I find Facing Race to be both rejuvenating and activating. It offers an all-too-rare environment in which institutionalized racism is the start of conversation, rather than the end. Bringing together co-laborers from many facets of justice work helps reveal new growth edges and best-practices to spur the work ahead.
No organization or event is above critique, but I appreciate Race Forward's intentionality in planing and executing their conference. They value intersectionality, weaving together the many aspects of identity and culture that impact our lives. For example, they offer lists of wage-responsible restaurant choices, gender neutral restrooms, sliding-scale registration (though I did hear some observations ableism at the conference). Overall, the message is that you don't have to choose which aspect of your identity you will prioritize during your time at the conference.
|Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon|
After a hard summer, Rinku Sen's reminders of the many good things that Race Forward and others have accomplished was helpful. She reminded us about the progress against Stop-and-Frisk in New York, and the success in getting AP to 'drop the I-word.' She affirmed to her audience the belief that talking about race is what helps eliminate it, not keeping it silent and ignoring the problem. Namely, we must face it.
I attended several Research and Policy breakout sessions, particularly with regard to education and housing. For me, a pressing question is whether the massive inertia of gentrification can be combated, even when a neighborhood sees it coming many years in advance. How do we transform communities into opportunity-rich neighborhoods, while making sure that everyone that wants to stay can stay?
Jason Reece of the Kirwan Institute spoke about the importance of community land trusts and affordable senior housing, reminding us as well that one's zip code is more predictive of health outcomes than is one's DNA. He also emphasized the importance of the upcoming disparate-impact case before the US Supreme Court, noting that when it comes to equitable housing we have a long legacy of skillfully obscuring intent.
With regard to education, Sharon Davies, also of Kirwan, asserts that “a lot of learning comes from students with different backgrounds sitting in the classroom together" and that "we must acknowledge race as an important value in the composition of incoming classes.” Similarly,Marc Nivet of the Association of American Medical Colleges observed how universities' obsession with ranking combines with racial disparities in standardize testing to create a no-win scenario for students of color. He insists that "excellent institutions aren't those that admit already-great students [by inequitable standards]; it’s the ones that transform students into greatness."
I was also re-convicted at this conference of the power of storytelling as a central tool for racial justice. There were several workshops along these lines, but Melinda Weekes-Laidlow and Yavilah McCoy's session on faith and racial justice reminded me again of the importance of sharing our narratives as means of building multi-faith coalitions.
Nevertheless, I left the conference wondering what the role of Christianity is and should be in these contexts. There were certainly many people of faith present of all races (including several representatives from UMC's GCORR). Indeed, non-white-Christian people of faith were great assets, with Muslim activists and black Christians both playing prominent roles in workshops and plenaries. But I couldn't help but muse over the disconnect in the white Church (especially, but not limited to, the Evangelical white church) and how uneasy many white Christians would have been at this conference. The discomfort is important. Would that the white Church be more willing to experience it.
In my observation, churches do not avail themselves of the rich resources of the secular justice world nearly enough. And perhaps vice versa. There is a skepticism that impedes the cross-pollination of wisdom unless the people, organizations, and ideas pass a set of unwritten standards for being 'appropriate'. I wonder how many of the brilliant plenary speakers and workshop leaders would even be welcome within church walls.
The impending irrelevance that churches so fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the world observes the hearts and actions of God's people. Rather than leading the way for justice and reconciliation, the white Church plays an ongoing charade of catch up. Religious motivations have been the cause of so much hurt and prejudice that there is much distrust to overcome if we are to participate in any meaningful change. Nevertheless, I continue to firmly believe in the tremendous potential of the body of Christ to usher in a new era of justice for the sake of the Gospel.