August 21, 2011
Palo Alto, CA
It is the last summer weekend before school starts. Here in Palo Alto, CA, a comfortable, primarily white suburb with good schools, well-funded facilities, and well heeled and well-educated families, it is hard to imagine what it must have felt like to be Elizabeth Eckford in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Elizabeth was one of 9 Negro (that was what they were called) teenagers who sought to enroll in Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas soon after the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, led to the forced desegragation of schools across the United States. The play Little Rock sought to help make that journey back in time possible using music, documentary footage, and the talents of some fine actors.
We are a good 50 years on from the school integration crisis that saw General Eisenhower sending in the first Airborne division to escort 9 scared black teenagers to school. We live in a United States where a Black man is President. It is a future those young people scarcely dreamed possible, but one that exists thanks to their efforts to make their own dreams a reality.
And, yet, the play's last words were the ones echoing in my mind as we walked out of the theater: "the struggle continues". While only 12 percent of all Americans are black, working-age black Americans comprise nearly 21 percent of the nation’s unemployed. The growing contrast between prospects for white and black job-seekers challenges a cherished American notion: the availability of opportunity and upward mobility for all. “Over the course of the recession, the unemployment disparity between college educated blacks and whites actually widened,” says economist Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity, and Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Other statistics about African Americans or Black Americans are no more encouraging:
- “72 percent of black mothers are unwed which eclipses that of most other groups: 17 percent of Asians, 29 percent of whites, 53 percent of Hispanics and 66 percent of Native Americans.”
- “Nearly half of the nation’s African American students attend high schools in low-income areas with dropout rates that hover in the 40-50% range.”
- “The racial composition of the US prison and jail population as of 2008 was 60.21% (African American (non-Hispanic), 20.29% Hispanic, 13.44% White American (non-Hispanic) , and 6.06% Other
- “Black women and men have much higher coronary heart disease (CHD) death rates in the 45–74 age group than women and men of other races.
While this is grim news, there is little evidence to suggest that Americans are using rationality or science to respond. Instead, a growing number are turning to faith, more often than not, towards Evangelical forms of Christianity. Recent studies suggest that 1/3rd of all Americans believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, black Americans are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation and the vast majority of Black Americans identify with the Baptist church. To me, there is a strange inconsistency of those who have been oppressed in the name of a religion going on to become the most devout adherents of that religion. Yet, it is exactly how European colonialists used Christianity to dominate countries across the globe. It reminds me of how women, who suffer most as result of harmful religious practices and unequal status within most religious traditions, are also the most likely to practice their faith. In fact, according to the Pew Forum on religious life, "Men are significantly more likely than women to claim no religious affiliation. Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13% of women."
So, how do we make sense of any of this? How did 9 young people who experienced virulent racial slurs, physical violence, humiliation and intimidation use their faith to withstand and survive their ordeal even as they emerged as leaders of a movement for civil rights? How did their faith sustain them? Did they know they were making history while they were making it? How could they not - with their pictures all over the television, with the first Airborne soldiers taking them to school everyday, with Martin Luther King coming to attend the graduation of the oldest of their cohort, Ernest? How do they make sense of their lives now? How do they treat the people who spat in their faces and called them Nigger in high school? How do they countenance that they are all now senior citizens living in the same country, if not in the same county or town as their one time tormentors? There has been no truth and reconciliation commission in the United States, no way of acknowledging the pain, the mutual suspicion, the violence that was inherent in a system where black people were officially "less than".
For while we live in a United States where Barack Obama is President, we also live in a country where two of the leading candidates for Republican President, Michele Bachman and Rick Perry follow the teachings of J. Steven Wilkins. Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North. In his chapter on race relations in the antebellum South, Wilkins writes: "Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith."
What kind of a common faith extolls the inherent inferiority of one group of people over another? This is the question that the play, Little Rock, has forced me to grapple with for the past 24 hours. I have no answers, but my friend Srinija said so eloquently today, "it is the task of the arts to make us uncomfortable, that is how we grow." The struggle continues.