Why starving brown skinned children frighten us: Confronting the Racism at the Heart of our Immigration Debate

unaccompanied immigrant children

It would be hard to have not had immigration and borders on your mind at some time in the last few weeks. With the arrival of a throng of scared, dirty, hungry, and thirsty children at the southern borders of the United States plastered across TV screens, newspapers, and the internet, everyone has been talking about “How should we respond to these children at our borders?”

immigrationOn the one side, we have people saying “they are children, for God’s sake. We cannot turn a blind eye. Let’s welcome them in, harbor them, give them safe passage”. On the other side, we have people saying the law is the law. These children’s parents are irresponsible. They should never have sent them here as it is — what can we do with them but send them back?

Murrieta_ProtestersWorst of all, we have had people screaming “go home” meeting these children on the border with guns and American flags waving who, I think, really don’t express the best motives of those involved on both sides but, instead, the long-running fear of outsiders who are of black and brown skin that have permeated the southern states since their inception. This irrational fear of those of black and brown skin is what led to the Jim Crow laws in the southeast following the American attempt at reconstruction there following the Civil War. It also motivated the horrible mistreatment of Native Americans all over the southern states, on both coasts. It motivated the concentration camps we Americans tossed Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens into in California in the time surrounding World War II. And it is part of why our criminal justice system in the southern states is clogged to capacity with a majority of people of color, while white people commit as many and as heinous crimes on average. The threats and threatening behavior to these poor, scared children is an expression of the collective guilt we southern whites share over our treatment of people of color in slavery, in Jim Crow, and in the forceful theft of Native American lands, which instead of bubbling up in contrition and an attempt at amends instead bubbles up in a hatred and fear of those who we deem as “not American enough” which really means “not white enough”.

Downtown in Lumberton, NC.

Downtown in Lumberton, NC.

I saw this when I lived in Robeson County, North Carolina, while pastoring Painted Skies Christian Ministries, a short lived intentionally multi-racial, multi-cultural welcoming and affirming church. Robeson County is deeply divided along racial lines. I remember while shopping in its old-fashioned downtown district having a resident who was alive in Jim Crow years tell me how when he was a child, he could not even go downtown. Though Robeson County’s population is predominantly Native American, during Jim Crow the local authorities did not allow anyone but white people to even walk through and shop in the downtown district of Lumberton, the county seat, without them being arrested.

A Pow-Wow in Robeson County held by the Lumbee tribe.  Pow-wow's are traditional celebrations of tribal culture for Native American tribes.

A Pow-Wow in Robeson County held by the Lumbee tribe. Pow-wow’s are traditional celebrations of tribal culture for Native American tribes.

Even though Jim Crow had officially ended, while I pastored in Robeson County I saw the community still be very racially divided down as to where people lived, and even who people dated and married. I remember distinctively a young Native American lady I worked with at a non-church job I worked in order to support my ministry, who was encouraged to stay with an abusive boyfriend rather than a very loving and supportive male friend she wanted to date because the one who treated her well was black, and dating him would be “moving down” in status in her family’s eyes due to his race. I also remember when Barack Obama became president a biracial member of our church telling me, with shock and horror, how white members of her family were saying they were frightened Barack Obama would move them onto plantations, make them pick cotton, and have them as mistreated as they and their ancestors had treated people of color.

Though I don’t think most white southerners are so overt in describing their fears about race, or how they bubble up into racist actions and behaviors, it would be unrealistic to say that we are not influenced by this in our dialogue about issues in the south. Do any of us honestly believe that the resistance Barack Obama faced from white southern voters and their representatives in congress would have been nearly as extreme if he were, like Bill Clinton or George Bush before him, a white southerner? To put it another way, if he was white and named “Barry Smith”, how many people would have been flooding Congress with requests to see the president’s birth certificate?

mandelaquoteIn future blog posts, I hope to talk about what Scripture says about our relationship to immigrants is, and about what it says about borders specifically. But before we can discuss the issue of borders and immigration we have to think for a moment about this lingering legacy of racism, which is expressed in southern white culture’s fear of black and brown skinned people as “other”, as ones who pose a threat to white culture, which we like to pretend is “American culture”.

I’d like to recommend as a resource the following website, which includes a series of radio presentations on the continuing legacy of racism not just in the south but throughout the United States: http://bringingdownthenewjimcrow.com/ This series, coming out of Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow, uses real life stories and interviews to illustrate various dimensions of how racism continues to shape not just American culture but policy in ways that structurally harm people of color. A number of programs connect the issues being faced by African American people in the US with those being face by people of Hispanic descent.

As Christians, racism is not OK. More than that, it is a grievous sin.  It is a denial of the promise of Genesis 1 that all people are made in the image of God. Its a denial of Galatians 3 that in Christ neither gender, class, or race ought to define who people are in the sense of how they are treated. This is not color-blindness. Rather it is a recognition that people’s culture is beautiful and a gift of God. Acts 17 tells us that God is at work in the histories of every people. This means instead of fearing people of other cultures and skin colors, we need to learn to work past our fears in order to learn to embrace people different than ourselves in their differences as gifts of God. In each person’s story, in their culture, in their gifts and talents, there is a reflection of who God is that could not be visible to us without them just as they are. This is why Psalm 139 teaches us to praise God we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Yet racism is insidious.

Rev. Curtis May, doing a presentation for "Office of Reconcilation and Mediation", near Los Angeles, CA.

Rev. Curtis May, doing a presentation for “Office of Reconcilation and Mediation”, near Los Angeles, CA.

It, like ogres in the above clip, is a multi-layered thing. The Office of Reconciliation and Mediation  defines racism as prejudice put to power; and lists racism as not existing on the conscious level where we are aware of it, but also including unaware racism, cultural Racism, stereotyping, internalized racism, institutionalized racism, and denial of racism.

Confronting our own racism and working to change is a difficult journey. I’d recommend groups such as the ministry I mentioned above, The Southern Poverty Law Center , and the Racial Equity Institute , as beginning places to find resources toward working to confront your own personal racism and also discovering what steps you can take to help share in the task of working to build a less racist society.

If you live in or are willing to make the commute to the Carolinas, I’d invite you to consider taking the anti-racism classes the Racial Equity Institute offers in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. There are details about these training conferences available at Organizing Against Racism.

dinner-table-l

Our world provides enough resources that who is welcome at the family table of resources should not be limited by color of skin. There is more than enough for everyone.

A final problems is that this racist fear leads us to embrace the idea that there will not be enough. Yet the Biblical call is for us to work to build a world where there is more than enough for everyone.

The prophet Micah, who my parents named me after, spoke of this when he envisioned a day in which “But everyone shall sit under their vine and under their fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

This is what the early Christian community lived out in Acts:
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need…All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had… There were no needy persons among them. “ (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-34)

To work for a world in which there are “no needy persons among” us because all have as they need is grounded for Christians in the hope and promise of the Holy Spirit, whom Psalm 104 promises us enlivens the world in such a way that there is always more than enough, if we but choose to redistribute it with justice and compassion:

“God causes the grass to grow for the cattle,
And vegetation for the service of human beings,
That they may bring forth food from the earth,
And wine that makes glad their hearts,
Oil to make their faces shine,
And bread which strengthens their hearts…

The earth is full ..

You may give them their food in due season.

What You give them they gather in;

You open Your hand, they are filled with good...

You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
And You renew the face of the earth.”

one familyThe lie the lingering slave-holder mentality in the south has taught us is that this is a utopian dream, that the call of the prophets and of Jesus to build a world where there is enough for all is impossible.  Its lie is that God is so callous that the Spirit does not fill the earth with good well enough that, if we share that good with justice and compassion, generously and fairly, there will be enough for all. Instead racism teaches us to believe we must settle for protecting “our own”, having others be in a place of want or powerlessness so people “like us” can thrive.

This in reality is not true.

A 2013 study already shows that, just in the area of nutrition, we already produce enough as a world that no one ought to grow hungry:
“The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day according to the most recent estimate that we could find (FAO 2002, p.9). ”
(Taken from http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm )
The Holy Spirit is filling the world with good, with more than enough for all.  The problem is not that there is not enough to provide for us and others. The problem is the way in which our society’s methods of distributing money, power, and resources remain wedded to greed, prejudice, and fear in ways that keep the bulk of food, money, and power in the hands of the few.

I think this is at the heart of Jesus’ rarely followed and often explained away teaching “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”” (Mattthew 19:21).  Jesus knows the reason for poverty is not that there is not enough, but that its kept in the hands of just a few.  So Jesus calls us all to reconsider the ways in which we may prop up this status quo with our choices, and invites us to find ways to do our part in leveling our society’s playing field.

To bring real change to this, we need to trust the promise there is more than enough for all of us.  We need to find ways to let go of our fear of others, and begin to open up to share God’s blessing with all.  To change the structures of our society so that wealth and power aren’t hoarded in the hands of a few along largely racial lines requires confronting the specter of racism.  It begins with me.  It begins with you.
When we begin in our own stumbling way to answer this call, we will go a long way to living out the late Vincent Harding’s invitation, included in this clip, to build a better world:

Let’s do it together!
And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
your progressive redneck preacher,
Micah

micah pic

 

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2 thoughts on “Why starving brown skinned children frighten us: Confronting the Racism at the Heart of our Immigration Debate

  1. […] my earlier blog about the crisis we face on the borders of our southern states, I explored how racism leads white […]

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