to limit our contact with others. This is certainly not the 2020 we were hoping for and I suspect, after four long months of this, many of us are weary, longing for a return to “normal.”

Going back to the way things were . . . that would be the easiest. But I find myself wondering if that is what we should even be hoping for. After all, the way things were before COVID wasn’t necessarily great. At least not for everyone. We live in a country with significant disparities that run across racial and ethnic lines, disparities that our COVID-19 world has accentuated and exacerbated.

Take, for example, the decision in March by schools around the country to educate our children remotely. Recent studies have shown that students from low-income families, a disproportionate number of whom are students of color, faced significant roadblocks to learning because they didn’t have the required access to good internet, a personal computer, and often, someone in the home to help them work through the material.

In some cases, the tech industry stepped up to alleviate this disparity by supplying internet access or computers. However, these were merely temporary and patchwork solutions to a disparity in educational resources and opportunities that has long plagued American schools. To go back to “normal” is to go back to ignoring the way our educational system is failing low-income populations.

Covid-19 has highlighted similar disparities in our healthcare system. According to the CDC, people of color are 20-25 percent more likely to contract Covid-19. The reasons for this are many and varied, but three are worth mentioning here: 1. People of color tend to work in essential industries, resulting in greater exposure to the virus; 2. lack of health insurance has made health care inaccessible to too many people of color, meaning they are more likely to have underlying conditions that have gone inadequately treated. This, in turn, has made them more susceptible to the virus; and 3. racism and systemic inequities undermine prevention and care efforts among people of color. To return to normal is to continue to disregard disparities in health care and the general well-being of people of color that COVID is making visible.

With the gratuitous death of George Floyd at the hands of police in May of this year, America as a nation has been forced to reckon with racial injustice and inequity. You might say we have been awakened to the systemic racism in our nation’s structures and institutions. In response, hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world have gathered together to protest racism and police brutality against people of color. Institutions have put out statements, taking a stand against racist attitudes and behaviors.

White folks in Christian circles have gotten together to read James Cone and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Phrases like white privilege, critical race theory, and structural racism have started coming up in casual conversation. There is an energy and earnestness to these actions that is deeply encouraging. But even as I write this, I’m conscious that change won’t come quickly or easily. The attraction and pull of returning to “normal” is strong. And in America, racism is part of that “normal.”

Perhaps this is where we can take a lesson from Rizpah. Rizpah is a little known character in the Old Testament, the secondary wife of Saul (thanks to my colleague Sarah Schreiber for directing my attention to her). We meet up with Rizpah in 2 Samuel 21 after Saul has been killed and David has become king of Israel. As retribution for Saul’s attack on them, David hands over seven of Saul’s surviving sons to the Gibeonites to be lynched. Innocent blood for innocent blood. Two of these victims are Rizpah’s sons.

Rizpah is powerless to prevent their death. What she can do, however, is make visible the invisible, calling attention to the injustice of the violent and gruesome deaths of innocent lives. For six long months, through the heat and the rain, she sits among the dead bodies, dignifying them with her mourning, and protecting the corpses from preying birds and wild animals. For six long months, she sits with her sackcloth, inviting the nation to repentance and social change. For six long months, Rizpah suffers until finally David notices her and makes reparations of sorts, gathering the bones of Saul and Jonathan and Saul’s seven sons and burying them with dignity.

For many of us, the events of this year have opened our eyes to the realities of racism in our country. My prayer in all of this (and perhaps yours as well) is that this new awareness and energy will bring about real social change. That like Rizpah, we will be persistent, courageous, and sacrificial in advocating for the dignity of our black and brown siblings. That like Rizpah, we will resolve to continue to point to injustices until justice is won. And that, in all of this, we will resist returning to “normal.”

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Thanks Amanda for a thoughtful and convicting reflection on Scripture and for the call to be a persistent voice for justice!  Keep reminding us of this necessary and important work.

Thanks, Amanda, for your take on why it may not be good to return to normal, especially as it relates to inter racial concerns.  I find your take on the inequalities that contribute to racism rather simplistic and not well thought through.  What you have failed to take into account is the different cultures that make up our nation.  In the past, American Christian mission groups found it difficult to convincingly bring the gospel message to cultures different from our Western culture.  So missionaries attempted to change the foreign culture to resemble more closely our American culture.  It’s called cultural assimilation.  It’s the attempted forced assimilation of one culture on that of another.  It’s not that one culture is smarter or better than another, but simply that we are culturally different and learn differently and do things differently.  It would seem that black and white cultures are different enough from each other that to assume what will work well for one culture (white) educationally will work for another is likely not true.   You assume, Amanda, giving one culture computers and Internet service will bring the same result for all other cultures.  Maybe giving greater attention to cultural differences in learning could reap greater benefits in education than simply giving everyone the same educational experience.  Maybe being a melting pot of different cultures is more complicated than simply giving everyone the same Western world experience.  Maybe the “Black Lives Matter” mantra is a call to reevaluate how we do life in a culturally diverse nation.  Maybe the melting pot mentality is not the answer.

Roger, I am curious what you had in mind when you said, "It’s not that one culture is smarter or better than another, but simply that we are culturally different and learn differently...  Maybe giving greater attention to cultural differences in learning could reap greater benefits in education than simply giving everyone the same educational experience."

Growing up in Japan I know there are cultural differences that need to be taken into account with a whole variety of factors. But what I hear Amanda saying is not so much giving everyone the same educational experience, but rather a level playing field with things like access to technology (very important during COVID when everything is moving online!). I don't hear you saying this isn't important (lack of access). I hear you asking us to go further and also pay more attention to the complexity with cross-cultural dynamics. Is that correct? If so what did you have in mind when you said we should pay attention to greater cultural differences? Is it something along the lines of what I experience with my African American pastor friends. We have similar educational experiences, but they have a very rich mentoring culture that I am benefitting from greatly. Thanks in advance. 

Roger, help me understand what you are saying.  Do you mean to say that the idea of providing educational resources like internet access and computers to children who don't have them is misguided because different cultures learn differently?  If you are saying that our educational system needs wholesale change in order to respond appropriately to different learning styles, cultures, and life situations, then I agree; however, that kind of reform would be impossible without also rectifying the gross inequity in resources and access that Amanda so saliently points out.  Are you saying that providing vital resources like internet access would somehow be failing to understand pedagogical strategies in understanding cultural differences in learning?  I notice that you ignored the heart of Amanda's point and her call to just action.   

Will you clarify what you mean by your last few sentences?  I too believe that we need to "reevaluate how we do life in a culturally diverse nation", and I also don't like the melting pot metaphor because of its assumption of the need for assimilation of all into our system of white superiority and systemic racism.   Are you advocating instead for some kind of "separate but equal" thing, because of cultural differences?  

Roger, what do mean when you say '"Black Lives Matter" mantra?'  When you put that phrase in quotes and call it a mantra it seems you are trying to de-legitimize and co-opt the desperate cry of grief and prophetic call to action from our brothers and sisters, People of Color who continue to be shut out and brutalized by our "normal."

Roger, I'll echo the questions of Andy and David here and eagerly await your response. There's one aspect of your comments that I want to respond to in the meantime, however. 

While I agree that forced cultural assimilation is something we need to repent of and move away from in a diverse society, I think we need to consider the fact that people in power (often white, like me) have used a version of  the "they just have a different culture" idea to justify continually inadequate resources for black, brown and indigenous peoples. People of any racial background, given similar resources (educational, financial, familial, health, communal, etc.), will perform similarly in every context. This has been confirmed in study after study. (For an in depth look, chek out the book How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.)

Furthermore, in order to even begin to understand how learning outcomes may be affected by the interplay of cultural distinctions and teaching style or curriculum development, one needs to control for lack of resources first. If someone is starving, you don't start by wondering if they culturally prefer not to eat. You give them a meal. 

It is not "simplistic" or "not well thought through" to suggest that kids without computers during COVID-19 need computers. It's basic triage. Is it enough? No, but I don't hear Dr. Benckhuysen telling us that it is. I hear her telling us to dig deeply into the roots of inequity, and stick with that process for the long haul no matter how difficult it gets. That is a call that, I as a white man struggling with my brothers and sisters of color, need to hear again and again.

Amanda thank you for your cogent and prophetic call to see the inequities in our country which signal dire emergencies in health, education, and law enforcement and shine a light again on our unacknowledged systemic racism. Each of us has a chance to reflect and feel Rizpah's grief as the black and brown members of our family are dying under the crushing wheels of systems that we white folks have been conditioned to see as "normal", in no small part because of the benefits we accrue from them daily.  Thank you for pointing out that if "normal" keeps exacerbating inequity, then we must address this as injustice and begin the long work of self-reflection, education and organization to dismantle those systems and redress the inequities.  Only then will "normal" begin to look more like shalom.

 

Andy, Kyle, and David.  Thanks for your comments and questions fired my way.  This whole race issue is not at all simple.  For some it is as easy (ha, ha) as removing our capitalistic form of government with its emphasis on free enterprise and moving to a more socialist form of government with the government collecting more taxes in order to direct a strong welfare program.  As a nation we have always leaned toward capitalism (although the term itself is more recent).  Capitalism is what “the great American dream is built on.  Perhaps a more socialist government would level the playing field between the “haves” and “have-nots” and might help to erase racism between all races.

Others are in favor of defunding the police, in order to provide  more money for other programs.  I have my doubts if defunding particular programs to increase others is the answer.  Why not just increase taxes (like other socialist countries)?  Oh, most Americans don’t want higher taxes.  It would be a hard sell, even to Christians.

For others, it’s a matter of taking down symbols that touched upon slavery in the past.  Take down statues of Columbus, George Washington, Confederate symbols, close Wall Street (started as a slave trade market), ban the sale of Jim Beam whiskey, in fact remove a good share of historical markers that reminds us that slavery was part of our past history.  Will that promote good will between the races?

Others are in favor of giving money as reparation for the harm done by slavery to Afro-Americans.  That would reduce the financial inequalities, and those receiving reparation moneys could meet the necessary expenses of education plus other needs, That, though, might be unfair to other minorities (and immigrants) that that don’t have a history of slavery. 

Perhaps, the problem with any such remedies to racism is that it involves taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor.  I hear many Christians graciously advocating for this.  But the fact is that Christians are as hesitant as anyone to giving their money to even good causes.  After all, most Christians don’t come close to giving a tithe of their incomes to the church (God’s kingdom). Giving up what is mine is not typically part of the American dream or the Christian dream.

Then there is the whole issue of felt (perceived) needs and actual needs.  I agree, giving everyone computers and Internet service may be necessary and helpful.  But do you really think that is going to resolve the problem of good will between the races?  Maybe equal housing will help, equal health care, better food stamp program, equal pay and incomes?  Is that going to spread good will between the races?  I doubt that  a glorified welfare system would resolve the problem of racism.  I agree David, that a wholesale change is needed to respond to different learning styles, cultures, and life situations.  But very often what is needed is not what is wanted (felt needs).  How do you get over that obstacle?  

So the big question for the three of you, Andy, David, and Kyle, what do you see as the solution?  Is it a personal problem?  Is it a church (Christian) problem?  Why aren’t churches doing more?  Is it a national problem?  Let’s hear some of your answers.