Sunday, February 19, 2017

Race? It's a moral issue ...

Jim Wallis, in his 2016 America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America, opens his reader's eyes to "the talk." It's the conversation parents have with their teenage children. In white families, the talk runs something like: "If ever you are out and about and get lost, find a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He'll help you get home." In black families, the talk is different: "If you are ever out and about and get lost, if you see a policeman, hide until he's gone. Then make your own way home."
Some years ago we were out shopping with one of our foster kids. Juan was seventeen—boisterous, big smile, and though Latino could pass for black—and we were helping him get ready for independent living. He had had a rough life to date, but was finding his way on the right track. We were in a local chain that sells last season's designer label products for a knock down price. Occasional "red dot sales" means that already reduced clothes get reduced further. Juan had found a pair of jeans. Just his make. Just his size. Ten bucks. A steal! We gave him the cash and followed at a distance. This was his first time shopping for his own stuff. Choosing and buying it himself, finding good bargains, learning to manage scarce resources was part of the learning process. He would soon be out on his own. He approached the check out, placed the jeans on the counter and held out his money. The young woman cashier noticeably looked Juan up and down. Her face changed to a scowl and she pressed the button for the manager. The manager arrived a second before I did. I asked was there a problem with my son buying the reduced jeans? "No sir. No problem at all. We just need to be careful," said the now red faced manager. The cashier took Juan's money, wrapped the jeans, and gruffly handed Juan the bag. The scowl did not leave her face.
Later I pondered, what if I had not been there? What would Juan's experience have been then? Probably not buying the jeans; more likely to have been accused of putting a "red dot" on a more expensive garment. Would there have been a scene? Would Juan have reacted with anger at the false accusations? Would the police have been called?
Quite tragically what Wallis highlights as "the talk," and our experience with Juan (and I could tell many other stories in caring for black, Latino and mixed raced kids) is the reality of race in America—what Wallis calls "America's Original Sin."
In terming race "sin," Wallis, from his religious perspective, highlights the fact that racial issues are not merely "social policy," or "political" but moral issues that reach deeply into those principles and motivations we value most dearly.
It happens—speaking as a social ethicist and philosopher—that I agree with Wallis. So, what's the moral issue with racism? It's what Dr. King highlighted in his 1963  speech. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." The moral issue is that every person ought to be valued as every other person. For Immanuel Kant it meant counting everyone as "an end in themselves," rather than a means to an end. For John Stuart Mill it meant counting every person equally, with no distinctions. Each counts as one and only one. It means too, that while everyone ought to be given the widest set of personal liberties possible, our freedom ought to be constrained by the moral imperative not to harm the other. So, the fact that black families need to give "the talk" to their kids in a different way to white parents, that a dark skinned kid is always under suspicion in a store are moral issues and need to be recognized as such. These are not matters of indifference; not matters merely of "opinion."
One of the most remarkable contemporary advocates of this broad view of morality is pastor and activist William J. Barber II who began the "Moral Mondays" movement in North Carolina. Barber's story to date is a reclaiming of the language of morality for broader social and political issues, the most pressing of which is race in America.
Each spring semester I teach a course "Social and Political Philosophy." We no longer teach such courses as if the only important voices were white males in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Of course, we still teach the "western canon." It's too important to ignore. But we also help students think though critiques of the canon, from, for example feminism and critical race theory. I am always challenged. Teaching these issues has helped me realize the "normalization" of being white, male, straight and able. I long for the day, in much the same way as did Dr. King, when such issues will be irrelevant, the oft-spoken "color-blind" society. But as a culture we are not there yet, and much remains to be done.
So what do we do? What do I do?
The first thing is raising awareness. I have included links to Wallis, Barber and Mills, for anyone who wants to look at this further. All three books are challenging. All three will make you angry at times. Sometimes you will be in denial. Raising our personal consciousness to the issues is the beginning. Then  you do what you can. Charles Mills has a brilliant and complex explication of how we got to where we are. Wallis and Barber offer practical and commonsense help as to how we might move forward to a better life together.
Keep the faith,

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Welcoming strangers ...

Some years ago when Jane and I wanted to write about loving nonviolence with children in foster care we toyed around with a few different titles for the book. In the end we settled on Welcoming Strangers. Our publishers liked the title (which is not always a given) and it stuck.
When we were thinking about taking children into our home, back in 1982—half a lifetime ago—one of the motivations for us was trying to be good Christians. We read and pondered the New Testament text, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress ..." (James 1:27). It seemed right to us then, and still does, that if you are serious about your religion or spirituality, then it must have some practical effect in the world. A Jewish prophet in exile critiqued religion that was merely talk or ritual. He said, "In not this the fast I choose ... to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house ..." (Isaiah 58:7). Muslims too, share the consensus that hospitality, and care for others, is a paramount moral imperative, “So do not be harsh with the orphan and do not chide the one who asks for help…” (Q.93:11). 

Here's what we say in our book:
There are two narratives concerning strangers. The first is that the stranger is a threat to us, not to be trusted. “Don’t talk to strangers,” “Never accept a ride from a stranger,” we tell our children. When someone we do not know stops us in the street, often our first reaction is one of guardedness as we check out the genuineness of the new person. Our sympathetic nervous system takes over: heart beat gets faster, muscles tense, tummy flutters, breath becomes shorter as the primitive fight or flight response kicks in. A guarded defensiveness might turn to a smile when we realize that this stranger is not a threat, for he is one not to be afraid of.
The second narrative of the stranger is to provide hospitality to others, for we are all strangers. The Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” dictates that we provide hospitality and care for the stranger, for we too would want that for ourselves.
So, there's the imperative: be hospitable, especially to those in need (not just your friends). Putting this into practice is not always simple. Strangers are not easy to deal with. They are, well, in a word, "strange." Welcoming strangers is likely to cost you: in time, energy, patience, property, mental and emotional balance. Of course, there is the feel-good factor, that you have contributed something important to another's life. Yet, the feel-good factor is not the point. You welcome the stranger because it is the right thing to do. German philosopher Immanuel Kant would call this a "categorical imperative."
When talking about the natural right of self defense, philosopher Michael Walzer speaks of the "domestic analogy." He says that just as the individual has a right to defend themselves and their family against aggressors, so too does the nation. The "natural right" is for individual people to defend their family, but by the "domestic analogy" Walzer claims that it is the government's right to protect its people against aggressors. In other words, you start with the individual and the family, and make similar claims for the nation.
If you have followed me so far, you have likely already jumped ahead! If there is a moral imperative to care for the stranger for individuals and families, then is there also a "domestic analogy" that makes the leap to say that nations, too, ought to care for the stranger? In other words is there a moral imperative to welcome into our national home those who are homeless, outcast, the refugee? I think there is.
Yet this is impotent too: to welcome strangers is costly. It is quite likely disturbing. It means that life changes in unexpected ways. It involves risk. It's best if you welcome strangers with your eyes open, ready to count the cost, ready to take the risk. You do it regardless. Why? Because it's the right thing to do.

+Ab. Andy

Incidentally, if you haven't read our book, you can find it on Amazon: