Monday, January 09, 2012

Race, Religion, and Wealth in Our Nation's Capital

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a meeting of the Washington, DC, area Council of Churches.  In attendance was District of Columbia mayor Vincent Gray. In part, I was there to provide greater Quaker representation in the group, but also to observe the pertinent issues brought up during what was billed as an informal chat.  Before I bowed my head for an introductory prayer, I knew that very different perspectives and priorities from my own would be brought to light. Without direct experience of my own, it was sometimes challenging to completely comprehend the issues upon which so many placed a heavy emphasis.

Viewing the debate that transpired without introducing the specter of race is impossible. Washington is, like many American cities, divided by class, ethnicity, income, and level of education. The affluent, Northwest quadrant of the District is predominately white. The Eastern section has long been economically impoverished and majority black. There are other separating factors, as well. Several of these areas were scarred by the results of riots which occurred in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Other areas were decimated by the crack epidemic of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Washington, DC, could nearly be two separate cities. The workforce and population of the wealthier sections are often transient, infrequently inclined to put down roots and stay. Some arrive knowing that they’ll only be living there a year or two at most. Their places of employment are often with the Federal Government or perhaps on Capitol Hill. The revolving door effect among the privileged complicates leadership efforts and continuity at churches and Meetings like mine. The less fortunate quadrants, by contrast, have been home to generations of long-term residency and correspondingly entrenched generations of dire poverty.

Returning to the immediate, I sat in a room for an hour and a half with around fifteen fellow people of faith.  After introductions and appropriate blessings, most of the meeting was comprised of an involved question and answer session with the Mayor. A theme quickly developed and found its way into every item raised before the group. The predominately African-American audience came back, time and time again, to the same issue. Our children and young people are out of control.  What can we do about it?  

Numerous city government programs, some more intensive than others, were noted during the discussion.  Most involved a dual focus on education and civic involvement, the earlier in life, the better.  Each had its strengths and weaknesses and both were thoroughly debated. While answering a question from the audience, Gray revealed a philosophy of black leadership more in line with Barack Obama than Jesse Jackson. The Mayor stated that he believed in the welfare reform law of 1996, which was a product of a Democratic President and a Republican-controlled Congress. The assertion went surprisingly unchallenged among a core constituent group, one which the law expressly targeted.   

Predictable arguments and tired talking points were blessedly not found. Nearly everyone was in agreement that they were dealing with a very new problem. When answers are few, people often return to the old standards.  Going back to church or to religion has been long used as a solution for anxious parents. This was true with my own. What most seemed to believe is that a new epidemic among African-American youth rages largely unrestrained.   

By this, they meant rude, violent, and undisciplined conduct. Underscoring the point, one older woman noted that she, unlike many of her age, was not afraid of young people. Regardless of the complexities of the issue, it was agreed that church groups in DC needed to offer more open-door outreach to urban youth of color.

Issues like these are important, but they could not be more different than the priorities and decisions facing my house of worship. Accordingly, the discussion broke down politely along color lines at several junctures.  Outreach strategies described above were only one such distinction. Though only a few miles separate us, the world where I worship on Sundays seems in some ways like a foreign country. Our attitudes regarding systemic problems are not nearly as complex and aggressive.  

For us, the results of poverty are often what we read about in the news or are things that happen to other people. I have been highly critical of a navel-gazing focus on the self and on self-achievement more than unselfish group effort. Wealthy DC attitudes are rarely those of servant-led leadership.
Instead of trying to draw at-risk young people into churches and houses of worship for highly structured educational programs, we struggle with getting young Quakers to even regularly show up.  We contribute our time and sometimes our money to low-income residents, but I doubt we have a single low-income member. The worries of many Quaker parents at my Meeting are often whether or not they can afford to send their child to private school. And so long as these glaring gaps remain, matters will remain unsolved.  Though these issues seem new, they could not be more ancient.  

In this very city, not ten miles away from where I write these words, Abraham Lincoln spoke about the irony of separation. He was speaking of two warring sections of the country, but he might have been addressing us today. “Both read the same Bible,” Lincoln noted, “and pray to the same God.” Our original sin of slavery is at fault, but as time has passed, it would be simplistic and a fallacy to think that the issue stopped there. We must keep in mind the past, the present, and the future as we fix the problems that lay before us.  

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