Christianity and Racism in Madison

Thanks to the Capital Times and to several courageous African-American leaders, there’s an important conversation about racism taking place in Madison this year. Sparked by some shocking statistics–that Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate for African-American males in the US. At 13%, it’s double the national average. In Madison, the recent Race to Equity report revealed the enormous disparities in Dane County and Madison:

  • the unemployment rate for African-Americans is five times higher than that of whites
  • 54% of African-American residents of Dane County live beneath the poverty line; the rate for whites is 7.8%
  • around  75% of African-American children live in poverty; the percentage of whites: 5.5%

In December, Alex Gee published an impassioned plea: Justified Anger. In an article that included stories about his own experiences with racial profiling (including in his church’s parking lot), he concluded with a ringing challenge to Madison:

I challenge the entire community to become concerned and involved. I challenge African-American pastors to make their voices and concerns known and hold community forums with politicians to demand action.
I challenge white clergy to address racial disparity and discrimination from their pulpits, challenge parishioners to think and act differently and help sound the alarm of the injustice and inequity in our community. I need those pastors to explain how these systems are perpetuated by the silence of “nice” people.

Gee has invited the community to a town hall meeting to discuss racism and inequality in Madison.

Maria Dixon (Patheos) takes a wider perspective. Looking at the tradition of Black History Month, she challenges American Christians to have the serious conversations about race that are necessary:

Despite our efforts and initiatives to eradicate the conditions faced by undocumented immigrants; the educational challenges faced by the poor; or the inequities of justice and wealth– until we engage in the hard conversation regarding the framework that set all of these conditions in motion—the grand American concept of race–we will be still floundering like beached ideological whales 25 years from now.

To engage in hard conversations requires trust and presence, neither one of which we have in the American Church. Our way of dealing with race is to erase difference by folding it in and objectifying it. Rather than dealing plainly about fears, our biases (past and present), and admitting that race sometimes does play a role in our approach to ministry, we render it totally invisible. Sadly, it is the tendency to make race invisible that is most damning for any chance at honest reconciliation. For erasure is the greatest form of dehumanization in a symbolic culture—for it communicates the belief the object being erased is not viable for productive service nor is it worthy to remembered much less esteemed.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with clergy colleagues, both with Episcopalians and in wider ecumenical contexts about how we might respond. Of course, neither of those conversations included African-American participants. I’ll be attending the town hall meeting to listen, to learn, and to find ways to build relationships.

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