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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
12.4 (Fall 2012)
faith and cultural meltdown
courtesy of artrenewal.org
The Sinkhole of Racial Determinism
Christianity is in trouble as an organized religion in the United States. We Americans have never been conspicuously united racially, but the Church labored with some success at bridging the gap between black and white. Things have come to such a pass, however, that Church leadership is beginning to take very public and outspoken positions on avant-garde social legislation under the guise of bridging this gap still further. Candidates who promote more spending on schools, child care, free lunches, free breakfasts, initiatives like the proven failure Headstart, and now universal health care are not popular this season with voters, but they continue to receive praise from leadership councils and national conventions of both Protestant and Catholic clergy. A pragmatist might want to warn clergymen that they risk rendering themselves irrelevant (or even antithetical) to mainstream America in the twenty-first century if they keep on embracing a crypto-socialist agenda in the name of social justice and/or racial equality. (The defense of illegal immigration is another of these issues—but the present discussion will confine itself to our nation’s long inheritance of black vs. white tension.)
Let us leave pragmatism to one side, however. If Jesus had been a pragmatist, he would have stayed home in the carpentry shop. Let us assume, rather, that Christian duty often calls upon us to act against the dictates of pragmatism. Is it in fact right to wring tax revenues from hard-working Americans in support of their fellow citizens who may work just as hard, but not in an endeavor that allows them to pay all their bills?
Just as pragmatism should have no part in this discussion, so I want to dispose very quickly of what might be called the church-and-state angle. “Separation of church and state” is a phrase that makes no appearance whatever in any official founding document of our nation or in any subsequent product of judicial review. It originated in Jefferson’s correspondence. We need not rattle on about how the two must be separate, then, because the Signers of the Declaration willed it so. On the contrary, most (probably all) of those estimable men would have agreed that Christian morality must inform the practices of a democratic republic for that republic to succeed. The real question, rather, is whether one can have a moral right to take the wealth of others in behalf of a “good” cause. The quotations are obviously intended to raise doubts about goodness; for if the cause is so manifestly good, why would wealth-producers need coercion to elicit their support of it? Or if they are too corrupt and greedy to recognize goodness… who, then, is that supreme arbiter? And even if we had such a Moses or Solomon among us, how could we call the forcible confiscation of private property an act of charity? Good behavior must be freely chosen. Taxation is compulsory. Its ends can therefore only be defended as convenient for or profitable to the state—not as morally admirable.
With that much said, I wish to devote the rest of this space to some very specific observations about my African-American neighbors that will lead to a broader conclusion. These observations, since they are generalities, will be sure to draw charges of stereotyping from some quarters, and will thence quickly suggest to my accusers that I am a racist. The mere fact that one is not allowed to generalize about any racial matter without becoming ipso facto a racist is an indication of just how difficult and painful a mature discussion of such matters is. Even the likes of Bill Cosby cannot develop a point similar to mine without being branded a “race traitor” (whatever in the world that is). In the spirit of Christian love, however, I decline to be intimidated by name-calling (though I shall also decline to sign my full name to this piece: the message is important, but not the messenger).
On my weekly trips to the grocery store, I routinely see grossly overweight people (often puttering about in the automated carts reserved for the physically incapacitated) conveying terrible dietary choices to the checkout counter: piles of red meat and bacon, pack upon pack of soft drinks, bags of potato chips by the half-dozen, and so forth. This is a national crisis that cuts across most racial lines. In fact, I would guess that no more than one in four of the grotesquely obese specimens I see is a Person of Color (POC)—or, as I prefer to say for clarity, a North American of African Ancestry (NAAA), for African-descended people of Caribbean or Central American provenance often have different ethnic habits. Naturally, I know that a line-of-sight tally of this sort is statistically almost meaningless, since I cannot establish the broader population of any group likely to shop at that store and at that hour. Yet I am not singling out the NAAA group or any other for special recognition in the matter of obesity. At most, I would say that Asians are conspicuous by their absence from the ranks of the disfiguringly overweight.
On the other hand, I will risk the stigma of being dangerously unclinical so far as to say that a rather high proportion of drive-thru crowd is NAAA. “Mickey D’s” and Kentucky Fried Chicken are legendary in the black community where I live (perhaps it’s different in your neck of the woods). I base my observations on frequent stops that I myself had to make while being on the road for much of the summer. When one considers that NAAA’s are only about 12-14 % of the American populace, that traffic on a major interstate is pretty representative of this populace, and that the drive-thrus I sampled were but a stone’s throw from the interstate in every case, finding a third to a half of the arms reaching from window to window for their shakes, burgers, and fries to be black seems to tell a tale. Many Hispanic-Americans have dark skin, I realize. I confess to having profiled the customers on the basis of several factors (clothing, type of vehicle, music overheard, etc.). I stereotyped.
A second, and related, observation: the vehicles driven by NAAA’s along the roads I traveled (I started to keep track as my ideas converged) tended to exceed in cost anything that I have ever bought. State-of-the-art SUV’s, flagship minivans, and restored (= “pimped”) classics with flashing silver-spoked hubcaps were frequent, if not the norm. In distinct contrast on this score, poor white folks tend to drive what were once called “jalopies”, especially rusted, dented pick-ups and Fords sedans that have never received a bath. I drive a Mazda: efficient, economical, and relatively comfortable. I started looking for an NAAA in a Mazda, but never succeeded in finding one. (Again, there was some stereotyping in my survey.)
Quite beyond my own hearsay, our “popular culture” insists—with a kind of triumphant ostentation—that throbbing, three-decibel amplifiers are almost the exclusive right of the NAAA community, as if the Hip-Hop Guild had taken out a patent on them. The chariot-like hubcaps and other “car bling” belonging to the fine art of “pimping” are also strictly NAAA territory on popular TV. “Bling” in general began, of course—and continues in large part—as a phenomenon of “black culture”. Tattoos are, if anything, a little more common among lower-class Caucasians; but NAAA’s have embraced them enthusiastically. All of this is again unpleasantly close to stereotyping; but this time I would point out that the stereotypes are forced upon us all by the entertainment media. NAAA youth will themselves actually become upset on occasion when they perceive someone of another racial or ethnic group “borrowing” some of the trappings just mentioned to establish his or her own identity.
And what, then, is the ultimate objective of all this profiling and stereotyping? Just this. Red meat, soft drinks, potato chips… burgers, shakes, fries… sound, systems, hubcaps, paint jobs… “pimped rides”, luxury vans, Cadillacs… tooth-metal (“grills”), necklaces, Air Jordan sneakers… tattoos, earphones, iPhones… all of these cost money. Collectively, they cost lots of money. Poor people in 2012 have in common a fondness for one or more items on my list—but only North Americans of African Ancestry seem to me to have a fondness for all of them. Admitting several of these indulgences into your life guarantees permanent poverty and indebtedness (at least if you live within the law and do not receive lavish handouts from politicians for your vote). Such baubles and frivolities are not consolation prizes for being poor—for not having a permanent house or stable job or savings account to bankroll further education. They are, in a nutshell, the prime cause of being and staying poor.
I know—believe me—that race-related observations can easily become back-door bigotry. If one group is visibly distinct from the majority, then every aberrant behavior performed by any member of that group becomes the common practice of “them”. I cannot easily leaven my personal observations with objective studies, either, because in the prevailing atmosphere of political correctness, studies targeting the causes of poverty in the African-American community would never examine personal responsibility.*
Nevertheless, observations like mine have been logged by many. I mentioned Bill Cosby, and I might have added Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, and other “race traitors” who sing against the refrain that more public bailouts are needed—and even reparations for slavery’s distant past. With such distinguished Americans, I say, in Christian love: “Restrain yourselves. Question your need for everything you buy. The message of Christ is not for everyone to acquire more material trash by parceling out the riches of the few: it is to live a spiritual life, free of cravings for material trash, where one’s means are preserved frugally for true necessity.”
Disgusted with fast food, I stopped at a Denny’s for my final meal on the road. Unknown to me, it was a favorite haunt of the local NAAA population—but not of the demographic I have described above. These people were well dressed (much more so than I was at the time), quiet, and relaxed. I was served by a waitress named Alexis, who was working her way through college to become a nurse. Alexis didn’t wear any tattoos that I could see, was trim and pretty, and could hardly have owned any “pimped ride” (since there wasn’t any such in the parking lot). She was an all-American girl—the kind you’d like your daughter to be; and no real American could have cared less about her skin tone if we were not all being pounded relentlessly with the notion that color must not pass unnoticed.
Alexis will probably vote for the “change” party, because she’s young and black. Half of her regular clients will probably vote the same way (for the umpteenth time) out of some nagging sense of historical obligation. The remaining half would never talk candidly about how they see things to the likes of me. The truth is, though, that their observations are the same as mine, because we’re all human beings and we all have the same kind of eyes in our head. Most of them go to church regularly (in fact, this well-dressed group must have been the Sunday evening church crowd). I hope their keener comprehension of things makes its way to the “white churches” that are so zealously—but so mistakenly—undermining our society’s spiritual foundation. ~ Meredydd
* In fact, studies do exist that show that obesity is inversely related to income: wealthier people tend to stay more trim. But these studies tend to shy away from drawing a specific connection between fast-food consumption, costly health issues, poverty, and race. Cf. “Lower-Income Neighborhoods Associated With Higher Obesity Rates,” ScienceDaily (7 Feb. 2008), http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080207163807.htm.