037 Racial Perspectives: Black; White; Red


William Pannell, Dean of the Chapel at Fuller Theological Seminary, has issued a manifesto, designed to awaken (via anger) white evangelicals, entitled: The Coming Race Wars: A Cry for Reconciliation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, c. 1993).

Written as a passionate response to the 1992 Los Angeles riot which followed the first trial of policemen accused of beating Rodney King, Pannell’s work updates, in some ways, his 1968 treatise, My Friend, the Enemy, published in the year of the Watts riot. He wants to articulate his feelings, to share his anger, to get white Americans to hear the too oft-muted discontent of black Americans. He fears, unless conditions rapidly alter for the better, the “race war” predicted long ago by W.E.B. DuBois may erupt before the end of this decade.

Pannell makes no effort to be “objective.” This book enunciates a purely personal perspective. Whether or not he speaks for a large number of people, whether or not blacks in similar positions of influence and income share his views, I’m not sure. But Pannell wants to speak frankly, to shoot from the hip without restraint; he asks his readers to be similarly frank, to enter into honest discussion which deals with their deepest racial feelings, to, as James Baldwin urged, “fight me.” One would, in some ways, like to “fight” Pannell. Yet that’s almost impossible to do, simply because were I to speak of blacks as Pannell does of whites, I would be immediately branded a “racist.” It is, in fact, difficult to argue with “people of color” without being negatively labeled. But let me at least object to some of Pannell’s language. He resorts to too many racial slurs of the “white men can’t jump” variety. He indulges in stereotypes–all political conservatives apparently lack good sense and Christian sensitivity! He tosses about lots of personal aspersions–denigrating the character of men such as Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Dan Quail. He uses too many exaggerations and distortions, revealing a lack of careful research and reflection.

But let’s not try to “fight” Pannell. Let’s try, as openly as possible, to listen to his reflections on racism in America. Let’s not even quote too many of his diatribes, lest we tune out on his message, which is, it seems to me, this: we’ve made little progress, in 40 years, in improving the lot of the African-American, who is as much a “non-person” as ever. And “America is still a pigmentocracy at its core” (p. 81).

This is as true in evangelical circles as in police departments or urban ghettos–“the evangelical establishment is largely indistinguishable from much of white America” (p. 57). High-powered evangelical gatherings, such as the 1989 conference on evangelism in Manilla, highlight token blacks, but they have no influence in the inner circles which determine the policies of such groups. Evangelical colleges and seminaries may recruit black students–who find, thereafter, few open doors to positions of power in church structures.

Problems, such as violence, admittedly distress the African-American community. Yet, Pannell insists, violence by blacks (often against blacks) results from a feeling of powerlessness. Whether in college, where 70 percent of all black students drop out (because they feel without influence on their peers or their school, he argues), or in corporations, where they may be promoted and well-paid but feel unheard, blacks suffer from a “growing sense of powerlessness” (p. 101). In all this Pannell relies on the rather dated theses of liberation theology which I find increasingly suspect.

Pannell’s final chapter, “Where Do We Go From Here,” points toward the book’s subtitle, “A Cry for Reconciliation.” He says, “The evangelical community before God has the constant opportunity to be born again, to get into shape, to become everything it should and can be” (p. 128). Here Pannell offers some good suggestions. He insists that evangelical organizations must open up their leadership positions to black evangelicals. We direct some of our “missions” concerns to the i

He urges us to redirect some of our “missions concern to the inner city. Rather than taking exotic trips to Bulgaria or Kenya, evangelicals should go to the black ghettos and brown barrios. The only really durable, viable institution in the city is the church! Following the L.A. riots, it was apparent that the church was almost singular in its ability to respond to the crisis. Even politicians seemed to instantly find time to show up for Sunday services! To join with black brothers and sisters in helping inner-city churches would really reconcile the races.

Still more: “the church here must be revived. We are in desperate need of an outbreak of holiness and discipline in our congregations” (p. 131). Real revival would lead to a combined concern for personal piety and social justice. Too long have evangelicals been content with individualistic spirituality. Now is the time to get engaged in the struggle for justice for all peoples.

Working for justice would bring about racial reconciliation. The alienation which separates us, the anger which keeps folks at a distance, can be overcome only through the reconciling power of Christ. “Any religious experience that authentically knows God,” Pannell says, “finally translates into action in God’s behalf” (p. 142).

Though I question much that Pannell says, I don’t doubt he’s tried to truthfully describe his feelings. I take him at his word, and I suspect that many apparently “successful, middle class blacks” share his frustrations. What I most suspect is this: the great social experiment, conducted under the auspices of LBJ’s “Great Society,” to abolish racism by political action, has failed. It’s obviously failed the “underclass” which lives in poverty in America’s cities. If it’s failed the prosperous blacks who have settled in suburbia as well, something is fundamentally wrong about the whole endeavor. Perhaps it promised too much.

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That conclusion is reached in a vastly different book, Jared Taylor’s Paved with Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America, (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., c. 1992). “Race,” says Taylor, “is the great American dilemma. This has always been so, and is likely to remain so” (p. 9).

We can no longer float along assuming the civil rights movement and the “Great Society” have set in place efficacious remedies to the virus of racism. Racism, as Wendell Berry says, is this nation’s “hidden wound.” But in leaving it hidden, refusing to deal with the facts lest we be called “racists,” we allow the wound to fester.

So Taylor challenges us to look at the facts, to deal with reality rather than rhetoric. His book, unlike Pannell’s, is filled with data and documentation. At the heart of what seems to be the race dilemma is, in a striking sense, not really race: it’s the breakdown of families and the loss of traditional values.

“There is,” Taylor says, “scarcely a social problem in this country that would not be well on its way toward solution if Americans adopted a rule their ancestors lived by and took for granted: They did not have children until they had a spouse and an income” (p. 18). Interestingly enough, for the past 20 years, “young blacks who manage to stay married have had family incomes almost identical to those of young white couples” (p. 25).

Amazingly, he insists, “an American has less than 1 percent chance of being poor if he manages to do just three things: finish high school, get and stay married, and stick with a job–even a minimum-wage job–for at least a year” (pp. 290-291). Still more: “Careful comparisons of blacks and whites who have graduated from equivalent colleges with equivalent degrees show that blacks earn more than the whites” (p. 27). Blacks with the Ph.D. easily find employment in elite universities and out-earn their white counterparts.

Compounding this, says James Meredith, the first black admitted to the University of Mississippi (in 1962), is the fact that “government programs have turned blacks into dependent, ‘second-class citizens.’ He calls busing, affirmative action, and welfare ‘the worst thing that has happened to the black race in thirty years'” (p. 307). So problems too easily subsumed under “racist” labels are consequences of more basic problems, and glib generalizations blaming “white racism” for African-American social problems simply don’t withstand scrutiny. While white racism has, in fact, declined, Taylor believes black racism has escalated. He rejects the view of Detroit’s black mayor, Coleman Young, who said “I don’t consider that blacks are capable of racism” (p. 270). All of us, Taylor counters, too easily indulge in judging others on the basis of the color of their skin.

Too often, he argues, blacks have been allowed (even encouraged) to speak and act in ways which would be termed “racist” in whites. Sister Souljah (the rap singer candidate Bill Clinton reproved), for instance, asserts there may be some good white people, but she’s never met one. So books such as Huckleberry Finn are sometimes censored for using objectional terms for blacks, but other books, such as those by “a violently anti-white writer such as LeRoi Jones” are treated reverently. Popular slogans such as “It’s a Black Thing . . . You Wouldn’t Understand” are fine, but a similar slogan elevating whites would be condemned as racist.

Universities now subsidize segregation on campus–as long as it’s requested by African-Americans. All-black fraternities flourish at Harvard and Yale. Vassar and Dartmouth authorize separate black commencements. “The University of Pennsylvania pays for a special black yearbook, even though blacks are only 6 percent of the student body” (p. 252). Anti-white speakers (e.g. Khalid Muhammad) have no difficulty appearing on prestigious university campuses, though anti-black speakers have been routinely barred.

Taylor thus sees a double standard in what we promote, whether it be in politics, the media or in affirmative action educational and employment mandates. In the long run, he fears, this will elicit white resentment which will devolved into a more deadly white racism than existed a century ago.

To counteract such, Taylor asks, in his final chapter, “What Is to Be Done?” He basically urges the federal government to cease trying to engineer social justice. Programs such as Head Start, social services seeking to keep children in school, permissive provisions for criminals, have all failed. Taylor joins thinkers such as Irving Kristol, Mike Royko, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams, who restate the strategies of Booker T. Washington, urging a “tougher” approach which demands that individuals, white and black, assume responsibility for their lives and their families.

Taylor, like Pannell, must be read cautiously. There’s as much “white racism” in Taylor as “black racism” in Pannell. This is not to impugn either author’s character but to indicate the degree to which biases pervade both books. I rather suspect, however, that we need to consider such radically diverse perspectives if we’re to discover new pathways to resolve racial tensions in America.

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One of the “classics” of American Indian thought is Black Elk Speaks, routinely cited by those seeking to understand Native American religion. Young people exposed to the likes of “Dances With Wolves” need a more authentic perspective than that derived from film stereotypes. (Parenthetically, the label “Native American”–currently mandatory for enforcers of “political correctness”– rarely concerns reservation residents, who call themselves “Indians” or, to be truly correct, tribal names such as “Sioux”).

Anyway, I have always encouraged interested students to read Black Elk Speaks, along with its sequel, The Sacred Pipe, to learn something about Sioux (or, even more accurately, Lakota) culture. A witness of the massacre at Wounded Knee, a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Black Elk tells a story which helps us understand Native America. The portrait painted in these books is, almost exclusively, that of a highly traditional tribal “holy man.” Like lots of others, I’d assumed this was the real Black Elk.

Now Michael F. Steltenkamp, in Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, c. 1993) enlarges our understanding of the man by documenting his resolute commitment to Christianity, a truth studiously ignored by John Neihardt, the editor/author of Black Elk Speaks, a professor from the University of Missouri who interviewed Black Elk during the 1920’s. Given the anti-Christian bias of academia, it’s unlikely Steltenkamp’s volume will replace Neihardt’s, but it should at least be consulted by those who care for the truth.

The editor/author of The Sacred Pipe, Joseph Epes Brown, more sensitive to this than Neihardt, confessed: “I have felt it improper that this [the Christian] phase of his life was never presented either by Neihardt or indeed by myself. I suppose somehow it was thought this Christian participation compromised his ‘Indianness,’ but I do not see it this way and think it time that the record was set straight” (p. xx).

Unlike Brown and Neihardt, Steltenkamp lived for years among the Oglala, learned the Lakota language, and spent hours talking with one of Black Elk’s daughters, who was concerned with the false stereotype of her father portrayed in books. To those who knew him, Black Elk’s prestige stemmed not from his knowledge of traditional religion, nor from the books attributed to him, but from his “very active involvement with priests in establishing Catholicism among his people” (p. xvii).

Black Elk’s daughter, Lucy, disliked the image of her father readers of Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe, and “was disappointed that her father was now being misunderstood and that people were using the material from his books in a way he never intended” (p. xx). As she remembered her father, “He always said to me, ‘To live close to God is more enjoyable than to live easy–with all the pleasures and riches–because such things never will reach to heaven. One thing is never lie, too, because you will lose all your honesty toward God and your neighbors” (p. 75). So Steltenkamp seeks to satisfy Lucy’s request, to rectify the record.

He first helps us understand Black Elk’s family background as well as some of the essentials of Lakota culture, a people who “thought their continued survival was as contingent upon a relationship with the Sacred as it was upon the forces they faced in everyday profane life” (p. 15). Reared in the ways of his people, devoutly religious and directed by the visions detailed in his well-known books, Black Elk sincerely embraced the Christian faith at the turn of the century.

Following his conversion, he became a “catechist” and spent much time helping the Roman Catholic missionary effort among his people, visiting people, teaching classes, baptizing when necessary. As one of his friends, John Lone Goose, recalled, “He never talked about the old ways. All he talked about was the Bible and Christ. I was with him most of the time, and I remember what he taught. He taught the name of Christ to Indians who didn’t know it. The old people, the young people, the mixed blood, even the white man–everybody that comes to him, he teaches–from the Bible, from the catechist book, from his heart” (p. 54). Black Elk even expanded his efforts, helping do missionary work among other tribes–Arapahos, Winnebagos, Omahas. One priest credits him with leading as many as 400 people to Christ.

This Black Elk simply never appears in Black Elk Speaks. (How difficult it is to get at the truth of history!) Professor Neihardt came to the reservation to find material for the book about Indians which satisfied his own agenda. Father Placius Sialm, a missionary at Pine Ridge from 1901-1940, who knew Black Elk well, noted that “Nic Black Elk could have finished the book with a fine chapter of his conversion. But Neihardt did not want that. . . . Nic as Catholic did more for his people than as medicine man before. Nic was in his best years when he was converted and he knew that the Gospel was clearer than his dream” (p. 80).

The image of Black Elk, drawn by Neihardt, portraying what seems to be a despairing old man with no hope for his people, was, Father Sialm said, “one of the worst exploitations ever done to an honest Indian.” Black Elk never approved it. Neihardt took his notes and wrote his book–never giving Black Elk a penny of the promised dividends! “It could,” Sialm asserted, “fairly be put into the class of not only exploitation, but what is worse, of stealing–plagiarism–material for a book cleverly done, a kind of kidnapping the very words of a man . . . and translating them into a new language to disguise the fraud” (p. 81). Strong words!

In fact, Black Elk protested Neihardt’s book and asked that he at least append a declaration which said: “In the last thirty years I am different from what the white man wrote about me. I am a Christian.” He goes on to detail the essence and importance of his faith: “I know Whom I have believed and my faith is not vain” (p. 83). Looking back at his pre-Christian days, the era celebrated in Black Elk Speaks, he asserted that neither the dances nor the prayers of the traditional Lakota had the efficacy of the blood of Christ.

Neither Neihardt nor the publisher cared to honor Black Elk’s request, so the book carried its flawed message to the world. In another letter, probably written by Lucy, Black Elk said: “I’ve quit all these pagan works. But he didn’t mention this. Cash talks. So if they can’t put this religion life in the last part of that book, also if he can’t pay what he promised, I ask you my dear friends, that this book of my life will be null and void because I value my soul more than my body. I’m awful sorry for the mistake I made” (p. 85).

Perhaps, in Steltenkamp’s book, the real “holy man of the Oglala” would find satisfaction. Just as scholars have disproved the oft-quoted environmental speek of Seattle, perhaps Black Elk will be more honestly portrayed henceforth. Steltenkamp carefully ties his subject’s Lakota roots, his Indian perspectives, with his Christian faith. Indeed, many traditional Indians often found their religious aspirations perfectly fulfilled in Christ–just as Jews testify to being “completed” Jews, so Indians like Black Elk.

Indeed, early on did Indians like Black Elk declared: “Of the White man’s many customs, only his faith, the White man’s beliefs about God’s will, and how they act according to it, I wanted to understand. . . . So Lakota people, trust in God! Now all along I trust in God” (p. 161). So be it! What better message could sustain a man through the difficult days to come! He lived, and he died (in 1950) sustained by his Lord, Jesus Christ.