Raising My White Son In A Racist Age

Image result for john lewis young

The Republicans’ nearly unanimous opposition today to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act hit me hard. It called to mind a more idealistic time in my own life and in that of the nation, and reminded me of how far we have descended in the 9 short years of my oldest son’s life. Let me explain.

My son was born early in 2010. In the years before my son’s birth, galvanized by my relationship with my new wife and new experiences living on the west side of Chicago, I had experienced a racial awakening. As a good evangelical Christian, I had long ago had a conversion experience. But this was a second conversion, in many respects more thoroughgoing than the first. I began to face my racism and reorder my commitments.

I read John Lewis’s autobiography during that awakening. I remember crying. I didn’t approach it as a historian or a critic. Any subtleties or faults of this frail human being were lost on me. I felt as though I was encountering a modern-day saint. Here was a man who nearly gave his life for the right to vote. Here was a man who never wavered in his principles, who returned love for hatred, and bore in his body the evidence of his commitment.

When our first-born son arrived, we could think of nothing better to do than name him John Lewis. It was a fit of youthful presumption and idealism, I now admit. But I don’t regret it at all. It was true to who we were at that time. And it seemed to me to match the tenor of the moment. I found President Obama to be an inspirational and steady leader, and I looked forward to positive changes ahead.

I hoped that my son would grow up to be a man of courage and love in the cause of his own time, as Lewis was in his. I didn’t expect voting rights to be a cause of my son’s time too! But when my son was 3, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It quickly became apparent that the Republican Party that had reauthorized the Act as recently as 2006 no longer existed. The ensuing years have given us a wave of new voting restrictions, suppression, and gerrymandering as the GOP turned to overt racism as a tool to gain power.

My son lived his early years at an inflection point in American life. The post-civil rights era, a time too ambiguous to have a proper name, was ending. A new era of racism and anti-racist activism was beginning. When my son was 2, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and protests and vigils spread across the country. We were living in Akron, Ohio, at the time. One Saturday morning I buckled John Lewis into his car seat and headed down to the courthouse. I felt I needed to be there, and in some sort of cosmic way beyond memory, I felt it was important for my boy to be there too.

The ensuing years saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded to national attention during the summer of my son’s 4th year. “Where are you going, daddy?” I stop at the door. “I’m going to a protest, son.” He ponders. “What’s a protest?” How do I explain it? How do I teach him to live in a racist society when I don’t even know myself?

We bought the March books. He liked them but found them confusing. We sent him off to school where, year after year, he is the lone white face in his grade. Does it matter? Does it accomplish anything beyond making me feel that I am doing something?

Some of you might think this all sounds like a lot of pressure for a little boy. White parents with unresolved racial guilt using their son as a guinea pig. Ok.

But there’s another pressure out there, greater because invisible: growing up as a normal white kid in a normal white neighborhood. How are those kids going to resist the evil of our age?

My son will set his own course in life. We rarely talk about where his name came from anymore. But the ambitions behind it linger. A long time ago, Dr. King said that white people are sick. It’s still true. And what parent doesn’t want their children to grow up to be healthy? He will have to be loving and courageous to escape the sickness permeating our time.

During his short life, the racism of the Republican Party has become so much worse and more entrenched. We don’t know where the bottom is, but we know it’s going to affect his life, and even more so the lives of his friends and classmates in our working class black neighborhood.

But there’s no need for despair. As John Lewis puts it, “We must continue to speak up & stand up, to find a way to get in the way to build the Beloved Community.” Whatever path my son takes, I think he’s going to find a way to make some #goodtrouble.

What Does It Mean To Invest In Whiteness?

While working on my dissertation this afternoon I was wrestling with a little question in the back of my mind and I realized I had written something years ago that addressed it. When I went back to find it, I was surprised at how well it held up. So, here it is in it’s entirety, from November 28, 2014.


What is The Investment in Whiteness?

A few days ago I posted this on Facebook:

Where are the White Christians who will join me in confessing our investment in whiteness? Who will join me in repentance? Who will seek to learn more if these questions confuse you?

Well, some have kindly asked questions seeking to learn more.

What in the world do I mean by the phrase “investment in whiteness”?

For me, this phrase has become a useful shorthand to sum up the problem that White people face in American society. I think the phrase emerged for me from Cheryl Harris’s 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” and more directly from George Lipsitz’s 1998 book, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.

To have an investment in something means that we have a stake in it. If we make a business investment, we expect to get a monetary return. We “invest” in relationships, and hope to receive companionship and support as a result. We invest in our children, expecting them to grow up to be responsible adults. In a very similar way, most White Americans have an investment in Whiteness.

It is important to understand that this investment in Whiteness is almost always unconscious. That might sound strange at first, but when we think about it, we realize that unconscious investments are quite normal. I, for example, claim that my identity is rooted in my relation to Jesus Christ. Yet I have gradually begun to realize that I unconsciously use my daily work as a way to make myself feel like a worthwhile person. If I haven’t performed a lot of tasks in a given day, I subconsciously feel less valuable as a human being. This is a deep and harmful “investment” in work that has only gradually begun to become conscious to me. As Christians we can all relate to the times we’ve been convicted of putting our faith and hope and identity in things that we should not. And at the moment of conviction we might say, “Wow, why couldn’t I see it before?”

Our investment in Whiteness works a lot like that.

Ok, so we’ve gotten this far: people have all sorts of “investments,” it is quite normal for some of these investments to be unconscious, and some of them are harmful. It remains to be seen what this investment in Whiteness consists of. The most basic thing about the investment in Whiteness is that Whiteness is seen as neutral and normative, and thereby protects the advantages White people have by making it appear that these advantages have nothing to do with being White. For example:

It often blinds us to the limitations and quirks of our own point of view. Instead of realizing that our views are just as biased, particular, and racial as those of other groups, we often subconsciously think that the White view is not White at all, but is actually just normal, neutral, or obvious.

It prevents us from seeing that our theology is not a neutral restatement of Christianity or a simple adherence to biblical teaching. It is shaped by our culture. It is White theology.This theology is extremely individualistic. We often think this is because the Bible is individualistic, but White theology goes far beyond the Bible’s insistence that every individual needs the salvation of Jesus. White theology adds on a radical American individualism that insists individuals are basically innocent of the corporate and collective sins around them. White theology focuses on individual improvement, and changing the world “one heart at a time.” The Old Testament vision of shalom and the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God go against this radical individualism, but White theology consistently downplays or even ignores the communal and systemic aspects of sin and redemption that the Bible emphasizes.

Our investment in Whiteness causes us to insist on racial innocence and individualized racism. Because White theology downplays the biblical view of sin as both personal and corporate, individual and systemic, we tend to assume that racism is a personal sin, and therefore one that we have nothing to do with. The investment in Whiteness causes us to insist that we can’t possibly be racist. We feel a deep need to not be racist. This need comes not from the humility of Christianity that would cause us to assume that we probably do share the sin of the society around us. It comes from the pride of our culture that doesn’t really believe that human beings are depraved.

The investment in Whiteness causes us to evade personal responsibility for the systemic racial oppression that is constant in American society. Because we are protecting our own innocence, we feel compelled to blame other people or things for the suffering and oppression racial minorities experience. Some blame the “culture” of the disadvantaged group or emphasize family breakdown; others focus on the damage of government welfare programs. These views downplay or even ignore the severity and scale of racial oppression past and present, but they accomplish something important: they make the individual White person innocent. Often, when discussing racial controversies, Whites reveal their investment when they focus not on questions of how best to remove injustice against racial minorities, but rather on defending things such as political conservatism, small government, American patriotism, or radical individualism. Others focus on the importance of civil discussion and even-handedness, not realizing that their Whiteness makes it easy to focus on these comparatively trivial qualities since they don’t have to bear the brunt of racial oppression.

Indeed, one of the most obvious aspects of investment in Whiteness that I should have mentioned by now is that most White Americans do not know basic facts about American history and American society. Many Whites don’t know that the United States was founded as a White supremacist state, and that for much of our history being White was a qualification for being an American citizen. Many don’t know that racial oppression was a vital part of the creation of the modern American middle class after World War Two. This basic ignorance of American history and of the reality of the present oppression by the United States is very important to those who are invested in Whiteness. (My purpose here is not to prove the racial oppression of the American past and present. The burden of proof is on those who deny it. They need to find some evidence to support their position. I’m happy to provide reading lists for anyone who’d like to learn more about the reality of American history).

Acknowledging the facts of American history is extremely threatening to those who are invested in Whiteness. Many of us have ancestors who have passed wealth down to us. When we realize that this wealth was produced from opportunities that the American state deliberately provided only to White people, we are disturbed. It doesn’t reflect poorly on our ancestors. They were just normal human beings. They, like us, often had no idea they were benefiting from injustice. When we realize what has actually occurred, there is no getting around the fact that much of our success owes itself to our identity as White people. It is even more disturbing when we realize that in the present day the oppression is ongoing. We begin to realize that the White environments many of us are in (White neighborhoods, White schools, White churches) are not natural or accidental outcomes, but are the result of our deliberate choices–choices that have protected our investment in Whiteness. As Christians, we begin to realize that the simple acts of our daily lives as we go along with the flow of American society inevitably entrap us in the sinful systems of a broken world.

What, then, am I repenting for?

This is where people get especially confused. We can’t grasp the repentance part without remembering that a radical, unbiblical individualism is a part of our investment in Whiteness. So let’s do our best not to bring that individualism to our repentance. We’re not wringing our hands with a sense of White liberal guilt. We’re not pretending we’re to blame for everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re not pretending that we ever wanted our society to be broken like this. We’re not even repenting of being racists.

We’re simply confessing our participation in systems of racial oppression. We’re confessing our blindness. We’re humbly acknowledging that one of the key reasons we live where we do, have the jobs we do, send our kids to the school we do, is because we are White. We’re confessing that we hadn’t realized it before. We’re humbly admitting that the oppressed know more about their oppression and how best to respond to it than we do. We’re repenting of going along with systems of racial oppression and accepting them as normal. From now on, we will begin to try to figure out what it will mean to be people that weaken those systems rather than being just another cog in them.

Hopefully some of this makes sense. In the end, it is impossible to know how strong the investment in Whiteness is until you’ve actually begun to go against it.

Martin Luther King Day at Eastern State Penitentiary

I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: if you’re in the Philadelphia area this Martin Luther King Day weekend, come out to Eastern State Penitentiary for a reading and discussion of the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

This year we’ve got an all-star lineup of four historians from Temple University who each bring a unique perspective to the letter. Unfortunately, for each reading/discussion session you’ll only hear from one of us, but that’s part of the excitement of it, right? You don’t know who you’ll get!

See here for more info.

Eastern State is an astonishing historic site, and the team there is doing great work (winning lots of awards!) in interpreting it for the public and raising questions that are directly relevant to today.

And that’s what the Letter from Birmingham Jail program is all about. It is participatory and relevant. Come prepared to offer your thoughts about how this letter matters now. If Dr. King was writing a letter from jail today, what would he say? If you wrote a letter, what would you say?

This isn’t an academic discussion about the past. It’s a morally charged exploration about what we can do now. Many people who have attended the event in the past have said they left feeling energized and inspired. And, the historian in me feels compelled to say, you’ll also learn something about the past!

Donate to J.D. Scholten

meet-jd-2.jpg

A newly released poll of Iowa’s 4th congressional district has white nationalist Congressman Steve King up only 1 point over his opponent, J.D. Scholten. Though this is a very conservative district and Scholten is the underdog, there is a real opportunity here to defeat the most openly racist member of Congress in the United States.

Let’s not let this chance go to waste. Please consider making a donation to Scholten. It’s fast and easy.

And if you happen to know anyone in northwest Iowa, give them a call!

Give Your Money To Democrats

DoIJ13pU4AIGt25.jpg large

I’ve never made a donation to a political candidate. Today, that changes. My wife and I are donating money to Democratic congressional candidates in five close House races to help Democrats retake Congress in November. I hope you’ll donate too.

You don’t have to be a political expert to do this effectively and put your money where it will make a difference. If you know where to look, it’s easy to find out which races are close. I’m using the Cook Political Report House Ratings to locate five races that are “toss-ups” or “lean Republican.” Cook shows you the name of the incumbent Republican but not the Democratic challenger. You can find their names on this map. Or you can simply do google searches for the state and district number you’re interested in (i.e., “GA-07 congressional race”) and you’ll find the name of the challenger pretty easily. Then go to their campaign website and donate directly to them.

That’s how to do it. Why should you do it?

The ground has shifted beneath our feet. Ordinary voters have been slow to recognize how sweeping the radicalization of the Republican Party is, and how large the differences between the parties have become. Consider these statements:

–Sexual assault is wrong and people who do it should be held accountable.

–Racism is wrong and leaders should not promote it in their words or actions.

–Democracy and the rule of law are important to ensure peace and justice for all people.

Many voters think of statements like these as abstractions that are not part of ordinary politics. They imagine that these statements enjoy such universal acceptance that they are not among the things for which they’re voting for or against. But they’re wrong. These statements are on the ballot this November.

Imagining these simple statements as settled and agreed upon has always depended on complacency and a lack of historical awareness. Egalitarian democracy with its promise of equal treatment and accountability for all has been the exception rather than the rule in American history. These values have always been contested and remain so.

But now, in just the past few years, they’ve become much more directly partisan. They have been taken up into the bloodstream of the political system, becoming live questions about which the two main parties take distinct positions and propose different policy solutions.

Do you believe women and people of color should be treated with dignity? Do you believe democracy and the rule of law are good? Have the courage of your convictions. These beliefs have become partisan. In general, Democrats agree with you. In general, Republicans disagree with you. The widespread unwillingness to speak clearly about this in public is a failure of moral and intellectual courage. It’s time for all decent people to work against the dangerous radicalization of the Republican Party before it’s too late.

Events of recent years constitute a great unveiling. The true character of people is showing through, often to horrifying effect. There are three dates seared in my consciousness.

November 24, 2014: the Ferguson grand jury announcement

November 8, 2016: the election of Donald Trump

September 27, 2018: the Ford/Kavanaugh Hearing

These were each highly emotional days in which larger cultural and political changes converged on a single dramatic moment. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump, and Me Too, it has become abundantly clear that there is a huge constituency favoring lawless white male rule above all else. The political vehicle for this constituency is the Republican Party.

I’ve written a lot over the years about Black lives Matter and Donald Trump. But the Kavanaugh hearing just happened. I want to explain why I found it so disturbing.

As a thought experiment, let’s start by assuming that he is entirely innocent of all the allegations made against him. If that is the case, I can understand why a person would privately wrestle with all the emotions and anger he displayed yesterday. And I can’t even imagine the anguish he would feel for his family.

But a mature man would not air all those grievances publicly, in a scorched-earth tactic whose inevitable result is further discrediting the Senate and the Supreme Court in the eyes of the American people, reducing the legitimacy of both. A mature man would not publicly describe a credible sexual assault allegation as a partisan hit job. A mature man would not elevate his partisan interest above the larger reckoning now occurring around sexual assault and sexual harassment. A mature man would try to clear his name in a way calculated to honor and support victims of sexual assault, not discourage and traumatize them.

A mature man would have long ago reckoned with his privilege. He would not have described his life of unusual and unearned opportunities as a case of bootstrapping. This speaks to his character in the most basic sense.

A mature man would have been respectful to the senators and the American people, no matter his internal anguish. Kavanaugh was so angry and petulant yesterday, so wild in his words and physical movements, that he at times appeared inebriated in the hearing room itself. An honorable man does not behave this way when wrongly accused. He has disqualified himself, even if he is innocent.

But let’s step away from the thought experiment now. There are good reasons to suppose he is not innocent. Obviously Dr. Ford’s credibility is crucial here. So is Kavanaugh’s calendar with the entry naming a gathering with the very people Ford claimed were at the party.

Just as important, however, is how Kavanaugh’s own behavior in the nomination process has damaged his own credibility. The night he was nominated, I watched live as he introduced himself to the American people. I knew nothing about him. I thought it was very odd when he immediately told a gratuitous lie (“No President has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.”) I thought at the time it was curious that he chose to say something so obviously untrue in front of the whole country for no other apparent purpose than to flatter the President.

Then yesterday, Kavanaugh repeatedly disassembled about his drinking. Among the highlights: claiming he hasn’t “blacked out” but has merely “fallen asleep” from drinking. We know he is not being straight about his drinking. It is hard to believe he is telling the truth about larger things. It also seems likely that an innocent man would be eager for corroborating witnesses to go on the record. Yesterday, Kavanaugh made clear he doesn’t want that to happen.

The broader context here is crucial: Republican senators are seeking to confirm Kavanaugh without trying to find out whether he has committed sexual assault. This is sickening behavior. It is a direct message to every woman in America telling her just how cheap her life is. All of this comes against the backdrop of Republicans marching in lockstep with a President who hates women and enjoys assaulting them for his own amusement.

This must end. All good people need to get off the sidelines. I’m investing my money to try to stop it.

In Social Movements, Shame Is A Powerful Weapon

main_900
The March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

How does social change happen? In idealized stories of earlier reform movements—abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement—we like to tell ourselves that in certain critical moments the public can experience a moral awakening. In the civil rights era, police brutality mediated through the new technology of television supposedly shocked the conscience of the nation and led to reform. Is this really true?

The question matters because the answer shapes the strategies we believe contemporary social movements ought to pursue. Does a movement win when it has persuaded a majority of people of the righteousness of its cause? Do appeals to a shared moral sense drive change? Or do more aggressive tactics work better? Should a movement try very hard not to offend opponents? Or should it heighten the contrast between two sides?

Without discounting the grain of truth in narratives of moral awakening, I think we need to be more clear-eyed about how change often occurs. It is true that becoming a society that no longer countenanced slavery was a massive moral shift. But that shift in imagination was measured in generations, not months or years. It is true that the civil rights movement moved the moral conscience, but in the short term it looked less like an awakening and more like a grudging acceptance of change.

As much as we’d like to believe in moral awakenings, Americans didn’t suddenly repent of the horror of racism when they saw John Lewis getting his head bashed in. Instead, politicians, celebrities, employers and pastors began to tell people that it was no longer socially acceptable to be racist. Wanting to be considered good people, and wanting to see themselves as good people, white Americans decided racism was bad. The Trump era shows how paper-thin that judgment remains even half a century after the height of the civil rights movement.

But that doesn’t mean the movement’s gains weren’t significant. Moving the boundaries of social acceptability and implementing concrete policy changes are huge victories. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement has receded from the headlines, it has shifted boundaries and is driving policy changes in local police departments and DA offices. Such shifts don’t just follow moral change; they often precede it.

We may now be seeing the standards of social acceptability moving on the related issue of guns. To win, social movements need to have more than a compelling moral case. They need to be able and willing to raise the costs of inaction. (This doesn’t mean resorting to violence. There’s good political science evidence showing that violence in the civil rights era was counterproductive.) You raise costs by making politicians fear for their jobs, businesses for their profits, and people for their reputations.

We’re seeing movement on all three of those fronts. Republican politicians in suburban districts are making noises about the need for action. The Trump Administration at least wants to appear to be doing something. Many major businesses are not even trying to straddle the issue anymore and are instead taking actions that align them squarely on the side of the gun control activists. And the NRA is becoming more unpopular as its spokespeople and supporters reveal themselves as heartless extremists. A new poll out this morning shows that more Americans strongly disapprove of the NRA than strongly approve.

That strong disapproval number is important. In my ideal world, activists could simply present their righteous cause, lay out the evidence, and lovingly appeal to the moral intuition we all share. In the real world, while we should try to do all those things, we must also rely on the power of shame. The gun control activists will win, in part, by making people feel that it is disreputable and shameful to be associated with the NRA. They will win by making people feel that this is something that “good people” simply don’t do.

Activists can win by shifting the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. Sometimes one generation’s embarrassment can become the seeds of a future generation’s convictions. Yet recognizing the power of shame does not mean we must be cynics about the power of love. People on the opposing side need to have a way to back down without feeling like they’re losing everything. This need not be zero sum. Without love, activists can become nothing more than would-be oppressors, lacking only the power to crush their opposition. With love, activists can gladly welcome every convert, however late to the game they may be. We cannot afford to be complacent about our own condition. We are flawed people seeking positive change. The problem of evil is the problem of me. I do not have the vision, the wisdom, the love, to see clearly all that can or should be done. That’s always important to remember.

What’s Going On In Philly’s Foster Care System?

DHS-logo

Last month, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services launched a new advertising and recruitment campaign for new foster families. Local media widely reported the “urgent” need for hundreds of new foster parents in the city.

In Philadelphia, DHS partners with private organizations that receive a mixture of public and private funds and do the hard work of licensing foster parents and actually placing children in safe homes. The foster care system is a patchwork of public and private actors that would collapse without the time, money, and effort of public-spirited citizens. Your tax dollars don’t take care of everything.

One of the news articles profiled a family licensed through Bethany Christian Services. Bethany is one of the agencies the city sends foster care referrals to. It licenses foster parents and places kids in homes. A feel good story. But a few days later reports emerged that last fall Bethany had refused to license a same sex couple for foster care. In response, the city suspended foster care placements at Bethany and Catholic Social Services, which also refuses to license same sex couples.

Ok, you’re caught up on the basic story. I have a few thoughts.

–This is deeply personal for us. We are licensed through Bethany Christian Services. Workers from Catholic Social Services and Bethany have been in our home literally dozens of times. They made Gabe’s adoption possible.

–I am embarrassed to say that I not only didn’t know about Bethany’s policy toward same sex families; I hadn’t even thought about it. I strongly disagree with Bethany’s discriminatory policy. Yet, I did not bother to proactively research this question, nor have I been working for change from the inside. I am complicit.

–The city’s response to this is cowardly. Some reports said that DHS has “discovered” that two of its contracting agencies discriminate. This is simply not true. The only thing that’s changed is that the public now knows about it. So the city has suspended long-running partnerships in an effort to be on the right side of an explosive political issue.

–What about the kids? No one looks good in this fight. The ACLU, the agencies, the city—all talk about what’s best for the children. Bethany cares for LGBT youth, but what message is Bethany sending when it won’t entrust them to LGBT adults? It is discriminatory and pernicious. But for the city, this is all politics. If this was a move with the best interests of kids in mind, DHS would move as quickly as possible to non-discriminatory partnerships without reducing the number of foster homes available to Philadelphia children. Instead, after making an “urgent” call for more foster parents, the city has suddenly drastically reduced the number of foster placements available.

–Let me give you a personal window into how chaotic this decision is. We’re licensed by Bethany. Our renewal is coming up in May. I have no idea if we should renew with Bethany. I have no idea if we can renew with another agency. Would we, instead, have to start back at square one and do the whole months-long process from the beginning with a new agency? I have no idea if or when Bethany may start taking referrals again. Does DHS have plans in place to make up for the lost capacity? Does DHS have any guidance for foster families licensed by Bethany and CSS who are ready to receive children? What am I supposed to do? Hello DHS?

–If you don’t want conservative Christian organizations to be involved in the provision of public goods, you had better get off the sidelines. Give your money away. Give your time. Build new institutions. I don’t want these conservative Christian organizations to discriminate. But I also don’t know if you understand the dystopia we’d be living in if they stopped all their work tomorrow.

–I’m sure I’m not seeing the whole picture, but from where I sit the idea that DHS is prioritizing the well-being of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable children doesn’t even pass the laugh test. In this time of rapid social change (Remember when Obama campaigned as an opponent of gay marriage?) we need a generous pluralism. The cause of gay rights is winning and will win. In a battle over foster care, the children are the very last people who should be caught in the crossfire.

Have You Ever Feared the State Will Take Your Children?

carlisle indian industrial school
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, circa 1900.

Are you a parent? Have you ever feared that the state will take your children from you? How often do you have this fear? The answer might depend on your racial identity and how much money you make, not your parenting skills.

In the New York Times, Emma Ketteringham draws attention to the under-discussed class and race dynamics of child removal:

There is a misconception that the child-protection system is broken because child services fails to protect children from dangerous homes. That’s because the media exhaustively covers child deaths, but not the everyday tragedy of unnecessary child removals.

The problem is not that child services fails to remove enough children. It’s that the agency has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.

In that framework, the answer is not affordable housing or transportation, meaningful employment, health care or access to healthy foods, as it should be. Why is the focus always on removing children to foster care and imposing parenting classes? This never-ending cycle traps generations of low-income families in a punitive system of state surveillance and foster care. Worse, it makes parents fear contacting child services when they need help caring for their children.

“Neglect” cases are often not what they look like on paper. Our clients are trying to raise their kids under tremendous economic and psychological pressures. Often they have faced significant challenges, like homelessness or incarceration. They love their children and cherish their identity as parents. But in court, they face the loss of what is most precious to them: their children.

Ketteringham is writing specifically about New York City’s system but I’m guessing her critique is more broadly applicable. I don’t know much about the foster care system but I hope you’ll indulge a few anecdotal thoughts from my own experiences in church, community, and foster care in recent years.

Alicia and I have known Christians who are fostering, Christians who are trying to get their kids back from the foster care system, and Christians who lost their kids, got them back, and are now on the other side of that awful ordeal. We also know parents who have never had their kids taken from them, but for whom the threat of it is daily background noise.

It came as a great shock to me when I realized that parents I respect live in fear of their kids being taken from them. What made it more surreal was the realization that this is normal for them. “Be careful, the state might take your kids,” is not an unimaginable foreboding; it’s a present possibility. I have lived my life as a parent without this possibility on my horizon. And it’s not because I’m a great parent.

Beyond anecdote, something I do know a little more about is the long history of child removal among Native American children as part of the United States’ settler colonial policies of cultural genocide. See Margaret Jacobs’ great book.

Most of us want to live in a society that seeks to protect children, even to the point of involuntary removal. Yet we must be aware of the dreadful history—and present—of unjust removal. When Alicia and I became foster parents, it didn’t feel heroic. It felt more like we were implicating ourselves in something messy and morally gray. We would do our best to care for a child, but we wouldn’t know—couldn’t know—whether that child should even be with us.

On Taking Action for Black Lives

anthony soufle star tribune
Protestors react after the killer of Philando Castile is found not guilty. Startribune.com

david joles
Protestors block I-94. startribune.com

This post is not for people who wish to argue about Philando Castile’s death. It’s not for people who are scandalized by the radical notion that black people matter. It’s not for people who consistently impugn and insult black Christians so they can stay on the good side of white conservatives. This post is for white people who want to do the right thing, who want to be useful in the struggle for racial justice and human rights.

After the verdict, a black Christian woman challenged nonblack Christians with this question:

What are you doing (simply talking about it and having the conversation doesn’t count in the context of this question) to correct the systemic injustice and racism/white supremacy that allowed Philando Castile to be murdered in broad daylight and his murderer to be acquitted and freed?

I am challenged and convicted by this question.

In a way, Alicia and I have built our lives around providing an answer to a question similar to this. And yet…In all that we do there is a nagging sense that it is really more useful for us than for oppressed people. You don’t get points for living in a black neighborhood. You don’t get points for good intentions. Our usefulness is measured not by our self-image, but by oppressed people themselves. And by that measure, I wonder if I am failing. In itself, that’s a matter of little public interest. But it matters a great deal if we—the collective us, white people who want to be useful—are failing.

The scale, depth, and intractability of racial injustice in this country call for action on all fronts. White Christians of the left, we dare not call for redistribution in public policy without practicing redistribution in our personal lives. White Christians of the right, we dare not call for redistribution in our personal lives without demanding it of our public policies. If we are one-dimensional we are part of the problem.

If you’re not financially supporting organizations run by people of color, why not?

If you’re not a member of a black activist organization, why not?

If you don’t support reparations, why not?

If you’re not an advocate of life-giving policing policies, why not?

If you aren’t making a ruckus in your church, or starting a reading group, why not?

If you’re not deliberately supporting black businesses, why not?

If you live in a community zoned to keep out the poor, are you working to change the zoning laws? If not, why not?

I need to make this absolutely clear: some of these questions hit me in the gut. I am a convicted fellow traveler.

Are all your relationships with white people comfortable? I don’t believe that is possible if you resist white supremacy. Challenging white supremacy challenges white self-interest. People will protect their interests—including, above all, their self-image—at all costs. If all the white people in your life are comfortable with your views, you need to go back to the drawing board. You’re swimming in sewage and thinking it’s fresh water. Tune in to people of color. Listen, learn, and repent.

If your church, your neighborhood, your kids’ school—or all three—are white, stop pretending you haven’t used the wages whiteness gives you. Take responsibility for your racial decisions. It may be that you should stay in all those white places! Ignorant white people need you. But they certainly don’t need semi-woke white people more preoccupied with claiming innocence than taking responsibility.

And nobody needs guilty white people. Nobody needs White Christians who are suddenly anti-gospel when racism enters the conversation: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” It’s hard to top that as a statement of anti-Christian pride. Scripture tells us different:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

We don’t need guilty white Christians. We need committed white Christians who have enough confidence in the gospel to take responsibility for the sin in and around them.

Take Action: Protest

1-26-protest
Protest in Philadelphia, January 26, 2017

When my six-year-old son asked me this morning why I was going to the protest today I said, “Because President Trump is coming to our city and he is trying to take away people’s health care so rich people can have more money.” Let us not lose sight of this basic obscenity.

As this barbarous administration takes initial steps to oppress the sick, the poor, and the immigrant, our bodies on the street can make a difference. Large protests now can affect media narratives of this presidency, activate people who haven’t been engaged before, and make politicians fearful.

It is important for us to protest. Don’t think it doesn’t matter. Especially if you’re a conflict-avoidant, apolitical person, your protest can have an impact on the people in your social network. It is important for people like us to protest and to be seen protesting. Not because we’re grandstanding, but because we want to provoke questions. People might stop and wonder what made a quiet person like you take to the streets.

It is especially important for us to protest if we have little personally to lose under a Trump presidency. I’m a white heterosexual Christian male. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be ok! But my conscience tells me my complacency is a grave sin. I must protest for the millions of people who have so much to lose.

And it is important for Christians to protest. We protest not as advocates of a particular political program—the kingdom of God cannot be contained in any such program—but as people who intrinsically seek solidarity with the oppressed. When I attend a protest, I’m always able to pray the Lord’s Prayer: “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Because that prayer reflects our hopes and not our realities, we protest.