The election of an African American president has stirred excitement, but a leading black theologian says visions of a “postracial” America are premature and misguided.
At the root of her theology, says M. Shawn Copeland, is the pursuit of the question: What is the best, the most worthwhile way to live? While Christians understand that the reign of God is not an achievable result of human endeavors, we are called to make the world around us “our best hope this side of the reign of God.”
For Copeland that charge includes working for political transformation in service to the common good. She told last year’s Convention for the Common Good in Philadelphia, “It is only through the gift of grace realized in human lives and hearts that we can meet the effects of sin with healing and creative solidarity. We here are a little yeast.”
One way in which she works to increase the growth of this “little yeast” is through the teaching of an innovative service learning course at Boston College that combines social service or advocacy work with the study of philosophy and theology.
Copeland is one of today’s leading black theologians and in her most recent research has focused on the exploitation of black women and the lessons from their experiences for discipleship today.
She challenges Christians to let openness to and acceptance of the power of the Spirit lead us to become “more daring in our love of neighbor.”
Since Barack Obama’s election, there has been talk about a new “postracial” era. Some have quoted his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention: “There’s no black America. There’s no white America. There’s only the United States of America.” Is America becoming postracial?
That is wishful thinking. Certainly, given the history of the United States, Obama’s election has been a tremendously important step forward. But if you are asking me, is this “The end of white America?”—as a recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly put it—the answer is no. I don’t think this is the end of white America, and I don’t think this is the resurgence of black America, whatever those categories might mean.
The enormous disparities around race and poverty in this country not only persist, they’ve hardened.
I don’t think there’s virtue in working toward a postracial anything. We keep thinking if only we could get beyond race, everything would be fine. My best take on this is that we need to acknowledge our differences, but we should not absolutize them. That’s kind of tricky in this country. We want people to be individuals, but we consign those in certain social cultural groups to all the negative stereotypes about that group.
To a certain degree we need to talk about ourselves in terms of our racial identities. But can we simply acknowledge that and then get on to the next thing? Skin pigmentation is one of the least important things about anyone, but in this country we’ve made it the most important thing.
How is race still important today?
Just think about how we’re all congratulating ourselves that we elected somebody black as president. Did we all congratulate ourselves when we elected white men? No, we just took that for granted. But suddenly the election of a black man means, “Oh, aren’t we wonderful? We have solved our race problems.”
The writer James Baldwin said many years ago that if there ever were a black president, that person would still be crippled by the existing structures and relations of power, which determine the way we carry on both our government and our lives together. That’s the challenge for any real change.
So what impact can Obama have on race relations? If nothing else, his presidency should help us to confront our continuing racial stereotypes about people.
But is he going to be held up now as the exception to the rule, with the underlying message, “If only all of you could be like him?.?.?.”? Part of what’s blurring the question is not just his upbringing by a white mother and white grandparents but also the fact that his father was Kenyan, an international student here.
Obama’s story bears features of an immigrant story, it’s not the story of African slaves and their descendants. As an immigrant story, it is more compatible with the typical mainstream American story. But if taken as the norm, the immigrant story, even the one we celebrate within our Catholic story, is truncated because it forgets about all sorts of other people who are not immigrants or descendants of immigrants.
We need to get away from homogenizing what it means to be American. It just perpetuates the notion that the dominant white culture is the standard that others need to blend into.
Americans don’t know enough about our history to develop a more complex alternative story. We remain ignorant of the contributions that different groups have made to our way of life. And because we don’t know other stories, we dismiss them as unimportant and instead focus on just “getting along” with each other.
Race is still being used to manipulate poor white people, so they won’t realize that they have more in common with poor black people than they have with wealthy whites. And to say that black money isn’t green is to say that even affluent black people wind up finding that race remains an obstacle for them despite all their achievements.
The president himself has written how people tossed him their car keys at a restaurant because they thought he was the valet. So there are whole sets of assumptions that we’ve all been operating under for a very long time, and it’s going to take a very long time to undo them.
What’s the greatest danger of pretending we live in a postracial world?
We may want to believe that the ugliest kind of racism is history now, but it’s not, and it’s not going to go away any time soon.
The very night of the election four young men in New York set out to beat up and kill African Americans in retaliation for a black man being elected president. They assaulted at least two black people and one Hispanic man with a metal pipe and then ran their car over another man in a hooded sweatshirt, who they thought was black but who turned out to be white. He ended up in a coma for several days.
The vicious way in which we have dealt with race in this country has not yet been completely redirected. Nobody is born a racist. Nobody is born with these negative ideas and images. But we’ve been bombarded with them everywhere, and so we need to figure out how to unlearn them.
Does lingering racism then serve some kind of a positive role in exposing the continuing existence of hard edges in society?
I can’t really see anything positive in racism, but if we were to think seriously about how we wanted to live together, we would come to some different decisions.
We would begin by asking ourselves why we make the choices that we make educationally, why we make the choices that we make in our personal relations, why we make the choices of where and how we live. Why is it that we have resegregated our schools?
And we would need to reflect on the continuing parallel order of privilege and power and injustice that runs right alongside race.
Having a black president is not going to change any of that. We have to change that.
Martin Luther King’s dream has been coopted and turned first into the house with the two-car garage in the suburbs, and now into the presidency. I’m not so sure that this is really what King was hoping for. I think there was something far more prophetic going on in King’s analysis and his desire.
During the election last year you served on Obama’s Catholic Advisory Council. What led you to get so publicly involved?
What I appreciate first and foremost about Obama is his intelligence and thoughtfulness. He has a good sense of the larger world. He’s lived in other parts of the world, and members of his family come from various cultural and religious backgrounds.
Even though he was very young when he lived in Indonesia, often the experiences people have in their youth stay with them. It matters to me that he does not just operate out of a monolithic cultural perspective but that he’s had different influences. And some of them are outside of what we would consider American “mainstream” culture. That’s all the more important since in other parts of the world our country has been viewed so negatively in recent years.
I also like that he seems to have a lot of faith in the American people. Given the current crisis, that is really important.
Obama is not going to meet every plank in the Catholic political platform, but at the core of his political philosophy he has a deep concern for the common good, and I like that.
If we can help him and do our part as actively engaged citizens, then this could be a wonderful presidency.
What has Obama’s election meant to African American youth?
When you see black kids interviewed on TV, they’re excited. That the president looks like them is thrilling. For many of them, it’s reoriented their thinking about their own possibilities.
Part of Obama’s immigrant story is hard-scrabble and includes the fact that his mother was single and that they had to live for a time on food stamps. What his story is telling young people is that a better life is possible for them.
This better life, sometimes expressed as upward mobility, has been part of the national myth of the United States, that you’re not bound by the old strictures of power, that you’re not chained to your father’s occupation or to your mother’s condition. It’s the story of everyone who gets on a boat or plane or train and arrives here.
The fact of the matter is, though, that we have had a whole cast of people who actually were chained to their father’s occupation and their mother’s condition. For that group a better life or upward mobility has not been that easy. And we’ve got a whole other group, Native Americans, who have been stuck on reservations. Obama gives young people in those groups a chance to reorient.
One thing that struck me during the campaign was a poem from Langston Hughes. It’s called “Children’s Rhymes,” and it includes these lines:
By what sends
the white kids
I ain’t sent:
I know I can’t
It really made me laugh, because now these lines that Hughes captured in the ’30s—they’re what you’d sing when you’re jumping rope—are no longer true, and that’s pretty exciting.
Does Obama represent a new kind of role model for young African Americans?
Certainly. After his election he became every kid’s hero, even if part of it was just that he came across as young and cool.
One of the positive influences Obama could have for young people is in his challenge to parents to take responsibility for their children. Of course, this is not new; he’s reiterating what people have heard for a long time.
Your mother says to you, “You can be anything you want to when you grow up.” But then she also disciplines you to help you actually get there. Yes, you will meet barriers, but your mother or father or grandmother will help you develop the inner reserve and discipline to stick to your course in spite of what people are doing to you.
Michelle Obama’s mother once said about her daughter and son-in-law, “Look, these are not unusual people. They’re not extraordinary.” What she was saying was that the possibilities are all around us.
You can easily find many outstanding black professionals. Just snap your fingers in Chicago or Detroit or New York or Columbus or Cincinnati. They are all around you. It’s just that they were invisible to us, and now some of them have suddenly become more visible because of Obama.
Michelle Obama didn’t have an affluent life, but her parents figured out how to help her be disciplined enough so that she could attend the college she wanted to go to, so that she could have access to what she needed to pursue her dreams.
Catholics who are active in social justice talk about tackling “structural racism.” What does that mean to you?
If you want to talk about structural racism from a Catholic perspective, I would ask, what are we doing with our Catholic schools? Today there’s only one Catholic high school in the city of Detroit. So I’d want them to think about that.
And when did Catholic schools become reserved only for Catholics? What happened to the drive to evangelize through Catholic education that I experienced when I was in grade school?
If you want to change structures, you have to change people because people are responsible for creating the structures. Structures don’t just spring up out of nothing.
So the collapse of the Catholic school system has particularly affected black Catholics?
It has. It is one of the indicators that suggests that our church may not be creatively interested in the future of black Catholics.
I taught for a short time at St. Martin de Porres High School in Detroit, and the archdiocese wanted to close it. They were saying, “We could put up a community center and do some organized basketball.” But the parents’ response was, “Look, our kids are already playing basketball in our yards, we’ve already got a community center, what we need is education.”
So yes, the closing of our urban Catholic high schools is a big blow. And this kind of lack of attention to black Catholics has other parallels.
What would be another example?
One of the great tragedies in U.S. Catholic history is what happened at the Second Plenary Council in 1866 in Baltimore after the Vatican invited the bishops in the United States to take on evangelizing the freed slaves. In effect, nothing happened.
There was no plan, no preparation, no coordinated national response. A few bishops were attentive, but the bulk of the work of evangelizing black Catholics was left to religious orders—the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the Sisters of the Holy Family, and eventually the Josephites, the Spiritans, the Edmund-ites, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
That painful history is part of the reason why some black Catholics are smarting a bit today at the emphasis and attention to personnel and resources for evangelizing Latinos and Latinas.
This may be a matter of numbers, but when a cardinal (who is now deceased) tells me that black Catholics are “statistically insignificant” as a people, I have to ask: Since when did anybody’s soul become statistically insignificant?
So, if a century and a half ago we had figured out how to evangelize people, there would likely be a lot more black Catholics today and many more black priests and vowed religious as well.
I sometimes wonder why Barack Obama didn’t become Catholic, considering that he got his start in community organizing working with Catholic churches on the South Side of Chicago. Why didn’t a Catholic layperson or a priest get to him? I find that an intriguing question to think about.
Maybe Catholicism just didn’t appeal to him. Maybe that was not his gift. But if the Catholic Church in the 1860s had taken up the challenge to evangelize emancipated slaves, there might have been more black priests on the South Side of Chicago in the 1980s who could have encouraged the president-to-be to consider the Catholic faith. But we simply didn’t have them.
Has there been a failure of imagination in the American church’s approach to racial diversity?
Fundamentally it is about seeing different people and listening to different voices. If we think of ourselves as a universal church, we can’t be a uniform church.
We need to become more open to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is never selective about race. We are. The Holy Spirit is never selective about gender. We are. The Holy Spirit is never selective about sexual orientation. We are. These are our limitations, not God’s limitations.
Our lack of imagination is another main reason why we don’t have more black priests, bishops, or vowed religious today.
When I was a child, we had a black priest in our parish, a Spiritan. He was a young, energetic, and vibrant priest who was fun to be around. There was this natural interest in him in our community, and our parents had an immediate connection with him. People were able to relate to him as a human being, and that helped us experience the church as an extension of our family.
That personal connection nurtured black people’s desire for participation in the church. Today very few black Catholics have that opportunity.
We want young people to be able to become anything they want to be. We want them to be firefighters. We want them to be letter carriers and businesspeople and police officers. And, yes, we want them to be president. And if we want them to be priests or sisters, we’ve got to help them imagine it.
What does your Catholic faith mean to you personally?
I can’t imagine myself any other way. I can’t imagine not being Catholic. And I don’t want to imagine it. I really don’t. It’s part of who I am.
I know our church is not perfect. It’s deeply flawed in some ways, but there is something about it that I’m not willing to let go of, and I demand that it hold me.
But that is not to say that there have not been some bumps in the road for me as well. I used to be in a religious community, and I remember going to church in my habit. I was standing there waiting for the priest to give me Communion, and he was just staring at me because I was a new sight for him. He just didn’t know how to deal with a black nun.
I could tell you other stories, but I refuse to allow the church to be reduced to that. If I believed there was nothing beyond that, I would be out of here.
I don’t think the church exhausts God in any way, and I don’t think it exhausts even the Body of Christ, but I do think it has a power for good that is wholesome. I love the mystery of the church, the sacramental life of the church, and to me that means that God is holding it in some way.
This article appeared in the May issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 5, page 18).