(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Amy Chua, the contemporary author best known for writing the controversial book, Tiger Mom, has written a new book, Triple Package, in which she offers her views on why various ethnic groups succeed in the US, and certain ones do not. In her view, three traits enable success in our nation – a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity and impulse control. Asians, Mormons, Nigerians, Jews, Indians and Iranians mostly have this so-called triple package. African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims and modern White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – WASPs – do not. For many people, her book has the resonance of anecdotal truth. As many Indian-Americans delight in pointing out, 38% of current US doctors are Indian, 36% of NASA employees are Indian, as are 34% of Microsoft employees. Our post-racial, post election of Barack Obama US culture is no longer a bigoted society, many people claim. People of color succeed all across the country. The reason, Chua and others claim, lies in the inherent traits within one’s ethnic culture.
While many arm chair experts and political commentators love Chua’s new book and excitedly repeat her claims, academics and social scientists of all races and ethnicities deride her book as thinly disguised racism. She explains away the poverty of African-Americans and Latinos in our nation by praising the cultural traits of ethnic groups that are succeeding. She thereby implicitly stereotypes groups that are not currently succeeding by blaming the permissiveness of contemporary white society, the lack of impulse control in many African-Americans, and the absence of self confidence in many Latinos. Drug abuse, teen pregnancy, poverty, low emphasis on education – these are all symptoms of deficient cultures – not racial groups – according to Chu. Black Nigerians, she points out, are wonderfully represented in Ivy League schools and are rapidly advancing. For me, her theories are simply uninformed.
What Chua has failed to document, perhaps due to her own myopic understanding of America, is how cultural and family history play a huge role in the success, or lack thereof, for any particular individual. People are largely products of their ancestral history. As social scientists point out, most immigrants to the US have come from situations far different from that of African-Americans. Immigrants self-select themselves out of their nation and culture. Most immigrants are relatively well educated and stable in their native lands. They are primed to succeed in the US. Indian immigrants, for instance, are the educated and middle class of India. The poor, underclass, uneducated Indians cannot possibly emigrate as it is too far and too expensive to do so.
Most immigrants also arrive as completely free individuals often with large family support networks to assist them. As the elites of their former nation, they already possess the self-confidence, education, skill levels and support systems required to succeed. If group culture is a determinant of success, why is the success of Indians in this nation in direct contrast to the difficulties of India, the nation, where extreme poverty and rigid discrimination are still evident? The same holds true for Nigerian, Iranian, Cuban and many Asian immigrants – all of whom Chua praises. Immigrant success in the US is not due to superiority of culture. It is due, as it is for all Americans, to the relative success and stability of past ancestors.
Chua thus fails to understand or explain the role American history has played in shaping the problems facing African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. She fails to note or offer credit to them and their struggle for hard won affirmative action and anti-discrimination policies – how such advances now also help immigrants. Indeed, contemporary whites and immigrants benefit from American historical racism while that legacy still profoundly hurts African-Americans. We must reverse and correct that.
As one social scientist notes, the one institution in America that is mostly color blind is the US Army. Mandated by government decree, officer ranks are well represented by African and Latino Americans. It is the one institution where large numbers of whites serve under the command of African-Americans. Such a fact emphatically supports the notion that political and government policies can help reverse the past harm of racism by offering favorable opportunities to advance.
And the recent movie “12 Years a Slave” directly supports my assertion that slavery and racism still have deeply harmful effects on blacks. As I continue my look at three Academy Award nominated films for 2014, I am highlighting movies that hit viewers in their proverbial guts. They impact our thinking and, hopefully, our actions. The movie “Gravity”, which I discussed last Sunday, is an in your face assault on one’s senses with its destruction and death in outer space. Such calamity forces the viewer to confront spiritual issues of life, death, meaning and the question of God’s existence. If you missed that message, you can listen to it online.
The same assault on viewer senses and thinking is true for the film “12 Years a Slave”. Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free African-American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, the movie is NOT pleasant to watch. It is not a heroic film in the sense that one feels uplifted and joyful. From beginning to end, the film assaults the viewer with scenes of violence. That was precisely the director Steve McQueen’s intent. Slavery was not an institution that could be shaded with anything light and happy. It was dark, horrific and profoundly harmful to the human spirit. The movie purposefully slaps viewers in the face with reasons why our nation struggles 150 years later with issues of race – contrary to Amy Chua’s naive assertions. It also implicitly begs the question of how America can atone for and redeem its ugly racial history.
If we are to understand why many African-Americans still struggle in poverty, we need only examine the nature of slavery and how it was practiced. “12 Years a Slave” depicts many of those underlying practices which still affect African-Americans. When Solomon Northup arrived in Georgia after his kidnapping, he was sold as a slave. The auctioneer began to call him by the name “Platt” which Northup corrected. He was immediately slapped across the face. “No, your name is Platt'”. And that effort to erase Northup’s individual identity and pride is a recurring theme in the film. Any sense of self, any personal awareness of ability, any notion of himself as an autonomous person were systematically destroyed and intentionally wiped away. A slave is a thing – a blunt, unthinking, ignorant tool to be used and discarded at will.
Such an effort to degrade personhood was common for all slaves. And it was common in the decades after slavery as blacks became sharecroppers in what was a form of slavery in everything but name. So too was it expressed in Jim Crow laws designed to take away natural human rights – the right of self, the right to be treated with dignity and value. That stripping away of personhood is a profound legacy of slavery and past racism. Their effects still linger and persist – deeply rooted in the psyches of many African-Americans – feelings of inferiority, helplessness and pessimism.
I do not in any way compare my upbringing to the African-American experience. I offer my family history only as a possible example of how family attitudes are passed one generation to the next. My great grandfather on my father’s side was a hard driving workaholic. He had nine children but he was not one to nurture them. Life was a struggle and he taught his children the same. My grandfather learned that ethic from his father and he too was driven. Compassion, understanding and empathy were soft qualities – especially in men. Discipline and manly virtues of fighting and athletic competition made a man a man. My father learned those things well. Sent to military schools, captain of his football team, pushed hard and taught to scorn anything feminine – including his own mother – that was my dad. And I was raised to be the same. Only, such attitudes ran counter to who I am and they deeply affected me. For whatever reasons, I am studious, non-athletic, introspective, and anything but the guys guy my father wanted. The legacy of my past family attitudes about masculinity still haunt me – in the disappointment and even derision I’ve felt from my dad. I’ve worked to get over them but that is not easy. And, I imagine, I have passed on some of my hurts to my daughters in the form of their diminished self esteem.
I recount my family history as an example of how attitude legacies are passed down. Family histories – like those which benefitted many immigrants – can help or harm. My history was affected by my paternal ancestors. Imagine if such negative attitudes had been passed to me by both my paternal AND maternal ancestors? – as is the case for most African-Americans. The dehumanizing effect of loss of personhood for blacks has been passed from parent to child – on and on – through over 150 years. Sociologically, it explains one reason why many African-American men can lack the inner pride and self confidence that leads to success. They’ve been indirectly taught by a past slave auctioneer – “Your name is not what you think. You’re a boy, a tool to be used and thrown away.” Today’s problems of low reading and math scores, single mom families, and African-American male incarceration are likely a result.
One contemporary commentator on racism in the US puts it this way: Imagine that all people had been asked to run a race for the past 300 years. For 180 of those years, however, blacks were forbidden the opportunity to run in the race. For the next 80 years they were told they could run the race but various tricks were employed to prevent them. Only for the last 40 years were they finally allowed to run. Over the entire 300 years, however, whites and others were freely able to run the race. How long will it take for blacks to catch up and run as equally skilled with whites and other races? It is naive, cruel and arrogant to expect any group could do so in only 40 years.
Another instructive scene in “12 Years a Slave” is when Northup is nearly lynched by a gang of whites – one of whom he had insulted. He is strung up, but the executioners are chased away. Northup, however, is left hanging just enough so that he is choked but able to barely survive by pushing up with his tiptoes. The scene is harrowing. There is no music, no sound to soothe the viewer – only the desperate scraping of his feet and his gasps and chokes as he tries to breathe. But the most soul searing part of the scene is that we see other slaves near him carry out their regular duties and lives – all while Northup is left hanging. No slave rushes to help him or dares to cut him down even when no whites are present. The seeming indifference to fellow suffering – all in the name of self-preservation – is a telling legacy. This too is a recurring theme. To survive, one cannot think of anyone but oneself.
How has this legacy affected contemporary African-American culture? We see all around blacks who deeply care for others but issues of learned helplessness, stoicism and seeming indifference are too common. The attitude of self-preservation over the interests of the community still lingers. Attitudes of strong support for the group over the individual – ones learned by many Asians, whites, Nigerians and Jews because of past stable families – these have to be fostered and learned over many generations. Its not race that causes these attitudes.
For African-Americans, slavery was and is the cause.
In other scenes, Northup is kidnapped from his family. A mother has her children ripped from her arms and sold to another owner living far away. Parenthood and family were systematically destroyed under slavery. Mothers and dads were conditioned not to grow too close to children – all the better to guard one’s heart. Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents were often distant or unknown figures. This legacy of family break-up is still evident today. Such a fact does not define all African-Americans. Indeed, many African-American families are models of strong cohesion. But, the high rates of out of wedlock births, single mom families and absentee dads in the African-American community are not ones of racial or ethnic inferiority. They are the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, racism and past family histories that destroyed family units. They are the fault of my white ancestors and of many of yours.
The movie “12 Years a Slave”, as I said earlier, is not entertainment. I personally turned away at many violent scenes. I hate seeing suffering and violence. But such depictions are not gratuitous. They are not portrayed to satisfy bloodlust. Rather, the director McQueen uses the unrelenting harshness of the movie for a purpose – to shock viewers into changing attitudes about current conditions in the African-American community. The viewer, particularly the non-black viewer, is asked to ponder questions of guilt and responsibility. Simply the act of watching the movie, in all of its horribleness, is an act of penance – a way to personally acknowledge not just an academic awareness of racism and slavery – but the gut wrenching, dirty, painful, horrific aspects of it that nobody enjoys seeing – but seeing we must do in order that we do not forget. I believe this film should be seen by all Americans.
In this sense, the movie asks non-black viewers to not only think about the consequences of slavery that still linger today but also the more important spiritual questions of how to atone for them and correct them. One of my January messages addressed how to practice the art of genuine apology. To do so, one must first acknowledge a wrong, deeply and sincerely apologize for it and then work to correct it. While nobody currently living is directly responsible for slavery, most whites and immigrants are the beneficiaries of it. Slavery and racism helped advance the industrial revolution which enriched many whites. It allowed white small farmers the advantages of land ownership and success. It was the foundation on which much of white wealth was made – in business, agriculture and education. Most of us have the remnants of slave associated money in our bank accounts – whether from ancestors or else from businesses and industries founded on slave or Jim Crow labor.
African-Americans are not passive victims to be pitied. Any individual is responsible for their own change and many, many African-Americans are succeeding in ways that improve our world. But it is ignorant to suggest that the problem of a black underclass today is not the fault of racist history that spent centuries demeaning and dehumanizing African-Americans. To reverse the legacies of such a history, it is not enough to simply no longer practice racism. Direct policies that offer opportunity to advance and to break out of a negative family cycle of dysfunction are critical. Affirmative action policies are not hand outs – they are hand ups enabling one the opportunity to get an education and job.
Changing white and immigrant attitudes about problems in the black community are essential. Spiritual empathy demands that we enlighten ourselves to the real causes. We cannot expect to receive forgiveness nor redemption unless and until legacies of slavery and racism are mostly eliminated. That will take time as well as proactive policies to reconcile past wrongs. If there is to be any hope of claiming a color blind, equal opportunity, productive and well educated population, we must understand that problems today are not due to deficiency of morality, character, culture or race. Indeed, if the ancestors of whites and immigrants had suffered as did African-Americans, if we were born into and raised in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine, we too would face the same struggles. “12 Years a Slave” asks us each to examine our attitudes about the black underclass, reasons for its problems and our spiritual responsibility to redeem our ugly and violent past.
I pray for us all – peace, enlightenment and repentance.
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