By Stephen W. Hiemstra
This evening (6/3/2020) on the world news, we witnessed something almost unheard of—a Monday afternoon demonstration. We’ve seen unhappy people; we’ve seen riots; we never see Monday demonstrations—Saturday is the preferred day for demonstrations, because most demonstrators have to work. With forty million unemployed in the United States today and warm summer weather, weekday demonstrations may become more common.
Again this year, we find ourselves confronted with a Gethsemane moment. Will we turn to God or turn into our pain?
The Police Thing
Institutional failure is a tough nut to crack. If institutional racism were an easy problem to solve, it would have already happened.
We have two issues to deal with, one local and the other national.
Locally, police departments need to clear out the bad apples and deal
with institutional prejudice. A generation after eliminating
racial prejudices in law, spending billions of dollars on Great Society programs, and electing a black president, we still have a problem.
Nationally, America needs to wake up to the fact that local funding of
police is a problem in urban areas lacking an effective tax base. Shoestring financing leads to recruitment problems, cutting corners on training and toleration of bad apples. The same financial deficiency has given us broken school systems. National funding and leadership is needed to turn this around.
Progress and Resentment
Relatively few people today are overtly racist which is why the demonstrations we are seeing represent a wide demographic. Unlike in the sixties, today we have a large, black middle class. The racial epithets that were common in the sixties are no longer part of daily speech.
Still, the Amy Cooper incident last month in Central Park, NYC is a reminder that racism in America is no longer a holdover from the Jim Crow era in southern history. It may well be that the development of a black middle class has sparked resentment from other groups that have not progressed nearly so well in recent years.
Reconciliation requires true dialog where both parties listen to each other. Reconciliation is hard—good guy, bad guy attitudes have to go. Solutions to the problem of racism also need to include other disadvantaged groups not having so articulate a political following. Cities that have learned to reconcile have seen real progress that is absent in cities that have not.
The Example of Food Stamps
An example of a successful national program is found in the food stamp program. Self-service grocery stories cannot exist in areas where poor people cannot afford to eat because they are prone to shoplift. As supermarkets anchor many shopping centers and malls, the provision of food stamps actually services to spur development of more than just food stores.
Food stamps are funded nationally, but the benefits are local and do not advantage one minority group over another. Food stamps were originally sold to Congress as a subsidy to farmers, not as a public assistance measure. In the same way, scholarships to deserving urban and rural high school graduates are a subsidy to the college that they attend that are right now in need of financial support as foreign students have stopped coming because of the pandemic.
Looking Beyond the Race Issue
The usual response to broken police departments is to hire a black police
chief or buy some body cameras. This response is cheap and gives the appearance of change. As time passes, this response usually does not solve the problem of a lack of funding and institutional neglect.
The elephant in the room here is that the U.S. economy is not producing enough high-quality jobs for low-skilled workers. Even though we had record low unemployment as late as January 2020, many people—especially young people and minorities—remained stuck in dead-end jobs earning little more than the minimum wage. When the smoke clears, we will not go back to Saturday demonstrations until this problem is resolved.
Be an Ethical Voice
It is hard to offer an ethical voice in the current environment. What story would the Holy Spirit advise us to embrace if we took the time to ask in our current Gethsemane moment?
My ministry focus has been on serving the Hispanic community here in Northern Virginia since about 2012. Before that, I spent six months interning in Providence Hospital in northeast Washington DC—the only Medicare hospital in the District serving primarily African Americans that was closed last year. Both Hispanics here and African Americans in the District suffer from prejudice, which is obvious for all to see.
My hope that my volunteer work in Hispanic ministry and my writing in English and in Spanish will serve to bridge communities that do not normally communicate a lot. I cannot change the world, but I can change myself and be a catalyst for reconciliation for those around me.