Has the Black church lowered its expectations regarding its pastors? According to Rev. Eric Redmond, the Eddie Long scandal provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate what’s required of our church leaders and to reclaim a biblical standard.
The allegations against Bishop Eddie Long are horrifying and disgraceful, but not necessarily shocking. For, unfortunately, many well-known Christian leaders of large ministries have made the choice of stepping outside of their marriages into sexual immorality. Even more unfortunate is that we, as African Americans, often excuse our morally failing leaders as people who are mere men or victims of white conspiracies. But sinners are not victims; they are fallen people who make choices.
Yesterday, in front of his Atlanta congregation, Bishop Long finally addressed the accusations that were leveled against him. He was right in saying the case should not be tried in the media, and it is not my intention to imply the man’s guilt in this space. Until proven otherwise, he deserves the presumption of innocence.
For pastors like myself, however, the allegations against Long should cause us all to pause and seek the Lord for more mercy and grace upon our own souls: “Lord, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” But this sad episode also provides an opportunity for all believers to consider what we should expect of our Christian ministers in terms of character and morality, and what to do when pastors make choices that disqualify them for leadership.
What We Should Expect
First, churches should expect their pastors to be men who walk in holiness before God. All of us are called to be holy, for our God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). But pastors are called to live at a higher standard of Christian behavior than that of the general believer. When the qualifications for pastors (elders) are given in Scripture, the pastor is expected to be a man who meets the full composite of the qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-8; Tit. 1:5-9). Many of these qualifications concern the pastor’s personal holiness: “self-controlled,” “not a drunkard,” “not a lover of money,” “upright,” and “holy.” These qualifications should characterize the pastor throughout his tenure as a pastor, not simply during his candidate period at a church. This is the only way in which he can remain above the reproach of his people.
Second, churches should expect their pastors to be men who model Christ. Again, all of us are called to follow Christ and our Lord’s walk before God the Father. In a more significant way, pastors must set an example of Christ for others to follow. At all times we must be able to say to our people, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, ESV). We are to “set an example to the believers … in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Fighting for Survival: On Sunday, Bishop Eddie Long finally addressed the allegations leveled against him by four accusers. The unfolding saga illustrates the importance of pastors being “above reproach” in both their ministries and personal lives. (Image from New Life Missionary Baptist Church)
Believers are commanded to consider how their leaders live and imitate them (Heb. 13:7). If our people cannot see an example of Christ in us — including keeping our bodies pure from immorality — they cannot follow Christ by following us. To put it differently, our stead as pastors is no greater than our ability to say, “You can please Christ; just follow me and I will show you how to do it.” We have no credibility or meaningful role in evangelizing sinners if our message only is “God can change and keep you, but he cannot do the same for me.”
Third, churches should expect their pastors to be men who keep their marriage vows faithfully. Pastors must be “[husbands] of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; 1:6). The man of God must be one who keeps his marriage vows. This means that he should not be a man of remarriage, adultery, pornography-watching or addiction, or bisexual and/or down-low relationships, for each of these items stands in opposition to fidelity in marriage to one woman. This is an issue where lesser understandings and disobedience to this Scripture are harmful to our churches, and of which we, as African Americans in particular, need to raise our standards, for at least two reasons:
The African American family needs to hear and see modeled the message of the gospel and its significance for the family so that our families and community might be rescued from destruction. The social indicators of African Americans, including high divorce rates, high percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes, and high numbers of single, marriageable-age women — some of whom are now blaming the Black Church for the problem of their singleness — all point toward the need for the strengthening of the African American marriage and family. Couple this with the large numbers of African Americans who are members of churches, and you will see that there is an opportunity for the church to lead the way in repairing the ruins of the African American community. The repair work starts with the church being a place in which marriage is held in high honor. Typically this happens in places where a pastor holds his own marriage is high honor.
The gospel story itself is most readily portrayed and explained by the mystery of marriage. The gospel is the story of Christ giving his blood in death and rising from the dead in power in order to beautify the bride the he will wed in her final salvation (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 21:1-4). The gospel we proclaim to the world inherently says, “Do you want to see what salvation is like? It is like a perfect marriage between the Perfect Man and the perfect woman in perfect marital bliss forever and ever! Come get what you have always wanted in life!” We, the believers, are that bride that Christ is beautifying. We are the ones who should be able to say, “Christ will make your life like a great marriage; just look at my marriage” (or “my purity as a single believer,” cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-38; 2 Cor. 11:2-4).
Pastors should be the leaders in their congregation in preaching and living out the gospel — the story of the Perfect and Eternal Marriage. Otherwise, how can his people trust his word on marriage? When he says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” will he have any credibility? Can his members trust that his counsel on marriage will work for them if God’s power did not work for him? Instead of questioning their pastors, congregations should be able to trust their pastors as men who fear the Lord in all areas, including in their bedrooms (cf. Heb. 13:4).
When the Pastor Falls
Many of you might be rightfully wondering at this point, If a pastor fails in his marriage, what should happen next? There are no easy answers to this. Simply put, having not met the qualities of a pastor, that man is biblically obligated to step down from his role as leader of his congregation immediately. If he does not step down, his congregation should ask him to step down. This may seem harsh, but consider the alternative message you are sending to his wife, children, and the watching world that is in need of redemption. The wife and children are, in effect, being told that the church is not there to hold the head of their household accountable to the gospel. Thus, he can live two lives before them and God’s people and there is nothing his family can expect the church to do.
Moreover, we tell the world that our gospel is a sham and powerless. We appear to be people who say, “Well, you do not really have to live like a Christian in order to be one, or be a member of the church. We’ll prove it to you: just look at our pastor!” This is shameful, but it also is what we do when we allow immoral men to remain in their pulpits, and it is commonly accepted in the African American church. We must remember that, unlike King David or President Clinton, a pastor cannot divorce his work from his life, for his work is a message that must be modeled in order to be proclaimed with credibility and the power of the Spirit of God.
Let me be clear that requiring an immoral man to step down from his position as pastor is not a question of the man’s gifts or of his internal calling (which is subjective). It is a matter of his qualifications — his external calling, which are objective and verifiable for every man, regardless of his spiritual and natural gifts. Such a man may be gifted as a teacher and preacher. However, this does not mean he needs a pulpit. Instead, he needs repentance, marital counseling, brotherly accountability, a pattern of faithfulness in his marriage, and to make amends with the congregation that he has harmed. His gifts may be used to do outreach in the community or to teach a Bible study. But, at that point, he is not qualified to lead a congregation.
The fall of a pastor is a serious matter for the church as we seek to glorify God in all things. It must mean the end of a pastor’s tenure as his church’s pastor. Thankfully, because of the blood and resurrection of Christ, it does not mean the end of his salvation. For his fall is only a fall from his qualification for the pulpit. It is not a fall from the grace and mercy that secures our salvation in Christ.
Atlanta pastor Eddie Long is innocent until proven otherwise. But the sordid details surrounding accusations against him, as well as earlier scandals involving other Christian leaders, have opened the floodgates of popular opinion — and it’s not good.
I’m only speculating, but imagine if Monday’s lead news story reads something like this:
Calling himself a “deceiver and a liar” who had “given in to his dark side,” the pastor, standing in his pulpit, confessed to sexual immorality during the Sunday-morning service at his crowded megachurch.
“Not all the accusations are true, but I take responsibility for the entire problem. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life,” he said.
The popular minister, known for anti-gay sermons, had found himself drowning under the threat of being outed. So he stood before his congregation, came clean, and asked for mercy …
The imaginary news report above is based on actual reports about the confession of Rev. Ted Haggard, the former pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In 2006 he was forced to step down following revelations that he had been involved in a relationship with a male prostitute. I’m guessing that at least some folks among the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta are wondering whether they should brace for a similar confession from their pastor, Bishop Eddie L. Long.
Three men in their twenties went public this week with civil lawsuits against Long, accusing the pastor of using his power to force them into sexual relationships with him. The story is the buzz in the Atlanta area and among Christians across the nation. (And as this story goes to press, at least one other young man has filed a suit.)
People must not forget that Long is innocent unless proven otherwise. He deserves a fair hearing to respond to the charges, especially since, if found innocent, sexual abuse charges remain a very difficult stain to cleanse from one’s reputation. It’s also worth noting that Long’s accusers filed civil — not criminal — lawsuits against him, and civil suits are usually always about money. And, as we all know, money can complicate the telling of truth. Hopefully Bishop Long is innocent, but as of now, we’ve only heard one side of the story.
Long has been slow to speak out publicly and denounce the charges himself. He canceled a press conference and a highly anticipated radio interview on the popular Tom Joyner Morning Show, choosing instead to deny the charges through his lawyer.
And though Bishop Long deserves a fair hearing in the court of law, the court of popular opinion is already running in overdrive. And it’s not looking good, which of course it never does when the press gets a hold of any story involving complaints against a religious or political leader. No matter how tempting it may be to gawk and judge and convict a person before all the facts are in, it never does us any good as Christians to revel in the misfortune of another human being, no matter how easy of a target he becomes.
Bishop Long is renowned for an extravagant lifestyle (drives a Bentley, drew $1 million in salary from his charity, has a nine-bathroom mansion) that had already come under investigation by the federal government. And his politics have made him a prominent target as well. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others, has referred to Long as “anti-gay” for his stance against same-sex partnerships.
Unfortunately, the shadow hanging over Bishop Long’s presumption of innocence is one cast by the scandals of a number of other high-profile leaders. How often has it come to light that the person who is publicly against a particular controversial issue is struggling personally with that very same issue? Remember fire-and-brimstone preachers Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, who were caught in sexual scandals, financial corruption, and lies? How about vocal anti-gay rights politicians like former Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, caught allegedly soliciting male sex in an airport bathroom, and Sen. Roy Ashburn of California, arrested for drunk driving after leaving a gay bar?
What we’ve learned from those previous scandals is that we need our leaders to be honest and compassionate promoters of justice and truth. We don’t need them crusading against issues primarily as a cover for their own personal sins, and often at our public expense. The media lives to expose hypocrisy, and Bishop Long’s situation must look like low-hanging fruit to them right now.
A side-note question raised by this latest scandal is, have Christians been placing too much emphasis on the homosexuality issue? There are ongoing theological debates regarding homosexuality and where it ranks among various sins. For me, the Bible seems to indicate that homosexuality is no worse than any other sexual transgression (1 Cor. 6:9-11,18-20). They’re all lumped together. Sin is sin. All of us have committed our share (I know I have) and remain susceptible. It’s when you believe you’re too powerful and untouchable that deception seeps in and eventually drowns you.
I hope this isn’t the case with Bishop Long. I hope his name doesn’t become just one more Wikipedia entry in the annals of religious scandals. Hopefully, he will be cleared. Hopefully, his young accusers will get the healing and deliverance they need. Hopefully, these events will help New Birth Missionary Baptist Church become a more honest, compassionate, and effective God-fearing church. Let’s hope that God uses this.
In Waiting for ‘Superman,’ director Davis Guggenheim examines the reasons for America’s public education crisis, and challenges us to do something about it.
I recently had the opportunity to view the new documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ at a special pre-release screening. As an urban pastor, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, education and its impact on our children has become an issue close to my heart. So I settled into my seat with high hopes for the potential of this film to shine light on the many problems facing our nation’s schools. I was not disappointed.
Director Davis Guggenheim strikes an effective balance between telling personal stories (he follows the journey of five students) while also examining the demise of the national public school system, at a systemic level, over the past four decades. It is not a pretty tale.
The curious title of the film comes from Geoffrey Canada, the innovative and relentless leader of the nationally acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada tells the story of growing up in the projects of the Bronx and how he often fantasized about someone swooping in from the outside and saving him and his friends. His favorite superhero was Superman, who always seemed to show up when the people were in the greatest peril. Even as a young child, Canada knew the residents of his neighborhood were in grave danger because of socioeconomic inequities. It was a life-altering moment for him when his mother sternly warned him, “Geoffrey, Superman is not coming to save us. Nobody is coming to save us. We have to find our own way out.”
With this anecdote, Canada connects the viewer to the seriousness of this issue. He points out how children begin receiving contradictory messages about education from an early age. They are told, on one hand, that education is the key to being successful in this country’s economy. On the other hand, he says, they attend local schools that are “failure factories” that give them no chance at academic success. Kids are smart, and they interpret what is happening. They perceive early on that “this society is a cold, hard place.” They see that they are getting the short end of the stick, and they don’t know why. But they quickly figure out that there is no use in waiting for a superhero to fix the problem.
Throughout the film we are drawn into an emotional connection with the five young students (Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily) and their respective parents/guardians. Each child shows a great deal of aptitude and hope for the future, yet each is in danger because they live in a neighborhood with failing or dysfunctional schools. I imagine that each person in the audience who watches this will closely identify with at least one of the children.
For me it was Bianca, an amazing sixth-grader who wants to become a doctor someday so that she can spend her life “helping people.” As she shares her dreams, it’s easy to think that this bright girl’s internal drive and the nurture and support of her loving family should be enough to help her succeed. But then Guggenheim’s camera pulls back to give us a full view of the dilapidated school Bianca is on track to attend for seventh grade. It is one of the schools deemed a “failure factory.” Attending there, he notes matter-of-factly, will drop Bianca’s chances of success to an almost impossible percentage. Her parents decide that that Bianca’s best chance for achieving her dream will be to get accepted to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school miles away. But KIPP has only a handful of spaces open and hundreds of applicants.
In the Trenches: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada in the classroom. (Courtesy Paramount Pictures)
This is the essence of the first big point Guggenheim seems to be making in the film. In urban areas in particular, the vast majority of public schools range in quality somewhere between “mediocre,” at best, to “abject,” at worst. Typically in a large city there’s at least a handful of schools that are doing exceedingly well, but the demand to get into those schools is exponentially greater than the number of students those schools are able to admit.
As the film progresses, Guggenheim proposes what he seems to think may be the most substantial obstacle of all: selfish human agendas intertwined with antiquated policies and immoveable teacher unions. To make his point, the director spends a large amount of time following Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. Rhee is a fiery and dynamic personality whose brash efforts at school reform are shown to be both innovative and polarizing. In Guggenheim’s narrative, she and Geoffrey Canada (as well as other iconoclastic teachers and administrators) represent the kind of super-persons required to rescue an imploding system. But the odds are stacked against them like a wall of Kryptonite.
Guggenheim weaves in and out of the lives of the five students and their families while regularly coming back to the list of obstacles to educational equity. Teacher tenure for those in the public school system is another heavy issue that’s tackled. How can a school insist on great teachers if there is no motivation for greatness and no way to fire underperforming teachers? Other obstacles explored include confusion between federal and state regulations, poor leadership in schools, and unmotivated teachers.
It’s here that Guggenheim is bound to run into the greatest amount of resistance from some within the public education community. With his previous film, An Inconvenient Truth, the director drew the skepticism and ire of conservative critics who question the science behind global warming. With Waiting for ‘Superman,’ teacher unions and the politicians (primarily Democrats) who depend on them most for support comes under the most severe scrutiny. But, to be sure, Guggenheim spends just as much time highlighting the extraordinary and often sacrificial efforts of teachers who are making a difference in their students’ lives.
As the documentary moves toward its conclusion, at least two major themes emerge. First, Guggenheim wants to bring into the open a fallacy that has become too commonplace behind closed doors: that children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods cannot be educated at as high a level as children in middle-class environments. To make his point, he takes viewers deep into two successful charter-school models: KIPP — which now runs 52 schools and counting — and the Harlem Children’s Zone. In a nation with increasingly low expectations for urban schools, these two models are changing the stakes. Both are generating incredible results year after year, and these results are changing the landscape. Guggenheim observes that children from KIPP and HCZ are not just achieving scores higher than other poor kids; they are achieving scores higher than all kids.
The second big theme is the call to all Americans (not just educators) to be concerned, and even outraged, by the discrepancies that exist in our public-school systems. Viewers are instructed to take action by visiting the film’s website for tips that include getting involved by attending local school board meetings, donating funds to help purchase supplies for under-resourced schools, and encouraging your governor and other state leaders to adopt the Common Core Standards as a way of improving the quality of the schools in your state.
For me, the most poignant moment of the documentary came near the end. We travel with each of the five children attending the lotteries where they will discover whether or not they have been accepted into the schools that give them their best shot at success. As you see the lottery balls turning in slow motion and names being drawn out of a hat, it seems impossible to believe that the fate of these children is left to something as arbitrary as a random drawing.
At a personal level, I’m both provoked and inspired by Waiting for ‘Superman.’ The film’s message compels me to do more. It makes me hope that many of us will rise to the challenge for the sake of our kids. It reminds me of the piercing words of Jesus of Nazareth, who said, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).
The educational system in this country has become a stumbling block for too many children and families. If nothing else, Waiting for ‘Superman’ exposes the mish-mash of agendas and broken-down systems that brought us to the sad place we are today. We must deepen the national conversation about how to best improve schools. But even more important, we must experience a national awakening to the importance of our children. We must place their futures at the forefront of our agendas.
Waiting for ‘Superman’ opens Sept. 24 in limited release and everywhere on Oct. 8. For more information, visit the film’s website.
Honest dialogue about race and racial issues should move the conversation forward and advance its participants further down the road of understanding. Unfortunately, we’ve been doing the opposite. That’s why our columnist is proposing this radical idea: a moratorium on the use of the “R-word.”
I just can’t take it anymore. Something has to stop.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently made comments about illegal immigrants having children, calling into question the validity of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Almost immediately, many people called his comments, and the people who support them, racist. (Do I even need to mention this happened on Fox News?)
Rap mogul Diddy was asked in an interview about the rather ostentatious luxury car he had given his teenage son. Diddy was offended. According to Diddy, White luminaries in their respective fields would not be assailed with such trivialities. He said the question was racist.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger apologized for her now-infamous saying “n-word” rant during her radio show in response to an African American caller expressing consternation over racist remarks by her husband’s friends. She was chiding the caller for being hypersensitive, and ended with the following comment:
“If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”
For many bloggers, pundits, and readers, that quote is all the evidence one needs to convict Dr. Laura of a textbook case of racist behavior.
A Year Without the R-Word
In today’s overly politicized media climate, storms of controversy continually erupt over allegations of racism, polarizing wide swaths of people in the process. It happens with big stories and small stories, with celebrities as well as regular folks. And even in stories that ostensibly seem to have nothing to do with race, it breaks out in comment threads after the fact. Somebody says that something or someone is racist, and people on both sides lose their minds and start jabbering away. The names may change, but the problem persists.
Actually, forgive my typo.
What I meant to say is that people close their minds and start jabbering.
Not that I believe that open-mindedness is the ultimate virtue to strive toward. I subscribe to the maxim of G. K. Chesterton, who once stated that an open mind is like an open mouth; useful only in its capacity to close down on something solid. His point, generally speaking, is that open minds should be constantly searching for truth.
My belief is that substantive dialogue about race and racial issues should, when done honestly and with virtue, move the conversation forward and advance its participants further down the road of understanding.
What I’ve seen too often is the exact opposite. It’s a mindless bludgeoning, day after day, perpetrated by people who wield terms like “racist” as weapons to be used only for discrediting, embarrassing or repudiating their enemies, regardless of how much truth is in the allegation. When this happens, no real dialogue or learning takes place, other than a steely resolve from both sides to dig in a little deeper and get a little nastier next time.
And like I said, I just can’t take it anymore.
Like The Winans once said, it’s time make a change. So I’m gonna summon my inner MJ, and start with the man in the mirror.
I’m gonna take a break from talking about racism.
For one whole year, I will conspicuously avoid using the word “racist” or “racism” in any written form of public discourse, except to finish this article.
Too Many Dropped Calls
This might seem like a really radical idea, but in fact a lot of intelligent black people already do this. Some of us might do it to avoid being labeled as a troublemaker. Some of us might do it because we’re tired of banging our heads against the wall. Some of us might do it because we want to prove that black people can and should talk about more than just “black issues.”
I’m doing it for a simpler reason, though.
The word “racist” is broken.
Words are supposed to represent ideas, and when the use of certain words actually impede the communication of ideas, then those words no longer function like they’re supposed to. When people argue about whether or not such-and-such was racist, there is no agreed-upon standard for what racism is or is not. The arguments just go in circles.
Some people believe that racism is strictly a matter of the heart, like jealousy or avarice. Others look at racism more in terms of structural or institutionalized inequities in society. Some people think it’s both. Some people hear or read the word “racist” and they automatically translate that to mean “not politically correct.” Others do the same and end up with “conservative.”
Is it any wonder, then, why our conversation suffers so badly?
Like a bad cell phone connection, constantly assailing racists and calling out racism leaves us with an illusion of communication. We think we’re getting our point across effectively, unaware that critical feedback is missing. Assumptions and biases block us from making relational progress across the long cultural and ideological divides where progress is needed most. It litters our discourse with misunderstandings that frustrate like so many dropped calls.
And the conversation goes nowhere.
In Other Words
When I was just out of high school, I was in a Christian discipleship program called The Master’s Commission. One of the aims of the program was to create leaders in the faith who could elucidate on matters of import. As such, the leaders at the time issued a challenge to the students, to see how many of them could carry on a conversation without using the words “dude,” “cool,” or “awesome.”
For some of us, this was a minor inconvenience. For others, it was a full-blown crisis of communication.
Some of these students were tempted to view the leaders as archaic fuddy-duddy types who abhorred casual speech, but that was not the case at all. They had no problem with those words in and of themselves. They just wanted to break the students of their habitually poor choice of words. The challenge forced the students to start using unfamiliar words, which occasionally led to some hilariously awkward exchanges.
“Du — I mean, bro, did you watch the game last night?”
“Oh yeah, when Drexler hit that three it was so … um … interesting.”
Many black folks today use the terms “racist” and “racism” with almost that same habitual reflex as my white Gen-Xer friends had with “dude” and “awesome.”
It’s not that we think everything bad or wrong is racist, but we keep it handy for any situation that fits a certain familiar scenario where our brothers and sisters get the shaft. There’s legitimate reason for this habitual usage — namely, centuries’ worth of systemic oppression and disenfranchisement against people who look like us and share our lineage. But over time, as the issues get murkier and problems have more complicated solutions, habitual cries of racism look like emotional shorthand for “something shady that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
Back in the salad days of the Internet, netizens in chat rooms and message boards used to operate on a principle known as Godwin’s Law. It says the longer any particular argument goes on, the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Nazi Germany. Thus, whoever reaches that point first has automatically lost the argument by default, since they obviously had nothing else worthwhile to say.
I think we ought to do the same thing with “racist” and “racism.”
Because regardless of how racist someone may actually be, the moment that word enters the discussion, you’ve lost any hope of actual dialogue with anyone who didn’t already agree with you — even if the facts are on your side.
So that’s why I’m taking this pledge. It’s not in spite of the many instances of racism I see, but precisely because of how much there is that doesn’t get talked about in any meaningful way.
No, I don’t believe that choosing not to talk about racism will make it go away. But choosing to talk about it in other terms that aren’t so emotionally charged … that’s a start.
Some may say that by doing this, even temporarily, it lets purveyors of racist acts and ideas off the hook.
I could not disagree more. Choosing to talk about these things without using the terms “racist” and “racism” can shine an even more effective light on the relative merit (or lack thereof) of these particular ideas and actions, without giving their defenders an easy way to blow off the criticism as being too P.C.
So I don’t need to call Sen. Graham a racist to combat his statements. I can simply call them insensitive, politically-calculating, cowardly, mean-spirited, a threat to the fabric of our Constitution, and lacking even a modicum of logic. (Seriously, “drop and leave”? Isn’t the whole point that they want to stay?)
I can say that Farhad Manjoo was pretty clear that not all black folks use Twitter the same way, and that even though the header image was a little silly, I’d proudly rock a baby blue fitted hat with a pound sign on it, stereotype or not. (Assuming it wasn’t a 59Fifty, those joints are expensive.)
I can say that black Tea Party apologists are fighting a lost cause if they can’t recognize rogue elements in their own movement, because everybody else can see them, even if some of them are manufactured by their opponents. Unfortunately, perception is reality.
I can say that Diddy is a rap star who popularized celebrity culture in hip-hop, and that he, of all people, should know better than to clamor for attention and then pout after getting too much. It doesn’t take a family counselor to see that no 16-year-old needs a Maybach Benz.
I can say that Dr. Laura is, like most talk-radio icons, too abrasive and combative to deal with issues like race effectively, which says less about her as a person than it does about the ineffectual nature of talk radio as a forum for serious discussion. I can say that I don’t really believe her apology, because it sounds too much like manyotherapologies we’ve heard after these types of racial incidents. And despite her rude and boorish response to her listener’s question, I can say that she has a point about the whole HBO-and-black-comics thing.
That’s what it’s like to talk about racial incidents without using those words. And that wasn’t so hard, was it?
That’s why I’m willing to give it a try.
Now who’s with me?
If you plan to join Jelani in refraining from use of the “R-word,” drop us a comment below and share your reasons. Even if you don’t plan to abandon the word, we’d still like to hear from you.
Street signs in downtown Atlanta, GA: Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and Capitol Ave
Our nation’s political divisions, economic struggles, and violent communities should remind us that symbolism without substance is a dead-end street.
We focus too much on symbolism. For example, the debate over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero is largely about what the 9/11 tragedy symbolizes. What about focusing on the substance that led up to it and where do we go from here? The dueling rallies (the Rev. Al Sharpton vs. Glenn Beck) in Washington, on the day commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was mostly about what the civil rights movement symbolizes and who should proclaim the dream the Rev. Martin Luther King articulated. Meanwhile, unemployment is nearly 10 percent (double for blacks) and black incarceration rates are double and triple their percentage of the population in many states.
This past Sept. 11, I attended a dedication ceremony for yet another Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, this one in Newport News, Virginia. As I watched King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, at the podium, I thought of how our emphasis on MLK symbolism often overshadows the substance of his message; a message of peace and justice that is as relevant today as it was on Sept. 11, 2001, and Aug. 28, 1963.
Oddly, I thought of comedian Chris Rock.
Rock, in his 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain, said:
Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a (bleep) where you live in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.
There are more than 800 streets, drives and boulevards, often with large monuments on them, across the country and world that honor King. Many of them are in neighborhoods that are plagued by high unemployment, disenfranchisement, poverty, and crime. It’s ills in neighborhoods like this section of Newport News’ East End that King died trying to eradicate.
As Newport News Mayor McKinley Price remarked that the memorial would be more than a plaza but “embody a man who was about a movement,” I doubted that King, a man of God, would want to be honored with a structure made of stone. Didn’t he say in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, not to idolize him?
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” he said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter …”
The people who have the power to erect monuments could best honor King by focusing those resources on substance — eradicating the ills he died for. For example, empower poor people with good-paying jobs, set and enforce policies that close the education gap, eliminate out-in-the-open illegal drug sales that make streets unsafe, and fix the root causes of why blacks are incarcerated at rates that are double and triple their percentage of the population. Surely the people most likely to sit in a King memorial plaza in the ‘hood would have a better chance of fulfilling his dream in their lives.
Bernice King, who was only 5 in 1968 when her father was assassinated, honored his legacy in a way I believe he would’ve loved. She barely mentioned his name.
She began with a poem that mentioned him and her mother, Coretta Scott King.
“I was born a King,” she recited. “I might as well be a king…”
She assigned the family name to the crowd, and urged them to live as royalty.
“To be strong communities, we must have the mentality of kings,” she said. “Kings raise the standard and lead the way. Kings don’t follow the crowd. Kings don’t hang out with subjects — folks who are ‘subject to negativity.’ Kings don’t wait for others to do something; they take responsibility.”
She challenged them to focus on healing their families, which leads to healthy communities.
“Get back to the dining table … Sit around the table with your family and dialogue about how to make communities better.”
She used the symbolic occasion to deliver substance.
As she was escorted to a car to catch her return flight to Atlanta, I walked with Bernice King and asked whether she felt, as Chris Rock implied, that monuments to her father might actually detract from focusing on fixing the problems he died for.
“As you know, monuments are about status and can become idols,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. We have to do both. Like the D.C. memorial [planned on the National Mall between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials], people — especially those who were not alive then — will come from all over and be inspired. But we have to inspire people to action, to make a difference. That’s what Daddy wanted and died for.”
Symbolism has its value, but substance is more important.