Racism, Resentment, and Renewal

I'm not sure if I ever made an official announcement, but I'm back in school in pursuit of a doctoral degree (specifically a DMin. - Doctor of Ministry), and as is made glaringly apparent by the nature of this blog, my research interest/focus is ministry to Hip-Hop culture. One of my recent courses was in ethics. My professor, Dr. Andrew Sung Park is also an author with quite a few books of his own in tow. At one point, the class was studying racism, and one of the required reading assignments was a chapter he wrote in a book Wading Through Many Voices - A compilation of essays by various multiethnic theology scholars on race, class, gender, etc.  Each essay contains a targeted response from a peer.

I highly recommend that you read the entire chapter written by Dr. Park here. However, if you're short on time, What follows is my response to his work.  There are a few points that I sought to respond directly to because I thought they were of prime significance. I post it here because one must know that racism (systematic, educational, institutional, and all the rest of its forms) are the bedrock of Hip-Hop culture.  There would be no Hip-Hop without racism.  Therefore it provides additional framework for the discussion in this blog. Here's a large portion of my response:

Dr. Park begins with a short survey of the approaches to multiculturalism in America.  It’s here that he questions, “All these models support either assimilation or pluralistic isolation, is it possible to appreciate diversity, yet improve the quality of diverse cultures without sacrificing our true unity?” In the simplest of terms, I would say that the answer is no; but I’d like to add another question. What unity? I assume that “our true unity” is meant to refer to the symbiotic bonds that naturally exist by God’s design and by the nature of our existence in the same geographical space. Yet, unity in the eyes of the normative group is assimilation…or nothing.  I have often argued that multiculturalism is often at best an agreement of middle class values. It’s economic, rather than ethnic. And that too is a framework built by euro-centered values of economy and democracy.  However, I propose that (at least for African-Americans, especially poor ones) the withdrawal approach actually involves escapism from the trauma of persistent systematic and institutional terror and abuse.

In Democracy Matters, Cornel West talks about the irony and the hypocrisy of the “American democratic experiment” in that the nation’s founders were trying to escape the empire while creating one of their own.[1]  They were seeking their own freedoms, yet simultaneously enslaving others.  It’s a deeply harrowing concept to me.  I’m inclined to suggest that the “experiment” had failed at it’s outset because it had compromised it’s own founding principles.  Historically speaking, the concept of “liberty and justice for all” has never been an American reality.  And so we continue to pledge our allegiance in the hopes that one day, someday, we will get it right.  But what is the pledge exactly? We are taught to approach it like a prayer, when it’s actually a pronouncement and a promise—a promise that often seems to have been terribly, irreparably broken.

Dr. Park prescribes that “we need to accept each culture as it is.”  This is an extremely tall order for dominant, normative culture.  Blacks can relate to and appreciate Native Americans, Latino peoples (and others), because we each have been systematically terrorized and marginalized by the dominant group.  Yet, normative culture lives in constant willful ignorance and denial of the realities that exist at their own hands. African-American culture is the house that oppression built. 

To accept and appreciate the field songs and spirituals is to accept and admit the legacy of forced labor and slavery that made them find solace in songs.  To accept the blues is to accept the bruises of Jim Crow. To embrace the black church is to confront the religious and hermeneutical manipulation that sought to sanctify and spiritualize oppression and injustice. To celebrate black intellect, innovation and achievement is to own the segregation and the glass ceiling that made such ground-breaking, record-shattering progress necessary.  

Rap music forces us to hear the heart, the hurt,
the pathos and the pain of the projects. 
To appreciate the beauty and power of Hip-Hop and contemporary black urban cultures is to unveil the institutional and systematic degradation and denigration of black communities with the concrete quarantine silos of the Cabrini Greens, Marcy Projects, Magnolia Projects, and Jordan Downs of the US. I’m not certain that the dominant group has enough acres or mules, or that they even desire to actually care.  Accept each culture as it is?  The normative culture was forced on blacks, but do they accept us is a more relevant question.

Yet, that’s the beauty of African-American culture. We took lashes, and developed thick skin.  We bent over to pick up cotton, and picked up an even stronger work ethic and resolve. We took the scraps that the slave master gave us, and made soul-food.  We took those tattered and torn textbooks and dilapidated school-houses, and built brilliant scholars and HBCUs.  We took the brick buildings, vacant lots, abandoned buildings and poor-excuse-for-playgrounds of the projects, and turned them into fortresses to incubate the next generation of overachievers, canvasses for urban art, dance floors for community parties and arenas for rap battles with perfect natural acoustics.

But one must not remain angry. Dr. Park presents a powerful hermeneutic of the cross and suggests that the dying to self demands “forsaking our outmoded identity means negotiating a new boundary by negating our old self that was negated by various oppressors.” He goes on to recommend that, “As long as we have racial prejudice within, we cannot fight against racism without.” I am convicted again that the cross renews us and demands that we like Christ would, despite the abuse, by the power of the resurrection, rise to walk in the newness of life—a life that is guided by grace.  The grace of God has been so freely given to me.  I must give it to those around me.  This is hard, but God is love.

[1] Cornel West, Democracy Matters (New York: Penguin, 2004), 42-45.  In the very first line of the book West addresses the “legacy of white supremacy” and the threat that it poses to authentic democracy. It’s in the second chapter that he explores the tension of a free society built by slave labor.  He argues that American Democracy is at risk because of remixed modes of imperialism.