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A Cultural Decline beyond our Capacity to Handle

Evidence of the decline of American Culture emerges in African American communities. Public displays of the problem continuously stream in the news media and on reality TV.  Many Christians recognize the cultural deterioration and genuinely desire change that moves us forward. Unfortunately, for some, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, it is difficult to determine the boiling point if you think you are merely enjoying a bubbling Jacuzzi.

Truth be told, the evidence is overwhelming. But as in many courtroom dramas from The Scopes Trial to Judge Judy, the discovery of truth is not as important as the theatrical display. And we can't handle the truth. Truth has become almost irrelevant in efforts to validate experience. Ferguson riots. Police shooting. Polling reports. Race. Power. Opportunity. Fear. Because of recent incidents across the country and subsequent media coverage, echoes of long rehearsed scripts fill our ears: Profiling. Brutality. Protests. Violence. Whatever comes to mind as you read these words, new scripts are being written around the country: Militarized police state; man Tasered; fatal shooting.

For some, these are the necessary responses to the escalating violence when African Americans gather. For others, these constitute updated forms of mob lynching and nightstick beatings. Such polarizing responses expose the haunting divide among us. We are divided because of a narrative that has formed our imagination. This narrative does not divide by age, class, gender, sexuality or profession of faith. It divides by an idea: Race. Will they not recognize the decay in African-American communities?

Some will stop reading here, since we can't handle the truth. Their questions linger: Why is it always about race? When can I speak and not be labeled? They are among the many who are weary with rants on racism, discussions of diversity and pleas for political correctness. I suspect some who are still reading are like myself, no less weary. We, too, are fatigued, because the familiar narrative is a false tale.

There is not space here to rehearse the history of modern civilization that has written this tale, but visual media reinforces the script, making us voyeuristic consumers of a socially constructed farce. The story is spun whenever the poster child for welfare is a black mother — though statistically more white women have received government assistance. Charles Murray, in his book Coming Apart, reveals there are more illegitimate white children in America today than the entire African-American population. The tale is again told when blacks are repeatedly stopped and searched by police, though police overwhelmingly find the majority of contraband in the possession of persons who are white. We do not question our assumptions that persons of color must be guilty and merely need to be caught. The narration continues as the public calls for due process for the white police officer that kills an unarmed teen while condemning murdered black youth for unrelated conduct. Courtroom verdicts, civil laws and public officials seem committed to systems of oppression. Opinions are many. Passion evident. Yet action seems confined to hysterical rants or harmful riots. These new scripts become embellishments of the old tale.

This is why #blacklivesmatter remains in the news. Indeed, time has passed. Instigating events no longer rule the headlines. Instead, the news feeds cover the aftermath. The aftermath that is the consequential consciousness that raises our awareness of incidents of racism. The aftermath that says the idea of post-racial itself affirms the idea of race. Eventually, we must find a way to examine the very idea of race and what that idea has done to the idea of being human.

Of course, it is not always about race. But sometimes, it is.

As Tim Dees, retired cop and criminal justice professor, Reno Police Department, Reno Municipal Court, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Police Department, described in a Newsweek article asking what police officers think about how Ferguson police handled the aftermath of the Brown shooting:

"Ferguson is a city of 21,000 people. Its police department has 52 sworn officers. Only three are black, when about 68 percent of the city's population is black. This imbalance affects the current situation tangentially, but I doubt that it's a problem that the City of Ferguson is unaware of or that they haven't tried to fix it."

"Opinions are many. Passion evident. Yet action seems confined to hysterical rants or harmful riots."

Tangentially? Really? A new poll released a month after the incidents quantifies the racial tensions surrounding Ferguson: 62 percent of white residents of St. Louis believe that the shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer was justified, while 65 percent of African-American residents did not. A New York Times columnist noted a 2011 study by scholars at Harvard and Tufts that found "whites, on average, believed that anti-white racism was a bigger problem than anti-black racism."

To suggest race is not driving these stories ignores the history of modern civilization that has written a script that defines human beings by the color of one's skin. Unrelated information shifts the conversation: Why is no one addressing black-on-black crime? #alllivesmatter. But Dees' response rehearses the script. "Blacks are less qualified." "Blacks determine their fate by their behavior." His description of the shooting of Michael Brown continues with the addition of after-the-fact information about a crime Officer Wilson has no knowledge of when he strong-armed the two black youth walking in the middle of the street. Of course, the script tells us, walking in the street is passive aggression, "used by miscreants and gang types all over." Dees understands the "… siege mentality brought about by stress and frustration" on the part of business owners and the Ferguson police department. Absent in his response is any empathy for the stress and frustration of the African-American community who have a memory of Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin or John Crawford that confirms their sons are not safe in public.

Not to excuse the murders intentional or consequential of inner-city drive-by shootings or deaths resultant of domestic violence in rural mid-America, violence in the African-American community nonetheless continues to be at the hand of white Americans with impunity. Evidence of the decline of American culture.

Notwithstanding that whites comprise nearly two-thirds of the low-wage workforce, the system perpetuates an over-representation of African Americans working low-wage jobs relative to their participation in the overall workforce – proportionately 31.2 percent in contrast to 20 percent of white workers. Evidence of the decline of American culture.

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander poignantly describes the continuation of America's caste system resulting in mass incarceration of African Americans. Evidence of the decline of American culture.

"And that is why my hope is not in the government. My hope is in God."

Truth be told, the DNA of America's societal decay can indeed be viewed in the African-American experience. Not to examine how the racialization of people groups influences these realities is to relax in the melting pot that is approaching the point of boiling over. But what has happened, unexamined, in the African-American communities, is now happening across the nation at large. News media doesn't get the kind of attention when it reports the obstructions of justice, systemic inequities, and random discrimination that occur at large. That seems more like individual bad luck. But the black community knows the system is flawed. Dysfunctional.

We call the decay by other names when describing the experience of those who think themselves to be white: Social Welfare vs. Corporate Subsidies. Affirmative Action vs. Qualified Applicants. Dangerous Thug vs. Mentally Ill. If we can be honest, the words in the opening paragraphs indeed produce different images in our minds, primarily dependent on whether we imagined the victims and/or perpetrators as black or white. Cries to overthrow existing systems reflect corrosive hatred and sickening fear ignited by feelings of being disregarded, ignored or overlooked. The appeal of fascist rhetoric is nothing new. Political platforms to "take back our country" and racialized populism motivate the masses to vote. And yet, such rhetoric creates communities segregated by race and ethnicity in the suburbs and the sanctuary, neither of which addresses the real decay of our society.

During this month set aside to consider black history, it might be prudent to consider how the ills that plague the African American are the very systemic ills that are destroying America: substandard education systems; under-employment; poverty; lack of access to health care; dysfunctional family arrangements; gun violence; drug abuse; homelessness; flawed penal system; corrupt municipal governments; stalemated congress; distractions of celebrity entertainment. What enabled the decay in Black America, no less infects all of America. It may require that the people of God reject the modern racial imagination in order that we can offer an alternative vision of community.

If the events in Ferguson provide the turning point our addressing the issues of race, the response of Tim Dees might be enlightening.

Dees summarizes his response in this way: "I think the Ferguson PD just got slammed with an event that was beyond their capacity to handle. The people of Ferguson could have responded to the shooting with peaceful protests and demonstrations, and I suspect most of them intended to do exactly that. But a relatively small number decided to respond with violence, and the FPD wasn't trained or equipped to deal with it."

As I read this response, it seems the police community bands together to protect its own against outsiders who just don't understand what it means to wear the uniform for that eight- to 12-hour shift. I think it provides me a bit of empathy toward Dees. Truth is, it seems the African-American community bands together to protect its own against outsiders who just don't understand what it means to wear the uniform – that is, to live in black skin 24/7. To paraphrase Dees, I think the African-American community just got slammed with an event that was beyond their capacity to handle. And that is why my hope is not in the government. My hope is in God.

The Rev. Dr. Joy J. Moore (PhD Brunel University) serves as assistant professor of preaching and academic liaison to the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She is an ordained elder in the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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