A friend told me about a conversation with a colleague who said, “You seem to have a bee in your bonnet about racism and violence against blacks. We all have the same opportunity, so let’s just move on.” This uncovered bias and misinformation. My friend shared information to support his position. His colleague said, “That ain’t true. Liberals always make up something to support their lies!”
This attitude is pervasive. How we experience and respond to issues of race, class and injustice is shaped by our understanding of reality. We dismiss what does not conform to our perceptions. Responses are often cavalier or blame the victim. Those who refuse to engage with other people’s realities contribute to a climate of discontent.
Why are we surrounded by this discontent among people on the margins? We live in closed societies shaped by homogeneous social networks. These networks often don’t allow new relationships and ideas to flourish. They perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes. They limit exchanges of diverse political, social and religious expressions. Social media fail to produce creative dialogue or promote problem-solving.
Sean Safford, author of Why The Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, says, “Excessively dense social networks can create a hermetically sealed environment into which new ideas can’t penetrate or get a hearing.”
Our closed societies create barriers that heighten racial tension. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported that 57 percent of Americans say race relations are “bad,” and 23 percent say they are “very bad.” A Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 75 percent of white Americans have entirely white social networks.
Reflecting on these findings in TakePart, Britni Danielle wrote: “Our popular culture, the 800 percent rise in hate crimes, the woefully homogeneous workplaces at companies such as Google, an ever-widening wealth gap and neighborhoods still segregated along racial lines should make it obvious that the post-racial promised land heralded when President Obama was first elected does not exist.” Marginalized people would say “amen.”
While the recent focus has been on police violence, the Baltimore riot called attention to other problems marginalized communities face: They are hindered by poor educational opportunities and a lack of adequate housing, jobs and health care. Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago are among the most segregated cities in America. Social stress and alienation add to a climate of discontent. I do not condone the riot in Baltimore. But unless attitudes toward the dispossessed are altered, similar actions will occur in other places.
Can the violence be deterred? People of faith must answer God’s call to be reconcilers and messengers of hope by our words and actions. We must challenge the assumptions of those who base their perceptions on biases and misinformation.
I have been reading the Book of Isaiah to help me deal with the climate of discontent. Though the context in which Isaiah lived is different, many issues are similar. The nation was under siege, and the people felt helpless and hopeless. Isaiah counseled them to hold on to the faith that had brought them through turmoil. This counsel is keeping me focused. It can help you, too.
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.