Being Fully Human, common humanity, equality, power, racism

Race, Power and Privilege

Martin Luther King JrIn 1946, some 66 years ago, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a song, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught.” And they are so right. There is nothing natural or innate about racism and bigotry. There is nothing in the eyes of a baby that judges you by the way you look or act or believe. These are learned behaviors and our first and most influential classroom is the home. What in the world are we teaching our kids?

At the first and only Martz family reunion – at least that I was invited to, everyone was there. Including family members I had never met before. There was the usual assortment of folks that I think you must have even at your own reunions. There’s the 38-year-old cousin sipping a beer who doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. The aunt whose best known for her T-shirt with the picture of two pigs and the caption “Makin’ Bacon” There’s that one person – uncle, brother, husband who can’t stop telling jokes. And there’s the success in business that can’t stop talking about them self. There’s even the strange psychic presence of the family member in jail that nobody talks about.

And then there was my cousin Rob. Just a year younger than me. I had last seen him 7 years before when his wife had made cakes for a family wedding reception. I hung out with Rob a little back in high school. I went to Fruitport and he went to Muskegon High School. So we’re standing in Aunt Mary’s garage along with my sister talking about work – an ever-popular family reunion discussion. And my sister talks about working at Muskegon Public Schools. And Rob says he went to those schools and he’d never send his kids there. My sister rises to the challenge to explain how good the teachers are now and Rob interrupts her with perfect seriousness to say – I would never send my kids there – not until they desegregate.

And suddenly I had no idea who I was standing next to. And I had no idea how to respond. I was shocked that anyone would say something so offensive in this day and age. And I felt personally assaulted that someone would say something like that in front of me. A family member no less…

I know you’ve had similar experiences if you also celebrate our common humanity. Because that sets us apart from a lot of people. When we choose to respect the dignity and worth of every individual, we challenge the status quo with all of its existing power structures.

So What is Power?

Power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. It is the ability to make things happen. Institutional power is the ability or official authority to decide what is best for others. The ability to decide who will have access to resources. The capacity to exercise control over others.

Power implies that there are people who make the decisions and people who are affected by those decisions. Most often the people with the power are the people in society who enjoy certain privileges. In the United States, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups:

  • White people;
  • Able-bodied people;
  • Heterosexuals;
  • Males;
  • Christians;
  • Middle class people;
  • Middle-aged people;
  • English-speaking people

Privilege is usually invisible to the people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe that they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not. The lesson here is that we need to be aware of our privilege and then use it to do our best while also advocating for those behind us.

What Does Privilege Have to Do with Power?

In some respects we cannot deny that as Americans we are the powerful. Most of us know wealth and opportunity the rest of the world can barely imagine. But in some respects we are also the powerless – the poor, the abused, the sick, the unemployed, those excluded because of race or sexuality or religious belief. Sometimes we are at the mercy of other people and sometimes our own actions and words serve to save or to condemn.

So here’s the deal. If we want to live the good life, then the position we hold demands different things of us. Growth for the powerful comes in deciding to give up power and lay down privilege. But the powerless grow by claiming power and living new truth. And when both of these happen, the world changes. Nelson Mandela took up power. President de Klerk laid his power down. Together they brought about the end of apartheid. 

Now this is important. Sometimes we feel powerful and in control. Other times we feel helpless and afraid. But if we are PERCEIVED as being powerful – we are powerful. And we are challenged to give up our power. Likewise, when we find ourselves perceived as powerless – we are powerless – and it is then that we must stand tall and move toward becoming powerful.

This is totally counter intuitive. And yet that is the very challenge I want to lay out for us today. It is the challenge of committing our lives to higher principles and values than we are genetically disposed to.

The Cycle of Power 

When we take up the burden of serving others, we put ourselves in a position of giving away our power and our possessions. And that can be a very scary thing to do. We worry about chaos. We worry about being out of control. We begin to believe that if we give away our power we will remain powerless forever. So in our fear we become selfish and greedily cling to whatever power and material goods we have. As long as we give in to this fear, we are supporting a world in which there is no justice, no equality, no even distribution of power.

But giving away our power is only part of the story, for we are also called to take up power. To take up what is rightfully ours to claim. We are not called to be victims or to accept things the way we are because it’s out of our hands. We are called to move from apathy to action. From enduring to living fully.

And this also is frightening. To really take hold of the power that is ours: The reality that we have been given the power and the task of changing this world. When all is said and done, we often don’t really want such power. It is easier to blame others for the state of things and to sulk. Frankly, power brings with it awesome and terrible responsibilities that we might rather do without.

There are times we take up power and at times we lay it down. Neither come naturally. So we are invited to practice, in our community, in our work, in our home, in our everyday relationships with others. When we invite others to the table and then allow them to take the lead, we give away power. When we accept the invitation of others to lead, we claim power.

Allowing Ourselves to be Led 

Let me give you an example. When I worked as an Assistant to the Bishop, there was a desire to start a Hispanic ministry in Muskegon. Lots of good Lutherans had lots of good ideas about improving the lives of disenfranchised people. But our job wasn’t to come in as heroes and save the people by giving them what we thought the needed. The biggest challenge for the group was embracing the humility to admit that we didn’t know the first thing about the Hispanic experience. Our job was to invite the community to the table and then to empower them to lead. How often our position of power and privilege deceives us into thinking we have the answers. How difficult to bring those without power to the table and then empower them to take on leadership roles in deciding what it is we should do.

Of course, disrupting the existing power structures also comes at a cost. Upsetting the existing power structures creates conflict in our relationships – including in our own families. Living out our values, supporting programs and initiatives that create diverse, integrated communities comes at a cost. Sometimes being different becomes too costly and too troublesome, and we turn away to re-embrace the values our culture lauds. Giving up our oddity can be a small price to pay in exchange for the well-being and power offered by the empire.

When we choose to believe in a different reality, one that believes in love and inclusiveness, one that recognizes our common humanity and the need to embrace and care for our neighbors, we risk our wealth, our reputation and our relationships – even those of our immediate family.

We give, we receive, we accept, we lay down. Like the two parts of every breath we take, there is a cycle that we must move through. We simply can’t spend all of our efforts on either breathing in or breathing out. And so we fall into the rhythm of taking in power and of letting it go we realize that power and powerlessness are both contained within us.

King and Obama

Tomorrow we celebrate one of the greatest examples of someone who refused to accept powerlessness. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in the harsh reality of racial oppression and dared to demand better. He stood up to the powers of white society that were personally and systematically subjugating his people. Knowing that nothing ever happens by keeping silent, he risked and ultimately lost his life in order to raise his voice and claim his power to change reality.  A reality that included not just racism, but also war and socioeconomic disparity. King lamented the American trifecta: racism, materialism and militarism.

On April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, King delivered his final speech. He was talking about injustice felt by city sanitation workers who were striking to protest their low wages and poor working conditions. He told his audience that the question to ask was not, “What will happen to me if I help them?” but “What will happen to them if I don’t?”  Not, “What will happen to me if I help them?” but “What will happen to them if I don’t?”

King called on the nation to be something better than it was. Barack Obama in his 2008 speech on Race and Politics gave voice to the pent up frustration, anger and despair of blacks and whites alike as they continue to live in a society of all too often unspoken racial tension. By making public the private lament uttered around kitchen tables all around this country, Obama challenged every one of us not to get stuck in either our power or our powerlessness. Not to determine that we are the victim or the oppressor, but to recognize that we are all suffering and we all need to experience reconciliation.

Of course, his speech made a lot of white people uncomfortable and defensive. You still hear that defensiveness whenever the question of race is raised in our country – and it gets raised a lot. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. When questions of race are raised, many white people express feeling personally attacked. They don’t understand or don’t want to understand the effects of institutionalized racism and the long shadow it casts over any individual prejudice. They are often quick to point out the significant strides we have made since the Civil Rights movement.

And in that they are right. Laws that codified racial discrimination have been struck down. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B Johnson giving evidence of our government’s willingness to lay down its power and to take serious steps toward justice and equality. But in 2013 the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 939 hate groups actively operating in the United States and the FBI reported 6933 hate crimes. Of course, each and every one of us in this room condemns such acts of violent hatred. And many of us, despite the best of intentions, also harbor sentiments of racism and prejudice even as we oppose those sentiments.

I am a Racist – and I’m So Much More

Let me tell you about my grandfather. Grandpa passed away almost 15 years ago. He was the sweetest, most God fearing man you could ever hope to meet. But he wasn’t above the occasional racial slur. And when you challenged him on it, he would tell you the stories his father told him – the ones that taught him to feel the way he does. My mother is the sweetest, most God fearing person you could ever hope to meet. But if you dig deep enough you will find an underlying distrust of people of color she doesn’t know – she’s heard her father’s stories.

And me? I am a loving women, one who used to deny – rather self-righteously – any feelings of racism or bigotry myself. But now I know I am wrong. I know because I have begun to realize all of the advantages that are mine simply because I am a white person. I know because I have begun to see and understand the lies and distortions I grew up with. And it is in that knowledge that I can readily admit that I am a racist, but that I am also so much more. Because I have claimed a new identity and that is one of an anti-racist.

My father overheard cousin Rob’s comment and watched as I walked away. About an hour later he approached me and said, “Your grandfather had a brother in the war that came back talking about how many black deserters there were. He never had anything good to say about blacks. I guess he passed it on to your Uncle Mike and he passed it on to Rob.”

Racism is Not Just a Bad Attitude 

Racism is not just a bad attitude. Racism for lack of a better word is a sin that robs and dehumanizes people of every shade and hue. It is a darkly powerful force that does much more than oppress certain groups of people. It is an evil that creates an identity for me and for you. It tells me that I am a white person with rights and privileges that I never asked for.

And in that identity, it seeks to separate me from my place in the family of common humanity. A family where when any one is excluded, the entire family suffers for it.  Claiming our place in that family is no sentimental journey. This is a path of difficulty and rejection. And it is one we must not just talk about.

We have to acknowledge our privilege. We have to stand up to institutional barriers. We have to monitor our own thoughts, words and actions. We have to invite people from the back of the room and from the front of the room to sit down together at the table. We have to live a different reality. We have to. Our children are watching us.

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6 or 7 or 8 to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”