A Tale of Two Robinsons

It took a little time to find Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America in my local Borders chain.  It might be because Borders itself is in backruptcy, and stocking fewer titles, and it might be because Vermont is either the first or second whitest state in the nation (I never saw those numbers from Maine).

But Vermont has one of the nation’s strongest records of caring about racial justice (and yes, there WERE slave-owners who had to dispossess and start paying when the state constitution was written) and all other things liberal.  We are comfortable with these beliefs — and in Disintegration, Robinson looks just as critically at liberal comfort zones as racist ones.

The first thing he does is challenge the whole concept of being anti-racist — among African-Americans.  Despite their growing rarity, we latch onto symbolic examples of egregious racism, he says, precisely because we have so few other unifiers across our newly-fragmented class positions.  On pages 23-24 of the hardcover edition, he quotes MacArthur fellow Charles Johnson as saying the single African-American narrative of group victimization has ended.  Telling his own story, Robinson, who is apparently in his fifties, says this leaves him in a strange place socially. He was formed for a certain community experience — nodding at every African American he passes on the street, for instance — which no longer applies.  As part of this, he spends several pages rebutting the commonplace statement that there are more African American men in prison than in college.

The book follows a highly-readable path, beginning with “When We Were One” about the Jim Crow/Great Migration era, and moving to “Parting of the Ways.” He then devotes a chapter to each of his four classes: the Mainstream, the Abandoned, the Transcendent and the Emergent (aka immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean).

What made this book so powerful to me is how much it charted my own experience as a completely-Caucasian-currently-restocking-the-sunblock citizen of the same country. While it is true that African Americans still experience last-hired-first-fired, the firing has been going on long enough that many white folks are now being treated to the same abandonment process.  Jobs outsourced. Schools defunded. Unions busted. Recreational and cultural access — not just as an audience, but as a participant — denied by money, not by law. Robinson notes several times, with pride and love that his wife, Avis, runs a program of preparing African American youths for college, in which he takes part as well. He also praises William Raspberry, his retired Washington Post colleague, for returning to the rural south to set up a comprehensive family uplift program called BabySteps. And when I walk around my own impoverished neighborhood, with its strong Caucasian majority, I see plenty of young folks whose public parenting problems suggest that this is neither a black nor a southern uniqueness.

For us Unitarian Universalists, the end of the segregation narrative means an end to the narrative we have told about ourselves. In fact, our part of the narrative appears in Gene Robinson’s discussion  of why Hillary Clinton, rather than Barack Obama, attracted so many leading African Americans to her presidential run. According to Robinson, the Civil Rights generation had achieved Transcendence only with help from White Allies, of which none were better than the Clintons. Obama, famously, asserted that “Yes, We Can” make it with only our own merits and efforts. And if someone wants to point out that part of his advantage was white family mixed with black, well, the difference between family and allies only clinches my point.

We UUs, of course, were among those white allies. And our contribution to the breakthrough moment is rightfully a source of pride. But now that the breakthrough is over, where do we go from here? Some folks, nostalgic for the rule of white allies, have attempted to shift the label of disadvantaged to the Latino immigrant community. But as Robinson points out, the Emergent, despite their lack of money due to immigration, bring substantial assets from their home cultures. These elements of social capital have long since been stripped from the Abandoned, and justice for the Abandoned requires substantial and personal reinvestment, family by family, block by block.  I came away with a deepened attraction that Rev Ron Robinson is on the right path with his Third Place ministry in Turley, OK.

But there are two things about Ron’s ministry that fly in the face of our UU comfort. The first is our love of personal distance. We don’t even talk much about our own personal needs. Hitting a hard time is one of the sure prescriptions for leaving this religion, although the small group ministry movement and the growth of care networks are trying to find a compromise we can live with. And in fact, readers of Ron’s blogs and FB pages will note that his commitment to Turley is centered in lifelong ties, and his extended family is still there.

This points to the second comfort issue we face with the end of the white-allies position: the end of us-them altruism as a ritual culture. The worst that can be said about the yellow Standing on the Side of Love tee-shirts is that they have a pathetic desire to separate the wearers from the people being assisted.  More positively, I would describe them as the Easter outfits of our newly-recast liturgical calendar, proudly displayed to announce our faith to the world. Except, as so many cynics have pointed out for almost a century, instead of showing up to be saved, we are there with the arrogant commitment of saving others. As Gene Robinson points out, applying this to economic immigrants is a misplaced generosity which mightily angers the Abandoned.  African immigrants are only temporarily poor, victims only of unusually high moving expenses, with no expectation whatsoever that this will be the case for their children and grandchildren.

Latino-Americans certainly do suffer various forms of discrimination and harassment that do not apply to African and Caribbean immigrants.  But the structural de-employment of America that Robinson describes raises serious questions about whether well-meaning white allies of immigrants are carrying on or undoing the effort to help the black underclass. Ironically, the admirable effort to decouple racism from poverty has failed the very people it was meant to serve.  Once again, we are casting our lot with the emergent of a different color, rather than removing ourselves from the tougher issues of structural disinvestment.

Ron Robinson is right about two things, as Gene Robinson makes clear: you have to give up the grand efforts and get local, and you after that, you have to give up the meta-narrative to put yourself in the story that is unfolding.

With what little denominational pride I can still muster on this topic (but ask me about Equal Marriage), I humbly propose that we shift our historical modeling to an earlier generation’s work and take up the old Social Gospel effort again. You are probably drinking coffee or juice mixed with water from a clean public pipe system. You are probably going to take a walk on a clean street, without worrying about sewerage in the gutters. Your home, whether rented or purchased, meets certain criteria for cleanliness, density and structural soundness.  All of these goals were achieved be armies of middle class Victorian women and men, of every faith community, who spent their days “going downtown to the slums,”  often door-to-door, in order to assist immigrants who really were victims of more than moving costs, mostly fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.

In fact,when Samuel Atkins Eliot began his ministry of prophecy, he did exactly what Rob Robinson is doing now. Despite being the scion of Boston privilege, he chose to start in Denver, Colorado, where settlers and cultural leaders were trying to tame a frontier outpost. Archives of his work there tell not of demonstrations but of countless urban leadership meetings about amenities we take for granted. Schools, water, public decency — these were his focus. And if his commitment to educating native Americans can only be seen now as cultural genocide, it was the only thing his mind could envision as entering  progressive civilization.  And he took a lot of flack for providing the same kind of services for numerous decades to a more appropriate population: prison inmates and newly-released. He would be appalled at our wholesale abandonment of jurisprudence reform, except, of course, for complaining indignantly about the way it damages African Americans.

It is no accident that in working to shape his own ministry, Eliot sought local connections for liberal religion, traveling tirelessly to plant congregations and found the Rocky Mountain Conference of the National Conference of Unitarian and other Christian Churches. Ironically, when he moved to unify AUA structure — as a prelude to consolidating with the Universalists — it was because he thought progressive culture was so widely ensconced it did not lead local leadership any more. Marx’s “withering away of the state” describes Eliot’s excitement perfectly.

These days it looks like Eliot should have spent a little more time on the physical sciences (his father was a chemist). He might well have consulted a few comparative studies of empires and civilizations. What goes up, eventually comes down. And as both Eugene Robinson and Ron Robinson are here to testify, that’s happening not just to other folks in our country,  but to us. One of them has a white “us” and one of them has a black “us,” and in neither case does it matter.

To use Gertrude Stein’s phrase in a way that was once descriptive and may yet be again, “There isn’t any there there.” Nope, now it’s a “here.” “To abandon” is the reverse of “to restore.” Restoration is an artisanal profession, with lots of returning, attending to detail, redoing mistakes, and at the end of the day, saying, “not good-bye,” but “see you tomorrow.”

Can we do that? Can we give up our own meta-narrative, which is wandering into wildernesses that need saving, in order to grasp the more humble task of “putting our own house in order”? Adolescents set out, to conquer and transform the world. Grown-ups know better. They put down roots and get rhythmic about time and space. Our history says, there was a time when we were those grown-ups. Can we give up our adolescence, and do that again?

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