Politics Can’t Bridge the Racial Divide

I have watched the news with dismay as racial discord has torn a major American university asunder, and the events at the University of Missouri have far reaching implications for race, college athletics, higher education, and even the First Amendment. I’m taking things in and not rushing to conclusions just yet, because there are people I trust who say there is legitimacy to the issues being raised in Columbia, whether or not one agrees with the response. In the midst of this turmoil, however, another story dropped which caused a minor ripple in comparison, and that observation proves, at least to me, something I’ve believed for a long time. In my humble opinion, it is impossible for politics or policy to resolve the racial divide in America because they don’t offer a large enough canopy under which everyone can come together and heal.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have in recent years become quite cynical about politics, and that certainly lends to my rejection of political solutions to racial issues. I’ve made the statement to friends that I’m “retired” from politics, and by that I mean I’m not actively advocating for a particular candidate, nor am I engaged in partisan polemics in the public square. Certainly, there are issues about which I care a great deal, and I will speak out on those, but not with the immediacy or the fervor some may wish to see from me. I have come to believe there is wisdom in thought before speech and reflection before action. Proverbs 25:15 says, “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” Such statements are heresy in the age of Twitter.

It is in that spirit, however, that I took note of this story that stirred in some places but was largely off the table within a news cycle or so. A recently released peer-reviewed article by two Princeton University economics professors, one of them a 2015 Nobel laureate, revealed that white middle-aged Americans with a high school education or less are dying or suffering from serious illnesses at an alarming rate. The Nobel laureate, Angus Deaton, who describes himself as “someone who’s concerned with the poor of the world and how people behave, and what gives them a good life”, compared the death rate to some of the more well-known pandemics of our time.

“Half a million people are dead who should not be dead…About 40 times the Ebola stats. You’re getting up there with HIV-AIDS.” ~ Angus Deaton, FBA

These rates of death and illness reflect a dramatic reversal of upward trends in health and mortality rates, and stand in contrast to the declines in mortality and illness for other demographic groups, including U.S. blacks and Hispanics.

Interestingly enough, however, these dramatic statistics were not sufficiently dire to warrant publication in either the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) or the New England Journal of Medicine, both of which rejected the study. It was eventually published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences after exhaustive peer review and revision. Neither of the prestigious medical journals offered an explanation for their rejection of the study, citing the confidentiality of their respective review processes.

Likewise, while the study received coverage in prominent news sources like the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and The Atlantic magazine, and other publications and web sites speculated on the study’s findings, it didn’t dominate the mainstream news cycle. I suspect that most Americans who get their news in digestible nuggets from the evening network broadcasts missed it altogether.

The chances are better than even, however, that the racial unrest at the University of Missouri is at the forefront of the minds of millions because, at least until the terror attacks in Paris, it received daily coverage from a variety of news sources, including the network news broadcasts, which still draw the vast majority of viewers when it comes to news.

As I said previously, I don’t want to cast aspersions on the validity of the protesters’ claims, and as far as the study is concerned, even its authors don’t know why middle-aged white Americans are dying or getting sick in record numbers. One word stood out to me, however, in the articles written about this horrific trend, and that word is despair.

A suffering people for whom the American Dream is largely inaccessible, and who cannot afford the necessary health care to keep from becoming chronically ill, are highly likely to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or reach the point where daily life seems unbearable. Indeed, the causes of mortality in this demographic group which registered the biggest rate increases are alcohol and drug poisonings, alcohol-related liver disease, and suicide. Despair doesn’t seem to adequately capture the darkness that hangs over their lives.

Their despair, however, is exacerbated by the fact that practically no one knows or seems to care about their suffering, and this is where politics is exposed as inadequate to the task of racial healing.

The reason I believe this story disappeared from the news cycle after only a few days is because middle-aged white Americans with a high school education or less don’t have advocacy groups in Washington, DC or elsewhere, and few elected officials speak to their plight because they are not a monied or otherwise vocal or influential constituency.

They are denigrated for being on the “wrong side of history” when it comes to the cultural and social changes at work in America and the world, even as the disintegration of those norms “strips ordinary people of almost all settled roles” and contributes to their despair. Elites have the means to either manage or avoid the presumably unintended consequences of these social shifts, but their less advantaged fellow citizens, who depended on familial and social mores established over millennia “to orient themselves and make sense out of their lives”, are rapidly and recklessly cast adrift.

White elites are indifferent to the suffering of their poorer and less educated kin, and other race-based interest groups have their own grievances and see the problems of white people as insignificant because they are members of the “privileged” race, the one whose skin color ostensibly affords them advantages denied to others.

To these people, however, the concept of “white privilege” is abstract at best. The cognitive dissonance between their daily struggles with multigenerational poverty, chronic disease and early mortality, and the lives of the protesting college students, some of whom come from wealthy families, others who are receiving full scholarships, and all of whom are positioned to achieve a higher educational status than they have achieved, is too great for them to bear.

Writer and social commentator Rod Dreher makes a profound observation about the apathy demonstrated toward disadvantaged white people:

“Perhaps there is a comparison to be made with Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union — which was, of course, a vastly more severe phenomenon, but I think there may be some comparison to be made, re: a people who assumed that the world was a certain way, and woke up rudely to the fact that it was not. Add to that the fact that among elites in our culture — especially academic and media elites — white working-class people are the bungholes of the universe, and, well, here we are.” ~ Rod Dreher

If you take all of these perceived slights and bring them together, the collective perception of deliberate neglect can cause despair to morph into anger, and it’s that anger, above all else, which seems to be dominating this electoral cycle. As Mr. Dreher opines, “The death story doesn’t explain Trump, to be clear, but it gives a pretty good idea where a lot of Trump’s support comes from.” Personally, I don’t know what explains the rise of Donald Trump in the political arena, but that’s a topic for someone else to cover – I’m “retired” from politics!

Here’s the money shot; politics doesn’t provide, in the modern vernacular, a “safe space” for racial healing because politics spawns factions, and factions compete for the time, talents and treasure of institutions and individuals of influence. Politics is a power play and a zero-sum game; there are winners and losers, even at the expense of people’s lives. Add to that the fact that whatever journalists deem newsworthy is what gets exposure in living rooms across America, and someone is guaranteed to be left uncovered and exposed to the storm.

In the political realm, expressions of compassion for the sick and dying white middle-aged American populace are inappropriate when the lives of black Americans are in an intractable state of crisis. Black activists take the view that neither the polity nor the people are willing to acknowledge or respond to their concerns unless they are compelled to make those concerns the sole or primary focus, thus the criticisms of those who respond to the slogan “black lives matter” with the ostensibly all-inclusive phrase, “all lives matter.” I believe we’ve reached a cultural lunacy of Orwellian proportions when it is considered an insult and a repudiation of one’s worth to be declared equal in importance to everyone else. Wasn’t that the whole point of our struggle in the first place? If you call yourself a servant of Christ, don’t you believe that Jesus Christ died for all of us because all of us are equal in the eyes of God, all deserving of His wrath but recipients instead of His grace?

Most thoughtful people, I believe, are quite capable of acknowledging a crisis in a particular segment of society and giving it focused attention when it’s needed, while still showing care and concern for other hurting people. Like an emergency room nurse trained to triage patients in order of the severity of their condition, we can administer care to everyone who is hurting, regardless of race.

It’s not going to happen in the political arena, however. People are too selfish to care about any pain other than their own. Political parties like to talk about the big tent, but in reality they have several little tents, and too many people are left out in the rain because they aren’t the political poster children of the moment.

As a believer in the Imago Dei, I put my hope in Jesus Christ and His church, and I welcome to the army of compassion anyone of goodwill who instinctively believes in the intrinsic value of every man, woman and child, even if they don’t acknowledge the origins of that belief. God’s heart breaks when His children suffer, and if I am to be more like Him, my heart should break when people suffer from racial oppression and injustice, and when they suffer from economic hardship, persistent illness or untimely death.

I also believe in the wisdom expressed in Psalm 146:3, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” Our culture, indeed our world, trusts far too many princes who have no real power to make their lives better.

I am working on a book about racial reconciliation and the prominent role the Christian church, properly conducted, should take in bringing about racial healing. One of my key areas of emphasis is the impact of idolatry on racial unity among Christians, and I believe that the tribes which form around ideologies, identities, causes, and movements are idols that people in the church place ahead of obedience and service to Jesus Christ. I leave you with the thesis around which I am ordering my writing, and it’s the truth that defines my mission in life:

“The first of the Ten Commandments reads, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’ The premise of this book is that if we put God first, then racial reconciliation in the body of Christ is not only achievable, but inevitable. All of us, black and white, must first dethrone the gods we have placed before Him in order to find healing.” ~ Ron Miller