Rosy Image of US Equality Glosses Over Systemic Racism

Rosy Image of US Equality Glosses Over Systemic Racism


Video Courtesy of Reunion


In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dr. Tsedale Melaku, a critical race and gender scholar at the City University of New York

The United States thrives on being a multicultural and diverse society that guarantees individual freedoms and rights to all its citizens. However, even though the brutal institution of slavery and the era of racial segregation are a thing of the past, there are indications that systemic racism hasn’t gone away and still haunts American society.

In 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which was tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to probe the causes of the 1967 race riots and come up with recommendations for the future, concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Almost half a century after those protests and despite the progress made, America is still a land of inequalities. According to Pew Research, 92% of African Americans think that “whites benefit at least a fair amount from advantages that blacks do not have,” and 68% say that whites “benefit a great deal.”

People of color in the United States face serious difficulties in securing education, employment, health care and quality housing. They have long been grappling with discrimination and profiling by law enforcement. It goes without saying that the criminal justice system is also substantially biased against people of color, and African Americans in particular. This is evidenced by figures showing that despite making up only 13% of the general population, African Americans constitute 40% of the prison population in the United States.

Many thought that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would be a turning point for race relations. But talking points about a post-racial America were hushed by a wave of police brutality across the country that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked violent protests in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson reminiscent of the civil rights era. Today, under Obama’s successor President Donald Trump, America is hardly a color-blind, tolerant society. Hate crimes have been on the rise since Trump’s coming to power. White supremacists have been emboldened, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has become more widespread.

Dr. Tsedale Melaku is a sociologist, critical race and gender scholar, and post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean at the City University of New York. Her latest bookYou Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, was published earlier this year.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Tsedale Melaku about race relations in America today, the Black Lives Matter movement and the stereotypes that still engulf the question of race.

The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: Some scholars I’ve talked to are of the opinion that it’s not easy being black in 21st-century America, and that racism is an obstacle to the black Americans’ access to quality education, health care, housing, and job opportunities. Do you agree?

Tsedale Melaku: The pervasiveness of structural racism is clearly evident in the multitude of studies that indicate the wealth gap between white and black households play a critical role in how American families are able to obtain employment, housing, quality health care, education and economic upward mobility. Just looking at the poverty rate in varying neighborhoods demonstrates significant racial disparities between black and white children.

For example, the average middle-income black child resides in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate as compared to a low-income white child. This significantly affects the life chances of black children. Another example of where hardship can be evidenced is through the recent article by sociologists Melvin E. Thomas, Richard Moye, Loren Henderson and Hayward Derrick Horton. In this study, they examine the combined effects of race, class and residential segregation on housing values for blacks versus whites resulting from the 2008 and 2009 Great Recession.

In addition to these factors and many more, I think the political climate we are in has not made it easy for people of color as a whole, but black people in particular, to live their everyday lives without the constant threat of structural, symbolic or physical violence that may be visited upon them through unfair policies and practices in place that continue to block access to necessary resources. So yes, I do agree that being black in America is still not easy, and will not get any easier until we address systemic issues of racism, sexism and classism.

Ziabari: How is it possible to debunk the myths and stereotypes that generate gendered racism and create barriers to African American women’s employment and professional development? What is the role of the media in perpetuating or downplaying these stereotypes?

Melaku: First, we need to acknowledge that these stereotypes and myths are part of a broader narrative created to keep marginalized groups in subordinate positions. Understanding that a white racial frame — an extensive viewpoint including racial stereotypes, assumptions, narratives and interpretations embedded within the minds of whites that people of color can also adopt — views whites as superior and the racially oppressed as inferior. This frame is used to justify continued white privilege and dominance.

My bookYou Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, based on extensive interviews with black women lawyers, highlights how race and gender create barriers to their recruitment, professional development and advancement to partnerships in elite corporate law firms. Through in-depth analysis I discuss how their experiences center around systemic gendered racism embedded within institutions. The book covers topics including appearance; white narratives of affirmative action; the differences and similarities with white women and black men; exclusion from social and professional networking opportunities — the “Boys’ Club” — and the lack of mentors, sponsors and substantive training. I work to highlight the often-hidden mechanisms elite law firms utilize to perpetuate and maintain a dominant white male system. Black women’s social identity creates unique daily racial and gendered microaggressions, which also manifest in their professional, social and economic development.

This is key when thinking about the ways in which black women, and other women of color, face significant challenges conforming to and maintaining a dominant Eurocentric aesthetic in the workplace, as well as how this white racial framing impacts the perceived ability, competence and subsequent recruitment, training, development and promotion of this demographic.

The image of a lawyer does not invoke the image of a black woman because media representations of professional people tend to be white, and mostly male. Only recently have we begun to see images of black women in powerful lawyer positions in the media thanks to Shonda Rhimes, like Olivia Pope or Annalise Keating, but there continues to be a disconnect between media representations and actual perceptions of black women’s reality.

Ziabari: In recent years, there were several instances of US police using violence against and mistreating African American men and, in cases like that of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and E. J. Bradford, killing them. Do you think the law enforcement system in the United States is particularly biased against black citizens?

Melaku: The police shooting of any person should concern all people, and we need to ensure that the people who are in a position to protect and serve are doing just that. Countless studies have shown that there is significant bias in law enforcement that makes people of color, and black men in particular, vulnerable. For example, the work of Gaurav Jashnani, Priscilla Bustamante and Brett G. Stoudt examine how order maintenance policing approach — also linked to “broken windows” policing — incorporated by urban law enforcement has a disproportionate impact on the experiences of low-income people of color.

The lived experience of people of color is centered in this research to evidence how stops, ticketing, and arrests by urban law enforcement negatively affect communities of color, leading to unwanted criminal identities that continue to pathologize black and brown people and push them out of public space. I strongly urge that we continue to have a dialogue with law enforcement agencies, lawmakers and government officials about the seemingly unaddressed violence, policies, and practices that are visited upon marginalized groups, and black people in particular.

Ziabari: Has the Black Lives Matter movement been able to fulfill its goals, including bringing anti-black racism to the attention of politicians and combating racial inequality, profiling, and police brutality? What’s your assessment of what this movement has gained in the years since its founding?

Melaku: The Black Lives Matter movement is a broad-based social movement that works toward campaigning against systemic racism that disadvantages black people actively pursuing human rights through a variety of ways, including advocacy, activism, education and consciousness-raising, among others. The movement attempts to publicize often unrecognized challenges black people encounter, ranging from poverty, racial profiling, gender violence, mass incarceration and various other forms of racial inequality in the US.

More research is needed to understand the importance of the movement in highlighting the disparities black men and women face in America. While this is outside my field of expertise, existing academic work is being done to understand the successes and opportunities arising from the Black Lives Matter movement. Scholars such as Dr. Barbara Ransby, Dr. Frederick C. Harris, Dr. David Pate, and Dr. Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., work to engage real conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and the long historical reasoning behind the disparities reflected in the black experience and what could be done to make changes.

Ziabari: Are you concerned about the spillover of anti-black attitudes from the United States to other countries? In October 2016, a United Nations working group issued a warning about systemic anti-black racism in the criminal justice of Canada. What’s your take on that?

Melaku: Without question, there will always be concern about the political response of the United States and what that means for its citizens at home and abroad, as well as people of color in other countries. As a powerful and influential leader in the world, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are always working toward equality and justice for all people. We need to hold true to the principles that we espouse. Black and brown people across the US and beyond protest due to the persistent frustration and anger over pervasive institutional and individual discriminatory practices they face on a daily basis which is fueled by growing anti-black sentiments.

Ziabari: How do you think the artists, media personalities, journalists and academicians can contribute to addressing racism and eradicating different forms of discrimination against people of color?

Melaku: I think all of us need to engage in more critical discussions about the implications of our actions and particularly the ways in which systemic racism penetrates all institutions, creating unjust and unequal outcomes for people of color. In addition, there has to be the recognition that this is work that should not only fall on the shoulders of people of color but all people because this is a human rights issue. Further, people who are in positions of power should use their influence in order to move the needle further toward reaching more substantive changes in the lives of people who are disproportionately affected by systemic racism and its impact on their social, professional, educational and economic life chances.

Ziabari: A recent Government Accountability Office report found that black students in K-12 schools in the United States are far more likely to be disciplined for different types of maltreatment than those of other races. Does this indicate that racial inequality in the United States starts in the schools?

Melaku: This is a great question that many scholars have taken up within their research in various ways. Take the work of Dr. Carla Shedd for example. She published a very important bookUnequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Justice, that provides an incredibly in-depth analysis of how class stratification, racial residential segregation, and disinvestment in public goods such as education, social support, etc., in Chicago have deleterious effects on the life chances of adolescents. Dr. Shedd particularly highlights how schools either emphasize or improve the varying social inequalities that shape the lives of students from marginalized backgrounds.

In contrast, my research focuses on schools as paths to mobility instead of pipelines to prison. Racial inequality does not begin, nor does it end, in schools. The black women I study earn positions in top law firms because of their academic successes, but racial and gendered inequality persists even in those contexts, which speaks directly to the systemic nature of racist and sexist practices embedded within varying forms of institutions.

Ziabari: According to a NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, two-thirds of Americans believe racism remains a “major problem” in society. Only 3% of respondents said they believe racism doesn’t exist in the United States. To what extent does racism affect social relationships in America today?

Melaku: It is important for us to look at history, and the history of race and ethnicity in particular, when attempting to understand the current cultural, social, political and economic climate in the United States. We are a nation of immigrants, built on indigenous people’s land and stolen people’s labor, with a distinctive history of controlling migration according to racial and ethnic framing and preferences. In recognizing this history, we must come to accept that the optimistic and often rosy image of US equality and freedom glosses over continuing discriminatory practices embedded and widespread in institutions, from housing, employment, education, political and economic structures.

Social relationships are driven by the ways in which race, gender, class and other important identities intersect, combine or overlap to either privilege those in positions of power or oppress those viewed as inferior. As evidenced in my research, the way social identity affects the experiences of women and people of color is indicative of the fact that we still have a long way to go. This dynamic significantly impacts social relationships in America today, as [it has] in the past.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Rosy Image of US Equality Glosses Over Systemic Racism

Rosy Image of US Equality Glosses Over Systemic Racism


Video Courtesy of Reunion


In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dr. Tsedale Melaku, a critical race and gender scholar at the City University of New York

The United States thrives on being a multicultural and diverse society that guarantees individual freedoms and rights to all its citizens. However, even though the brutal institution of slavery and the era of racial segregation are a thing of the past, there are indications that systemic racism hasn’t gone away and still haunts American society.

In 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which was tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to probe the causes of the 1967 race riots and come up with recommendations for the future, concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Almost half a century after those protests and despite the progress made, America is still a land of inequalities. According to Pew Research, 92% of African Americans think that “whites benefit at least a fair amount from advantages that blacks do not have,” and 68% say that whites “benefit a great deal.”

People of color in the United States face serious difficulties in securing education, employment, health care and quality housing. They have long been grappling with discrimination and profiling by law enforcement. It goes without saying that the criminal justice system is also substantially biased against people of color, and African Americans in particular. This is evidenced by figures showing that despite making up only 13% of the general population, African Americans constitute 40% of the prison population in the United States.

Many thought that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would be a turning point for race relations. But talking points about a post-racial America were hushed by a wave of police brutality across the country that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked violent protests in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson reminiscent of the civil rights era. Today, under Obama’s successor President Donald Trump, America is hardly a color-blind, tolerant society. Hate crimes have been on the rise since Trump’s coming to power. White supremacists have been emboldened, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has become more widespread.

Dr. Tsedale Melaku is a sociologist, critical race and gender scholar, and post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean at the City University of New York. Her latest bookYou Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, was published earlier this year.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Tsedale Melaku about race relations in America today, the Black Lives Matter movement and the stereotypes that still engulf the question of race.

The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: Some scholars I’ve talked to are of the opinion that it’s not easy being black in 21st-century America, and that racism is an obstacle to the black Americans’ access to quality education, health care, housing, and job opportunities. Do you agree?

Tsedale Melaku: The pervasiveness of structural racism is clearly evident in the multitude of studies that indicate the wealth gap between white and black households play a critical role in how American families are able to obtain employment, housing, quality health care, education and economic upward mobility. Just looking at the poverty rate in varying neighborhoods demonstrates significant racial disparities between black and white children.

For example, the average middle-income black child resides in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate as compared to a low-income white child. This significantly affects the life chances of black children. Another example of where hardship can be evidenced is through the recent article by sociologists Melvin E. Thomas, Richard Moye, Loren Henderson and Hayward Derrick Horton. In this study, they examine the combined effects of race, class and residential segregation on housing values for blacks versus whites resulting from the 2008 and 2009 Great Recession.

In addition to these factors and many more, I think the political climate we are in has not made it easy for people of color as a whole, but black people in particular, to live their everyday lives without the constant threat of structural, symbolic or physical violence that may be visited upon them through unfair policies and practices in place that continue to block access to necessary resources. So yes, I do agree that being black in America is still not easy, and will not get any easier until we address systemic issues of racism, sexism and classism.

Ziabari: How is it possible to debunk the myths and stereotypes that generate gendered racism and create barriers to African American women’s employment and professional development? What is the role of the media in perpetuating or downplaying these stereotypes?

Melaku: First, we need to acknowledge that these stereotypes and myths are part of a broader narrative created to keep marginalized groups in subordinate positions. Understanding that a white racial frame — an extensive viewpoint including racial stereotypes, assumptions, narratives and interpretations embedded within the minds of whites that people of color can also adopt — views whites as superior and the racially oppressed as inferior. This frame is used to justify continued white privilege and dominance.

My bookYou Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, based on extensive interviews with black women lawyers, highlights how race and gender create barriers to their recruitment, professional development and advancement to partnerships in elite corporate law firms. Through in-depth analysis I discuss how their experiences center around systemic gendered racism embedded within institutions. The book covers topics including appearance; white narratives of affirmative action; the differences and similarities with white women and black men; exclusion from social and professional networking opportunities — the “Boys’ Club” — and the lack of mentors, sponsors and substantive training. I work to highlight the often-hidden mechanisms elite law firms utilize to perpetuate and maintain a dominant white male system. Black women’s social identity creates unique daily racial and gendered microaggressions, which also manifest in their professional, social and economic development.

This is key when thinking about the ways in which black women, and other women of color, face significant challenges conforming to and maintaining a dominant Eurocentric aesthetic in the workplace, as well as how this white racial framing impacts the perceived ability, competence and subsequent recruitment, training, development and promotion of this demographic.

The image of a lawyer does not invoke the image of a black woman because media representations of professional people tend to be white, and mostly male. Only recently have we begun to see images of black women in powerful lawyer positions in the media thanks to Shonda Rhimes, like Olivia Pope or Annalise Keating, but there continues to be a disconnect between media representations and actual perceptions of black women’s reality.

Ziabari: In recent years, there were several instances of US police using violence against and mistreating African American men and, in cases like that of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and E. J. Bradford, killing them. Do you think the law enforcement system in the United States is particularly biased against black citizens?

Melaku: The police shooting of any person should concern all people, and we need to ensure that the people who are in a position to protect and serve are doing just that. Countless studies have shown that there is significant bias in law enforcement that makes people of color, and black men in particular, vulnerable. For example, the work of Gaurav Jashnani, Priscilla Bustamante and Brett G. Stoudt examine how order maintenance policing approach — also linked to “broken windows” policing — incorporated by urban law enforcement has a disproportionate impact on the experiences of low-income people of color.

The lived experience of people of color is centered in this research to evidence how stops, ticketing, and arrests by urban law enforcement negatively affect communities of color, leading to unwanted criminal identities that continue to pathologize black and brown people and push them out of public space. I strongly urge that we continue to have a dialogue with law enforcement agencies, lawmakers and government officials about the seemingly unaddressed violence, policies, and practices that are visited upon marginalized groups, and black people in particular.

Ziabari: Has the Black Lives Matter movement been able to fulfill its goals, including bringing anti-black racism to the attention of politicians and combating racial inequality, profiling, and police brutality? What’s your assessment of what this movement has gained in the years since its founding?

Melaku: The Black Lives Matter movement is a broad-based social movement that works toward campaigning against systemic racism that disadvantages black people actively pursuing human rights through a variety of ways, including advocacy, activism, education and consciousness-raising, among others. The movement attempts to publicize often unrecognized challenges black people encounter, ranging from poverty, racial profiling, gender violence, mass incarceration and various other forms of racial inequality in the US.

More research is needed to understand the importance of the movement in highlighting the disparities black men and women face in America. While this is outside my field of expertise, existing academic work is being done to understand the successes and opportunities arising from the Black Lives Matter movement. Scholars such as Dr. Barbara Ransby, Dr. Frederick C. Harris, Dr. David Pate, and Dr. Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., work to engage real conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and the long historical reasoning behind the disparities reflected in the black experience and what could be done to make changes.

Ziabari: Are you concerned about the spillover of anti-black attitudes from the United States to other countries? In October 2016, a United Nations working group issued a warning about systemic anti-black racism in the criminal justice of Canada. What’s your take on that?

Melaku: Without question, there will always be concern about the political response of the United States and what that means for its citizens at home and abroad, as well as people of color in other countries. As a powerful and influential leader in the world, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are always working toward equality and justice for all people. We need to hold true to the principles that we espouse. Black and brown people across the US and beyond protest due to the persistent frustration and anger over pervasive institutional and individual discriminatory practices they face on a daily basis which is fueled by growing anti-black sentiments.

Ziabari: How do you think the artists, media personalities, journalists and academicians can contribute to addressing racism and eradicating different forms of discrimination against people of color?

Melaku: I think all of us need to engage in more critical discussions about the implications of our actions and particularly the ways in which systemic racism penetrates all institutions, creating unjust and unequal outcomes for people of color. In addition, there has to be the recognition that this is work that should not only fall on the shoulders of people of color but all people because this is a human rights issue. Further, people who are in positions of power should use their influence in order to move the needle further toward reaching more substantive changes in the lives of people who are disproportionately affected by systemic racism and its impact on their social, professional, educational and economic life chances.

Ziabari: A recent Government Accountability Office report found that black students in K-12 schools in the United States are far more likely to be disciplined for different types of maltreatment than those of other races. Does this indicate that racial inequality in the United States starts in the schools?

Melaku: This is a great question that many scholars have taken up within their research in various ways. Take the work of Dr. Carla Shedd for example. She published a very important bookUnequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Justice, that provides an incredibly in-depth analysis of how class stratification, racial residential segregation, and disinvestment in public goods such as education, social support, etc., in Chicago have deleterious effects on the life chances of adolescents. Dr. Shedd particularly highlights how schools either emphasize or improve the varying social inequalities that shape the lives of students from marginalized backgrounds.

In contrast, my research focuses on schools as paths to mobility instead of pipelines to prison. Racial inequality does not begin, nor does it end, in schools. The black women I study earn positions in top law firms because of their academic successes, but racial and gendered inequality persists even in those contexts, which speaks directly to the systemic nature of racist and sexist practices embedded within varying forms of institutions.

Ziabari: According to a NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, two-thirds of Americans believe racism remains a “major problem” in society. Only 3% of respondents said they believe racism doesn’t exist in the United States. To what extent does racism affect social relationships in America today?

Melaku: It is important for us to look at history, and the history of race and ethnicity in particular, when attempting to understand the current cultural, social, political and economic climate in the United States. We are a nation of immigrants, built on indigenous people’s land and stolen people’s labor, with a distinctive history of controlling migration according to racial and ethnic framing and preferences. In recognizing this history, we must come to accept that the optimistic and often rosy image of US equality and freedom glosses over continuing discriminatory practices embedded and widespread in institutions, from housing, employment, education, political and economic structures.

Social relationships are driven by the ways in which race, gender, class and other important identities intersect, combine or overlap to either privilege those in positions of power or oppress those viewed as inferior. As evidenced in my research, the way social identity affects the experiences of women and people of color is indicative of the fact that we still have a long way to go. This dynamic significantly impacts social relationships in America today, as [it has] in the past.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

In the city that claims him, Ben Carson falls from grace

In the city that claims him, Ben Carson falls from grace

Video Courtesy of the International Church of Las Vegas


The portrait used to hang in the hallway, welcoming children and parents to the Archbishop Borders School in Baltimore: a smiling Dr. Ben Carson in surgical scrubs, rubbing together the careful, steady hands that helped him become the nation’s most famous black doctor.

“The person who has the most to do with your success is you,” it reads.

That was before Carson’s presidential bid, before he withdrew from the race and endorsed Donald Trump, and before he was tapped to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was before the president failed to condemn white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. And before Carson pushed policies critics say walk back civil rights protections for those living in subsidized housing.

“I took it down,” said Principal Alicia Freeman of the portrait she’s since moved from the school’s second floor hallway to a less visible spot inside a reading room bearing Carson’s name. The doctor’s inspirational message now feels hostile, she said

“He was starting to become offensive.”

Carson’s story of climbing out of poverty to become a world-renowned surgeon was once ubiquitous in Baltimore, where Carson made his name. In some schools his memoir was required reading, an illustration of the power of perseverance. For a working-class, majority African-American city wracked by racial division and neglect — where a baby born in a wealthy white neighborhood is expected to live two decades longer than one in a poor black area — Ben Carson was hope.

But his role in the Trump administration has added a complicated epilogue, leaving many who admired him feeling betrayed, unable to separate him from the politics of a president widely rejected by African-Americans here. In the last presidential election, nearly 85 percent of city voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton.

“The Trump virus is weakening Ben Carson’s image,” said Bishop Frank Reid, a former pastor at Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church who met Carson at Yale, where both received their bachelor’s degrees. Carson is still respected, Reid said. “But he is no longer the hero he once was.”

Carson declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, he sent a written statement.

“I understand what it means to be poor because I grew up poor,” the statement said. “I was fortunate to have my mother who was my compass – always steering me on course, helping me to see beyond our circumstances. That’s what I hope to do for the millions of low-income families HUD serves.”



Video Courtesy of Fox Business


Carson was born in Detroit, but Baltimore is the city that claims him. He rose to fame for his groundbreaking surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and launched his scholarship program here. Carson would sometimes arrange for high school students to visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum on the city’s east side, where a figure in his likeness stands glossy and smiling in a white lab coat and stethoscope, in the middle of the Famous Marylanders display.

“This young African-American who grew up in poverty and could have been put in jail or suspended from school made something great of himself. It was the American Dream,” Reid said. “We believed he could walk on water.”

Emmanuel Williams, 33, grew up in Northwest Baltimore. He learned about Carson in elementary school, a few years after Carson grabbed headlines for successfully separating conjoined twins attached at the skull.

“He was taught during Black History Month,” Williams said. “And everyone was so proud because it was happening here in Baltimore. It was mythic.”

“Sometimes I think the country looks down on us,” he said. “So to have such a brilliant person who’s making history and making these great medical advancements in Baltimore? He was our crown jewel, and he was here.”

Since taking the reins at HUD, Carson has proposed sweeping rent increases for the poorest subsidized housing tenants, and has begun dismantling key Obama-era regulations designed to address racial segregation. Carson has considered stripping anti-discrimination language from the department’s mission statement, and voiced strong support for implementing work requirements for housing aid recipients. In a radio interview shortly after being confirmed, Carson said poverty “is a state of mind.”

Now, Williams said, “people feel betrayed.”

“He can’t come back from this,” he said.

The seeds of Carson’s approach to policy are scattered throughout his memoir. He has long promoted self-sufficiency and enthusiastically embraced the bootstrap ideology popular with conservatives.

“Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them,” Carson wrote.

But those messages, now coming from a politician, are being received differently.

“There’s a certain consistency to his message, it’s just the language is now different,” said Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first elected African-American mayor. Carson and Schmoke, now the president of the University of Baltimore, have been friends for decades.

“It’s more political, more partisan, and in my view, it’s harsher,” he said.

Schmoke said Carson’s achievements and philanthropic work haven’t been entirely eclipsed by his association with the Trump administration. But Carson’s political turn has changed the way many people see him.

“You can’t take away the fact that he’s done outstanding things for people throughout his life, that can’t be erased,” Schmoke said. “But I do think there’s clearly more people who view him through a political lens and that affects how he’s viewed in this community.”

Shaun Verma, a Ben Carson Scholarship recipient from Georgia, says Carson’s use of his story of hard work and determination to justify scaling back the safety net for the same communities that raised and revered him “is really disappointing.”

“He gave funding to inner city schools with big African-American populations, and opened reading rooms with the message that through education we can fight poverty and discrimination, and he was looked up to because he escaped his circumstances,” said Verma, who recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University and now lives in New York.

At 15, Verma founded MDJunior, a nonprofit that aims to improve health care accessibility to underserved communities. As a Carson scholar he attended board meetings and banquets, and got to know Carson personally. Carson’s policies, Verma said, have “tainted his long career and commendable service. It’s hard to associate all this with a person I looked up to for years.”

Some Maryland conservatives embrace Carson’s transition to politician. Antonio Campbell, a professor of political science at Towson University and state chairman for Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign, said he “remains impressed.” Those disappointed with his performance as HUD secretary likely feel that way because of fundamentally divergent values, he said.

“The question is, what is the role of government?” said Campbell, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. When assistance is scaled back, those accustomed to the status quo are bound to be disappointed, he said, adding that Carson “is learning” how to sell his policies to skeptics.

As a child, growing up in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood in a Maryland suburb, Boateng Kubi saw Carson as the embodiment of possibility.

“He’s one of the first people who truly indicated that black boys, black children, have the right to scientific curiosity,” said Kubi, a rising second-year student at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and president of the school’s chapter of the largest association for minority medical students.

Kubi calls Carson’s policy proposals “shocking.”

“It feels like he’s neglecting the communities he came from, the people who grew up admiring him, who might not have all the money in the world,” he said. “I no longer speak of wanting to be the next Ben Carson.”


Video Courtesy of Rep. Al Green


Carson has come back to Baltimore in an official capacity only three times since becoming HUD secretary. Last month the department gave $144 million in revitalization grants to five cities, including Baltimore. But for the announcement Carson sent a representative to the Perkins Homes housing complex 40 miles from HUD headquarters, opting instead to go to Flint, Michigan.

Carson doesn’t send groups to the wax museum anymore, said co-founder Joanne Martin. But his figure still gets plenty of attention.

Martin has heard her share of complaints about the figures in her museum: Martin Luther King Jr. is too short. Frederick Douglass is too light-skinned. But no figure has been nearly as controversial as Carson’s.

“There have been objections to him being in the museum,” she said. “People have posted on our website demanding that we remove him.”

Martin refuses. He’s earned his place in history as a doctor, Martin said, and she’s committed to honoring his contributions to medicine.

But she says she feels uneasy about Carson’s next chapter, and made a deliberate decision not to update his placard to include any information about his political life.

“We include figures of people who fought for civil rights and appreciated that struggle,” she said. “That’s not the person he is today.”

Gospel Identity Crisis, Part 3

Gospel Identity Crisis, Part 3

CHANGING PERSONAS: Tonéx in his earlier, more conservative look; Tonéx more recently as "B. Slade."

Part 1 of this series examined the coming out of Tonéx, viewed against a broad history of Christian music in general. Part 2 of the series examined the cultural definition of gospel music, and saw Tonéx as its first reality star.

Here in Part 3, we must dig deeper, ask harder questions, and more importantly, find solid answers. Extensive as it has been, this series was designed not as an exhaustive resource of definitive answers, but a series of solid ideas from which some of these questions can be answered.

If we’re honest and observant, we see the truth found in Scripture illuminated by what we see around us.

 

Not About Salvation, but Definition

Here is an important caveat.

Liberal theologians, gospel music fans, and critical readers might be tempted to attack this series as being overly judgmental. Some might feel that asking these kinds of questions is tantamount to questioning Tonéx‘s salvation. This accusation seems especially galling considering his church heritage.

But the issue is not eternal salvation. Hebrews 9:27 assures us that eternal judgment happens after a person dies, and it’s not our job to be the arbiter of such salvation. That is a matter between a person and the Almighty. And according to Romans 10:9, if a person confesses and believes, then they are saved. Based on that basic rubric, it seems Tonéx is a Christian.

But that doesn’t help us answer the question of whether his past, present or future musical offerings can or should be classified as Christian music.

See, in the most literal sense, there is no such thing as Christian music, and there never has been.

It impossible for an inanimate, intangible article of intellectual property to come to a saving relationship with Christ Jesus. A song can be no more Christian than a radio, a Frisbee, or a lawnmower.

So when we talk about Christian music, it’s important to have a clear definition of what we mean. Many of the common cultural clashes regarding music written and recorded by and for Christian people stem mostly from misunderstood terms and mismatched expectations.

In 1998, the Gospel Music Association issued a fourfold definition to address the issue of lyrics in songs to be nominated for their annual awards show. In order to be eligible, songs had to be: 

• Substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible
• An expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and /or
• Testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or
• Obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view

Based on this criteria, a lot of the music that has been marketed as Christian would be excluded, which is why the GMA eventually rescinded this definition in favor of something less restrictive.

Nevertheless, when most people refer to “Christian music,” they are talking about music with lyrics that, regardless of style, meet one or several of these benchmarks.

Yet, these criteria are still subject to interpretation. Denominations and faith movements have been established, split, and evolved across generations over the particulars of what orthodox Christian truth is, or which ideas can safely be said to be prompted and informed by a Christian worldview.

And even if we agreed on all the particulars, how can we verify all of this in the context of a four-minute song?

  

Without Repentance

In order to satisfy the requirements of nervous parents, youth pastors, and other evangelical gatekeepers, record labels always included biographical information in the press packets and liner notes of the artists they promoted. The idea was, if the lyrics of the songs didn’t convince you that the music was truly Christian, than details of their story could help nudge you off the fence.

But the problem with that approach is found in Romans 11:29, often cited as part of the doctrine of immutability, that God doesn’t change.  In particular, this verse asserts that when God gives a gift, he gives it without possibility of being revoked. If He says it, He gives it, then it will come to fruition. Like the popular Tonéx lyric, it means that when it comes to His promises, “God Has Not 4Got.”

So if God has given someone an anointing to play an instrument skillfully, that anointing doesn’t necessarily leave just because the person is being disobedient in the particulars of how and when that instrument should be played. The King James Version renders that verse as saying that the gifts and callings are given “without repentance.”

We see this clearly as we survey the life of Old Testament patriarch David. The Bible refers to him as a man after God’s own heart, despite many documented examples of David’s disobedience. And the fact that the lineage of Jesus runs through the house of David shows that God kept his promises to David, despite the fact that David wasn’t always faithful to Him.

As it was then, so it is today.

The implications of this idea help explain why some evangelical figures start off ministering in prominence, but end up veering off the path of theological credibility.  You can be anointed or gifted in a particular area, say, singing or preaching, and people might continue to respond well to that singing or preaching, regardless of what your actual message is. Though there are always consequences for sin, it’s possible for anointing or gifting to stay in effect despite errant belief or habitual patterns of sin.

(See: Pearson, Carlton)

 

A Closer Look at “That’s When”

This is a sobering thought, and though it shouldn’t result in a witch hunt, so to speak, it should give us pause to examine the messages in the so-called Christian music that many of us ingest, day after day.

With that in mind, consider some of the lyrics to a popular Tonéx slow-jam called “That’s When” from his O2 album (also available in Auto-Tuned, remixed, R&B form here):

All alone, sittin’ thinkin’ here by myself / contemplatin’ bout my life, chewin’ on my nails / Can’t afford to break down, gotta be a man / ain’t the richest guy around, but I do what I can / how it’s gonna go down, homie don’t ask me / I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity / that’s when, that’s when you bless me / that’s when, that’s when you rescue / me from, the pain and the heartache / that’s when, that’s when

For a long time, this was one of my favorite Tonéx songs. The words, and the manner in which they’re sung, indicate a mature believer struggling under the weight of financial responsibility, holding out hope that God will provide.

Yet, if you look closely, there are signs of faith that are sincere, yet not quite Biblical. Consider the last line of the verse, “I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity.”

Reciprocity is a relationship of mutual dependence or action or influence, or a mutual exchange of commercial or other privileges. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The use of this word right before the chorus implies that Tonéx expects, or at least desires, a reciprocal relationship from God. When he prays, the song suggests, God will answer with a blessing.

Yet, that’s not the typical relationship with God that we see on display throughout the breadth of the Scriptures.

For every passage like Deuteronomy 15:4-6, where God promises financial blessing in exchange for obedience, there are also passages like Romans 9:14-16, which quotes Exodus 33:19-20. Both of these are about God’s sovereignty, how He will show mercy to whomever He wants, independent of anything or anyone else. Not only that, but there are plenty of examples of times when folks in the Bible have prayed and not gotten what they wanted, including Jesus Himself.

So compared to most of the music that you hear on urban radio stations today, “That’s When” is wonderful. There is no crass innuendo, and it even mentions prayer. Yet, examined against the light of the Scripture, the song still fails to communicate the truth as completely as possible.

Fact is, it’s hard to derive a full and comprehensive Christian worldview from just one song, and one song shouldn’t have to represent the entirety of what an artist stands for. But this one song has many of the same characteristics as a lot of contemporary gospel music – vapid, churchy, positive-thinking clichés, formatted with catchy hooks and solid production value.

Which leaves the song, and a lot of songs like it, in a place of doctrinal limbo. It’s still probably better than listening to most contemporary R&B, but it falls short of communicating the truth of the gospel in an accurate and meaningful way.

 

Still More Questions

Measured against the fourfold (temporary) GMA definition of gospel music, some Tonéx songs are unabashedly gospel. Others, not so much. Much of his catalog, dare I say, most… is somewhere in the middle. And how we respond to his music depends a lot on our expectations and what we’re looking for.

So the questions remain:

What should those expectations be? How can we tell which songs are worth listening to for the purpose of edification, and which ones aren’t?

More importantly, how should listeners evaluate which songs and artists are worth listening to or investing in?

Stay tuned for the final installment of the Gospel Identity Crisis series.



The Politics of Hunger

ANTI-HUNGER ACTIVIST: Rev. David Beckmann.

David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World and the recent winner of the 2010 World Food Prize. In addition to being an anti-hunger activist, he is a Lutheran minister and an economist who formerly worked at the World Bank. His latest book is Exodus from Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger. UrbanFaith columnist Christine Scheller interviewed Rev. Beckmann about his work, hunger in the African American community, and why we should be aware of the federal policies that influence issues of poverty in America.

URBAN FAITH: Congratulations on the World Food Prize. What are your thoughts about the selection?

DAVID BECKMANN: I think it recognizes what Bread for the World’s network of people and churches have done to reduce hunger in our country and around the world.

I saw that you’re the first clergy member who was chosen. Did you serve in parish ministry before you went to work for the World Bank?

I served briefly as a parish pastor but my call when I was ordained was to be a missionary economist, to connect Christian faith and moral teaching to economics, especially poverty.

I’m always interested in what motivates people. How did you get interested in hunger and poverty issues?

I grew up in a Christian home and my parents cared about people in need. My dad was really concerned about making democracy work. But then I was a student in the late 1960s and that was a time when African American neighborhoods across the country were angry and when our government was supporting a lot of developing country governments that didn’t seem to be doing right for their people. Being a young man at that time made me start asking questions about how we can get our country to do what it should do to address justice issues, poverty issues especially, in our country and around the world. So that really was a turning point. Since I was a boy, I thought I might be a Christian minister. As I got into the policy and politics of poverty, it seemed to me that underlying the lack of political will to do something about poverty was a lack of spiritual commitment. So for me it has always made sense that it’s God, politics, hunger, and poverty.

I tend to think that living in the United States, hunger is more invisible. How has it changed you working for the World Bank and Bread for the World?

What’s most striking is that the world as a whole has made remarkable progress against hunger, poverty and disease. I believe in God and I see that hundreds of millions of people have escaped from poverty in places like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Brazil and Britain. That’s why, for me, it makes sense that this is God moving in our history. And then I come back to the U.S.A. where we haven’t made any progress against hunger and poverty since about 1973 and it informs, I think, the U.S. situation. If Brazil and Bangladesh can reduce poverty, it’s clear that we could do it in the U.S. We just haven’t tried for a while. But we did try as a nation. In the ’60s and the early ’70s, we had economic growth and we had a concerted effort under both Johnson and Nixon to reduce hunger and poverty and we cut poverty in half. So it’s doable here too. … I think the fact that we work on world poverty and domestic poverty together makes it all much clearer that our problem in this country is lack of commitment.

I saw on Bread for the World’s website that one-quarter of African Americans live in poverty. Does that sound right to you?

That’s right and its worse for kids. Thirty-six percent of [African American] kids live in poverty.

Do African Americans have the highest rates of poverty and hunger in the U.S.?

Yes, they’re similar to Latino numbers but for kids it’s even worse for African Americans. For Latino kids its 33 percent.

What do you attribute these high figures to?

I think it’s very feasible to reduce hunger and poverty in this country, but it requires political change and that political change won’t happen without the leadership of African American people. Of course, we’re already getting a lot of leadership from African American people, but it’s got to be stronger.

In what way?

Well, for example, the election of November 2nd is really important. This is important for all of us, but it’s especially important to hungry and poor people.

So African Americans need to vote.

People need to vote. They need to get their family members to vote. They need to get people in the neighborhood to vote. After the election, they need to stay involved. In December, Congress is going to finalize the Child Nutrition bill and they’re going to decide on tax credits for the working poor. In all the debate about taxes, all the focus is on the top 2 percent [of income earners] but the current provisions for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit also expire at the end of the year. If we don’t maintain those tax rules, it will push a million more kids into poverty next year. Both those decisions are being made in December, but they’re not even in the newspaper. So I think virtually everybody in the African American community knows what the Earned Income Tax Credit is and I think through organizations like Bread for the World, African American people can become active in ongoing advocacy on poverty and hunger issues. But I think that the extent of ongoing advocacy on these issues is really pretty weak.

In the African American community?

Yes. A typical pattern is that members of Congress that are sympathetic come to visit, and the pastor [in an African American Church] may be active, but it’s the people who need to be mobilized to push their senators and representatives on an ongoing basis on these issues. That’s weak in the whole population.

Do you think that part of that has to do with the fact so many African Americans are living in poverty and dealing with the stresses of just trying to put food on the table?

Sure, people are busy with their own lives, but it’s also that middle class African Americans could do a lot more because maybe middle class African American people have a sister-in-law or somebody who’s in poverty. They know what it’s about. Also, I think they could speak from their own experience or their relatives’ experience and they speak with a passion. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also self interest and that changes the conversation. Of course African Americans are doing a lot already, but I think we have an opportunity right now to change politics in a way that will result in substantial help for people in need during the economic crisis. And then as the economy recovers, we can see dramatic progress against hunger and poverty. If there is really an opportunity now, it’s probably because Obama is in the White House, and he’s made important commitments to hungry and poor people. But he just can’t get it done unless Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, help to support and shape his proposals and get them into law. This is the time. It’s not just because of Obama. In fact, in general voter attitudes are more sympathetic to poor people in this country then they were ten or fifteen years ago.

Do you think that’s because so many people are struggling?

I think Welfare Reform did more harm than good, but one piece of good it did was it changed the attitudes of Americans. If we look at voter surveys even before the recession, the idea that people are poor because they’re lazy was much stronger in the early ’90s than it was even before the recession. Now with the recession, everybody knows somebody who is poor through no fault of their own. So voter attitudes are more favorable than they’ve been since the ’60s.

ON THE WORLD STAGE: Rev. Beckmann rubs shoulders with U2's Bono and other high-profile activists who target global poverty, but his latest mission is to shine a light on the hidden hunger of the domestic poor.

Bread for the World’s website cites stats that say the federal government spends roughly $760 billion a year through programs and the tax code and 12 percent of that goes to programs directed at low-income individuals. That’s a pretty good percentage of the budget. Many of us want to help people in poverty but are concerned about being able to sustain these programs. How do we balance these concerns?

My own view is that the most important thing in terms of reducing the government deficit is economic growth, so I think it is premature to cut spending. Right now we need to have credible plans to balance the budget over the next few years, but when unemployment is 10 percent, there’s a lot of factory capacity that’s not being used. This is not the time to cut spending.

When we do have to make cuts, and we will, then the big-ticket items are taxes. Our total tax rates, in fact, are lower than they’ve been since the 1950s. That’s really striking to me. … And then, three items take up one-fifth of our spending each. The military is one-fifth, Social Security is one-fifth and health care is one-fifth. All the spending programs that benefit people in need — all kinds, not just poor and hungry people, but disabled people, unemployed people — all that’s 18 percent. So I just think from an ethical point of view, when we’ve got to cut, we’ve got to go for the big things and that is higher taxes. I think we can trim the military budget without affecting our security. We’ve got to trim Social Security spending for upper and middle class people. In my judgment, those programs for people in need should be preserved. We should work hard to just make them as effective as they can be, but that is not the place to cut.

Do you think it’s a harder sell right now to get middle class support for things like continuing the Earned Income Tax Credit?

People are concerned about the deficit. Almost everybody’s taken some hit. So people are also concerned about themselves and their families.

But you’re saying it’s counterproductive to our ultimate good not only for the people who are in poverty but for those who are not?

Right. We can’t have a robust recovery if a large fraction of our population is in financial crisis. I don’t know if you know people who get [tax credits] but they reward work, so if you’re just sitting you don’t get it. You have to go out and get a minimum wage job, or you work at Applebee’s and you get a part time job. As you know, they won’t employ you full time. For low wage workers, many of the jobs available are part time and irregular. It’s hard to hold three jobs if you have a job at Applebee’s because your schedule changes every two weeks. How do you hold a second job? For people who are on the edges of the job market, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit bump up their wages a little bit so they can support their kids.

You said that ceasing these programs would push a million more people into poverty. Can you unpack that briefly?

During the stimulus package, they made some enhancements in the tax credits, so that’s what expires, not the entire tax credit. But the other issue that’s also [being voted on] in December is the Child Nutrition Act. One in four American children lives in a household now that runs out of food and one in three African American kids lives in a household that runs out of food. If we’re trying to manage this economic crisis, we want to manage it in a way that doesn’t allow two year olds to go without adequate nutrition because if those two year old kids don’t eat properly, that does permanent damage to those kids. They will never be as productive and creative as God meant them to be. So we should pass a strong [Child Nutrition Act]. It would improve school lunches and strengthen the programs that reach low income kids with food. And then the other issue is the Senate saying, “Okay, let’s do a little of those things, but let’s take the money from Food Stamps.” Seventy percent of the households that get Food Stamps have kids. So we ought to have a strong Child Nutrition Act that does not cut Food Stamps. It’s the right thing; it’s the economic thing. …It was Milton Friedman’s idea. Ronald Reagan loved the Earned Income Tax Credit because the incentives go towards work. But there are people, especially young workers, who are way on the fringes of the job market and so they’re working, but their kids will not eat if we let it just be dependent on what they can bring home from the wage checks.

You’ve written a number of books, so what is your goal with Exodus from Hunger?

The basic message of the book is the same message we are talking about. I’m struck by the progress that the world has made against poverty and hunger. I think that can encourage people. It’s written especially to people who are spiritually grounded in some way. I do think that when people realize that hundreds of millions of people have escaped from extreme poverty, if we think of that in religious terms, this is a great liberation; this is the Exodus of our time. It encourages us to think about our own country and think, “Well, let’s get with the program!” This is something God wants us to do. The second message of the book is that God is calling us to change the politics of hunger because the need is especially great right now, but the opportunities are also very clear. We can do a lot, but we can’t food bank our way to the end of hunger.

That is a great quote.

It’s true. All of the food that we provide through food charities amounts to about 6 percent of the food that poor people get from the federal food programs: food stamps and school lunches and so forth. What we do through charity is really important, but the churches and charities cannot fix this problem. We’ve got to get the government to provide leadership and we have clear opportunities right now. People are kind of wailing about the dysfunction of our politics, but in fact Congress and the president have done a lot for poor people over the last couple years…. I just think God has put it on a plate in front of us. We can make changes.

We live in a very powerful country that has worldwide impact. It really is a democracy, so it puts a call to the faithful to get off the couch, right now! I hope we don’t have one in three African American kids hungry ten years from now. There is no reason for that. Forget everything else; we know how to feed kids. We can feed kids without distorting incentives and stuff. We allow one in three African American kids to go hungry; it’s a decision that this society has made. It’s clear that there’s an important leadership role to play in changing the politics of hunger. I think God is telling all of us to get with the program, but we really need the energetic leadership of African American people of faith.

Bread for the World is sponsoring Harvest for the World: Exploring Strategies to End Hunger with the African-American Church, a two-day dialogue at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago on November 4-5, 2010. The goal of the event is to highlight anti-hunger and anti-poverty work of the African American church in the greater Chicago area. For more information or to RSVP, contact Kristen Youngblood at [email protected] or (202) 464-8123