Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Combating Racism/Sexism

The Society of Christian Ethics (SCE) held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, and I was happy to be able to attend it again, as I did last year in New Orleans.
One of the enjoyable things about going to academic meetings such as the SCE is seeing old friends and acquaintances, even though since I spent most of my career in Japan I don’t know very many of the people at such gatherings here in the U.S.
Two of the people I did enjoy seeing again this year were graduate school friends and colleagues of my daughter Karen. Miguel De La Torre and Stacey Floyd-Thomas were in the Ph.D. program with her at Temple University, and both of them were speakers in the same session I attended last Friday.
Miguel De La Torre
Miguel is a Cuban-American, and he talked at some length about the prejudice and mistreatment of Cubans-Americans (and Latinos/as in general) in the U.S. Stacey is African-American, and she talked, also at some length, about the prejudice and mistreatment of African-Americans in general and especially of African-American women. But in spite of the odds against them, Miguel and Stacey have become two of the most prominent members of the SCE.
Those who attended the SCE meeting this year, as every year, were perhaps close to 80% white American males. But Miguel, who is a professor at Illif Theological Seminary, was elected president of the SCE for the coming year. And Stacey, a professor of Vanderbilt Divinity School, is currently serving as the Executive Director of the SCE.
In spite of their minority status Miguel and Stacey are in positions that by far most of the “privileged” white males will never find themselves in. And they are certainly deserving of the positions they hold in the SCE, for they are outstanding scholars—and outstanding human beings.
Thus, it is obvious that some people can and do rise above the discriminatory structures of society. Miguel and Stacey are prime examples of that. Miguel shared some about the struggles of his mother, an illiterate Cuban woman, in this country. But he has become a widely respected scholar and ethicist, attested to by the fact that he is now the SCE president.
I certainly agree, though, with Miguel and Stacey in what they say about the entrenched prejudice against people of color, against people of recent immigrant families, and against women. And I appreciate the work they are doing to combat that prejudice.
In spite of people such as Miguel and Stacey, why are a disproportionate number of the homeless, unemployed, and financially struggling people in this country people who in race, gender, and ethnicity are the same as these outstanding scholars? The lingering deep-seated prejudice toward Blacks, Hispanics, and women is, no doubt, one of the foremost reasons.
Can only a very select few, people with outstanding intellect and character traits such as are evident in Miguel and Stacey, overcome the odds against them? Perhaps. That is why we need to join them and other like-minded people in continuing to work against the entrenched racism and sexism in a society that continues to be characterized by white (and male) privilege.


  1. In my experience, bigotry cuts all ways and few are immune, although most would discount their personal bigotry and point to another’s. The varieties are numerous and very real – color, religion, nationality, size, politics, sex, education, class, etc. – all cutting all ways, frequently with “valid” rationales. Like you, I have experienced it, and know that I have been guilty at times. At heart, most people seem to be self-preservationists who may not need much of an excuse. Proactive bridge builders are needed. I applaud those who do so.

  2. My esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky who often comments wrote the following in an e-mail received this morning:

    "A important question, Leroy. Others can gain relief from their situations only if Americans have a change of heart and elect people to office who have more humane sensitivities."

  3. Leroy, it is good to be reminded that America is (still?) a meritocracy in certain fields, and that gender or ethnicity or race or social connections are less important than merit. But I would like to raise awareness of one particular category of persons we rarely find accepted into the mainstream — ex-offenders, especially if they have been convicted of sexual assault. My volunteer work at Lansing prison in Kansas put me in contact with convicted drug dealers, murderers, drunken drivers, sex offenders and pedophiles. When these guys serve their (official) sentences and are released, they often find they have a "life" sentence unofficially, because of their inability to be accepted back into the human community. This may be the downside of meritocracy: — if instead of exhibiting exemplary behavior, you commit crimes, a society based solely on merit will push you to the bottom and keep you there. Where will an affirmative action initiative for the "least of these, my brethren" come from?

  4. A Thinking Friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote a rather lengthy e-mail questioning whether there is really extensive racism/sexism in contemporary USAmerican society.

    This TF wrote that on two college campuses which he knew about quite well, hiring and promotion there "has favored minorities, with no consideration of merit. If these patterns are at all typical, this is at least one sector of the 'economy' where traditional discrimination doesn't exist (and where, conservatives complain, reverse discrimination exists)."

    He also wrote that he "served four years active duty in the military and two years in the reserves" many years ago, but he "saw no evidence of discrimination in the military."

    To give just one other example (there are several more), this TF wrote, "High unemployment today affects males worse than it does females. How does this fit into the traditional model of discrimination?"

  5. I responded to the comments of the Thinking Friend whose comments are given above, saying in part:

    Consider the U.S. Senate. There have been only seven black senators ever, and only one now. There are two Latinos at present but there have been only seven ever--and no women. There are currently 17 women Senators, and none of them are black. While this does not "prove" prejudice, it does speak of white male privilege, it seems to me.

    And then these statistics about household income in 2009: Looking at income below $30,000, a very small income for living in our society now, 28.4% of Whites are in that position. But there are 39% of the Hispanic households and 45.8% of the Black household below $30.000. Of course, that also does not prove that those incomes are as they are because of prejudice, but it doesn't sound as if there is complete equality either.

  6. Here is part of the TF's response to my comments posted above:

    "What about white males and political office (with the Senate as an illustration)? Again, this is an important and complex matter. What influence do wealth and education play in access to political office? Are the two parties deliberately set up to exclude women, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians? I doubt it. How many women (or blacks, or Hispanics) compete for political office? Why so few? How does gerrymandering perpetuate a system that keeps political power restricted to the privileged? Would it be better to have slots in the Senate that reserve a certain number of seats to people based on the recent census distribution of women, blacks, Hispanics, etc.?"

  7. And here is a fairly brief response to the difficult questions posed above:

    I think it is rather certain that wealth and education are very significant in helping people achieve political office—and especially wealth. I also doubt that there is any deliberate attempt by either political party to deliberately exclude women.

    But why is there so much inequality in wealth in U.S. society? And in spite of the fact that women are surpassing men in higher education now, why is the number of women who hold political office so disproportionately low?

    My guess is there are so few Blacks/Latinos/women competing for political office because most know it would be highly unlikely they would be elected.

    I don’t think, though, that having quotas would be a good thing. Rather, I think we need to work for a society where there is a “level playing field,” making it possible for there to be the “natural” election of office-holders that roughly represent the racial/ethnic/gender composition of society.

  8. Here are a brief response to the Phil's comments above:

    Phil, this an important issue that you raise, and one that is very difficult. There is always so much fear that convicted criminals will repeat their crimes--as many do, of course. This is certainly an area that disciples of Jesus need to consider seriously and to work at in order for there to be more forgiveness/acceptance of offenders. Of course, the Amish have often shown a willingness to forgive that is largely unknown in society as a whole.