I don’t know if you caught the story last year that made the news for a couple of weeks concerning Benedict Cumberbatch and his remarks concerning ‘Colored People’? Yes, yesterday was MLK day in the US, so I am being somewhat predictable with my topic this Tuesday! Back to my opening. What was remarkable about this piece of news and the remarkable attention drawn to it were two things. First of all, Mr Cumberbatch was taken to task over his use of the words ‘Colored People’ rather than the politically correct ‘People of Color’. Secondly, and perhaps more substantially, he was seeking to make a point in defense of actors of color (if that is the appropriate nomenclature – OK, right up front, I apologize if I use an inappropriate phrase as I tread on dangerous ground here as a white caucasian). My question is, despite papering the cracks with politically correct speech, do we still have substantial holes under the wallpaper?
We can point to some headline grabbing events that suggest some progress has been made in the realm of civil rights. Perhaps the most notable among these is the election of an African American President in the US. The slim majority of voters who made up the national vote certainly suggests a shift in attitude. However, there are still too many incidents and weighty statistics that suggest we have a long way to go. The beating of Rodney King and subsequent racial tensions, and more recently the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings only highlight some disturbing statistics. For instance, approximately 100 unarmed African Americans were shot by police in 2015 alone. This figure represents 5 times the number of unarmed white people who were shot in the same period. (see Police Violence Statistics).
Perhaps more seriously, the rate of incarceration of the black community is hugely disproportionate. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 13.6% of the population are black (including hispanic black), whilst 39.4% of the prison population were non-hispanic black. “Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization. There are more people in the United States either on parole or in jail today (around 6 million total) than there ever were at any time in Stalin’s gulags. For what it’s worth, there are also more black men in jail right now than there were in slavery at its peak.”
― Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Of course, there are a lot of reasons for this, including levels of poverty amongst the black population, geographic bias limiting opportunities for education and many more that I have not had the time to research. My feeling is that this represents a significant indictment on our treatment of ethnic minorities and particularly the black community. The injustice Mr Taibbi speaks about also stands in stark contrast to the complete absence of criminal convictions of those who prosecuted massive fraud in the lead up to the banking crisis of 2008. The majority of these offenders were white by the way.
Now, I understand that it takes time for underlying attitudes to shift and perhaps even longer for actual conditions to improve. The changing nomenclature promoted by political correctness unfortunately seems to be no more effective than putting lipstick on a pig. The fact that so much was made of the specific words used by Mr Cumberbatch rather than the real desire to improve the lot of the black artist shows how far removed we have become from the more important issue of underlying attitude.
Just because we passed laws in the 1960’s outlawing segregation and the persecution of people of color in the US, this no more removes underlying racism than speed signs seem to stop motorists speeding on our roads. One only has to listen to the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls on the fate of immigrants and/or our muslim population to know we still have a problem. As politicians, they believe and are probably right in thinking they are appealing to a large number of the electorate. So why do we still have what looks like a long journey ahead to change the nature of this story?
First of all, as with any conflict of ideas and opinion, it is really important to understand those we might disagree with. Not only that, we should also examine our own hearts and minds to discover just how out of step we might be with what we say is our position on this. Reluctantly I admit that on occasion, much to my discredit, I have caught myself in less than progressive thoughts on this issue. Those of us who profess faith in Jesus can surely agree that he represents an all encompassing and unmitigated support of all races, creeds and backgrounds. I think some of us would be shocked at just how far removed Jesus himself may have been from the white, blue eyed, blond haired image so often portrayed. However, it was not so long ago that slavery and then segregation were argued as biblical by many representing our faith. I wonder at how much these beliefs still color the patterns of thought in our current day and age.
Perhaps the most prescient influence on our underlying attitudes has to do with a fear of what we don’t understand. I had the wonderful opportunity to visit South Africa, on two occasions, at the height of the Apartheid era and what struck me so powerfully was the underlying fear of the consequences of allowing the black majority to gain any standing in the country. A mass exodus of white citizens of South Africa including many Christians highlighted the uncertainty and fear for the future when Nelson Mandela was eventually released and came to power. I had to work hard not to judge and to put myself in the shoes of these people and understand their concerns.
You might think it irrational, disturbing or worse, but I believe we will never achieve progress in these divisive areas without a recognition of what motivates those with whom we disagree. In my opinion, just as in the realm of the positive, there are spiritual forces at work here, particularly when it comes to fear that appears irrational. But pursuing understanding and engaging with those we disagree with is the only way to allow open dialogue and mutual understanding that can lead to a shift in attitude. Some argue that many amongst the black population are just as racist in attitude towards the white population, but again, the history of oppression and segregation and lack of opportunity has led to understandable suspicion and fear. It seems to me that Jesus would have shone a light on the fear, suspicion and division in order to dispel those things that divide and, through reconciliation, the alarming statistics above might just change over time. It may not seem like we can achieve much on our own, but searching our own deeper seated attitudes, reaching out to those we disagree with and bridging the gap between us and those we do not understand may just shift the balance a little more in the right direction.