Renee Shaw was the guest speaker for the Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast on Monday, Jan. 16, 2012. Here is her speech.
Tinted Gazes of Unity and Transformative Progress
Renee M. Shaw
To Dr. Greiner, Ms. Linda Williams and Mr. Hagans, other distinguished guests and brothers and sisters. It s honor for me to be here today. There s some fantastic work going on here and in this entire region, which I shamefully don t visit often enough. But, I read of it and am so proud of the strong efforts here valuing diversity and the great talent from this region from our writers/poets, to the activists, educators and concerned citizens that want to leave this part of the world a little better than they found it. It is a tremendous pleasure to be with you on this holiday- a day of service - honoring history s greatest civil rights warrior Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There will be a lot of quotes and misquotes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today. Many speakers will recite history and lead cheers about hope, change and lament over the great achievements of King and the other brave foot soldiers in the quest for equality. The assemblies all across this nation, however, will most likely- be absent of those who could benefit the most from these lectures. We coalesce to recite the dream, to hail the martyr, eat some breakfast munchies, mingle with our like-minded associates and then go home filled with pride that we awoke so early to remember the dream and the dreamer. And, while the kudos are deserving, the punch-clock for progress ticks and ticks and ticks .even on a national holiday honoring America s greatest citizen prophet...a man immortalized in stone in our nation s capital city in the monumental company of presidents. While we rejoice that such historical replica of King exists on such sacred political soil, we know that King is looking down hoping the rest of us will affix our gaze on a new vision for the least of these and toil without fainting for transformative change.
When Ms. Williams told me of your theme this year, I was somewhat stumped not by the title, but what Visions of Unity really mean. It s so subjective, politicized, polarizing, even -- a concept, that dare I say, has been hijacked for self-centered purposes and means. But, as Dr. King believed, as do I that what self-centered people have torn down other-centered people will build up. I like to think today that Dr. King had more than a dream but a vision he had visions of people everywhere (urban, rural and in-between) having three meals a day for their bodies, education for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. Where the vision is tinted, or some would say tainted is the path to getting there.
There has been a lot of conversation about America being a post-racial society upon the election of President Barack Obama a false depiction of unity as it were. Many would argue that our country is more polarized, divided as a result whether they blame the man or his policies or both. If the abacus of unity can be measured by more elected officials of color, we certainly aren t there in Kentucky or many other places with few minority judges, mayors, no African American in a statewide capacity in Kentucky (Congress or constitutional officer) .now or ever. As a young Berea college graduate heavily involved in democratic politics said to me in an interview: we can never be post-racial until we act and live post-racist. Do we worship together, or will the 11am Sunday hour forever remain the most segregated hour in America? Do we practice tokenism having one minority on the payroll is good enough, or one Latino family in the neighborhood satisfies our ideals of diversity? The unity comes in how we live together and how much we really want to?
The goal of unity has many roads to its end it doesn t mean a homogenous-thinking society without variances in philosophy, ideas, beliefs, lifestyles.
Here s some of what it does mean though: blasting lazy assumptions about race and poverty and the fear-inducing, hate mongering language both expressed and coded - that s littering our conversations in politics, policy making and budget priorities. More on that later, but first We can more easily determine what unity is by rejecting what it isn t and facing some new, maybe even uncomfortable realities
Number one: we should reject all notions that all African Americans are step ford robots of each other not all black minds think the same, just like the majority population we are not a monolith.
This idea is expressed best by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson, a frequent contributor on MSNBC, who s authored the book called Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America. Robinson so wanted an un-cluttered premise of his book that he (and his publishers) put his thesis right on the front cover as it reads: there was a time when there were agreed-upon black leaders, when there was a clear black agenda,: when we could talk confidently about the state of black America .but not anymore. President Obama is A black leader, but he IS not the black leader. And, the reason according to The Washington post columnist is because he parses out the black community into four groups: a mainstream middle class enjoying many of the consumer spoils; a large, abandoned group with little hope of escaping poverty s grip; a small what he calls Transcendent elite with enviable power and wealth of even whites at the same or near level; (these are the Oprah types with sleek personal jets decorating big city tarmacs) and those of mixed-race heritage and black immigrants from across the African Diaspora who challenge the notion of what being black even means. The philosophies and ideologies of African-Americans are just as varied as the majority population not all believe in affirmative action or that there should be welfare system not all are Democrats so unity doesn t mean that all blacks are lock-step in thought just as the majority population isn t. African Americans have to respect that the black community doesn t mean what it used to mean, and that even the goals have changed between members of the collective body.
Getting unified may get even tougher when you take into account U.S. Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population in 2042 will have no majority population. Which means that ALL groups: American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, non-white Hispanic, White and bi-racial - will be minority populations. Now, if the Mark Twain maxim comes into play that everything happens in Kentucky 20 years later, then we re looking at the year 2062 before our Commonwealth blends its complexion more to shades of brown than white. Census numbers do indicate that more and more folks are moving from the northeast and Midwest to the south, which includes Kentucky, and that that blending may happen sooner than the Mark Twain theory.
But the important lesson is as defined by Kentucky s esteemed trends tracker Ron Crouch who works for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, is that Kentucky and the nation will be dependent on African-Americans, Asians, Latinos to not just empty bed pans, tend to horse stables and work retail, but to be our doctor s, lawyer s, engineers and architects.
So, why is this important to areas where a more ethnically blended society is a longer time coming? Because our language meme about race is critical if we re also to change the nation s narrative about poverty our political complacency with poverty is raking more and more into the muck of misfortune. People forget that King was committed to poverty eradication as well as erasing racism. Nowadays the language about poverty is being twisted, if we can even get to a real conversation at all .
When we get off-course by giving too much ink or you-tube play to public figures degrading the shape of the First Lady s backside; or chase the trail of tweets politicians with intestinal flu of the mouth finger-pointing one minority group as the greatest consumers of welfare, when the numbers show a virtual neck and neck use of the system; or obsess over whether the First Lady is REALLY an ANGRY Black Woman THEN all of that nonsense distracts from the real truth about real matters .that the higher than national average jobless numbers plaguing African American, Appalachian and rural communities is a dire problem that needs meaningful, long-term solutions. that the systemic tools of racism and poverty are strengthening that we willfully waddle in acceptance of the numbers of young, black men wearing prison-garb rather than graduation gowns; a widening achievement gap, a burgeoning wealth gap and gaping health disparities dependent on our bank accounts, zip codes and occupations each of these a key indicator of poverty. Pointing out the flaws- doesn t make you less patriotic it makes you pragmatic because all of those issues end up costing us more in terms of government resources and human capital when ignored.
We must stop vilifying the poor and jobless and charging both with laziness and unworthiness of a government that is by the people and for the people.
When you stack up the numbers, Kentucky can ill-afford to shelve a real and robust
conversation about poverty. The Census data from September 2011 shows that the Bluegrass
State has the fifth-highest poverty rates in the nation; many of the nation s poorest
counties reside in this area; and nearly one-third of the state's households earned
less than $25,000 last year; nearly a quarter of Kentucky s kids live in poverty.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of sitting down with my she roe and civil rights
warrior Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children s Defense Fund and she recalled
time spent with Dr. King and the balmy August day in 1967 when they discussed launching
the Poor People s Campaign. A campaign to make visible the intolerable poverty of
millions of white, black, brown, Asian and Native American citizens (as she said and
has written in her book The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is So Small) denied a seat
at America s table of plenty. She and King both knew, as we all do, that civil rights
without economic rights misses the mark of justice. It s one thing to be able to dine
at the lunch room counter, but it s another entirely to afford the meal. That economic
movement, the eradication of poverty the poor people s campaign has evolved, but
has never been resolved. Brilliant minds like John Hope Bryant, an
advisor to the last three sitting U.S. presidents and an innovator in the business
of empowerment and, who was once a homeless child in California, are still seeking
to elevate the concept of the Silver Rights Movement,
which is about the ability to afford the lunch at the counter, now that we can sit
there. It s often called the next frontier of
- transitioning beyond GIVING a fish, beyond TEACHING to fish, to OWNING the pond
When we change our conversation and language about poverty, we change our dialogue about race. When we stop demonizing a particular group as being gamers of the system (whatever system that is), then we get somewhere we get to racial reconciliation.
Reconciliation is more than just human it s spiritual. The scars of racism aren t just erased with the passage of time. It s easy for us to say that just because there s no more slavery, no Jim Crow, a diminished Ku Klux Klan and a Black President that we ve reached the pinnacle of progress. But, HAVE we as a country defined the act of racism in its milder forms now, by what it REALLY is .a SIN? For those of us who profess Christ as Lord, and Savior, racism is just as gross an act or sin against God as gluttony, lust, greed, and all the rest. I didn t come to that conclusion on my own, the nephew of Linda Williams, Dr. Jarvis Williams, an assistant professor of the New Testament at Campbellsville University wrote the book on it. It s called One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology. Dr. Williams would argue that FAITH is what UNITES all Christians regardless of their race. Consequently, Christians should be willing to reach and extend love to the different ethnic groups that serve in their churches and live in their respective communities, he writes.
But there s a word of caution as I learned from his work, having a few folks of color in the pews or having cross-cultural worship experiences during Black History month doesn t mean you ve reconciled. You can be sitting near or elbow-to-elbow with an African American, white, Asian, Latino in church and still harbor racist resentments and prejudices. Dr. Williams argues there has to be a genuine and ongoing practice of rendering service and a lifestyle that demonstrates love and compassion to your sister or brother from another mother and acknowledgment that Christ s execution and resurrection covers the sin of racism that we must turn away from.
Perhaps if we use pulpit terminology each time we practice racism we crucify Christ afresh, just as we do with other sins we deem more familiar. Racial reconciliation and unity have to start at the dinner table, the ball game and especially the church. If the world sees church-folk condoning racism and poverty, then what shall they expect of themselves? For Christians who profess to be disciples of the Gospel and not concern themselves with the least of these they deny the truth about the earthly ministry of Jesus a man who tended to the least of these, the sinful, the disparaged, despised and destitute.
Dr. William Crouch, the president of Georgetown College latched on this idea of racial reconciliation years ago. Dr. Crouch has co-written a book entitled: What We Love About the Black Church. Dr. Crouch has been president there since 1991. Georgetown, as you know, is a predominately white, Christian college in Kentucky. Dr. Crouch is the son of a Baptist minister and educator who pastored in Jackson, Mississippi during the racially-charged civil rights era. He wondered what he could do to affect social justice, equality and respect for unity, after witnessing the opposite during his childhood. As a grown man, several years ago, Dr. Crouch set out on this deep personal, shoe-leather type journey to absorb all he could about black culture, religion and norms. He found two black mentors: one a highly-esteemed sociologist at the University of Kentucky William Parker and a restaurant entrepreneur Phil Wilkins to show him the ropes.
He felt it was his duty to diversify his mostly-white student population, and the only way he could do that was immerse himself in black life. He went to black churches, oftentimes he d be the only one like him there, but he went. He watched. He learned. He learned about a different style of worship, why the pastor s wife was such a crucial figure in the church, honoring the church elders and even took pointers on black hair and the signature black-male chest hug. He didn t do it to mock it. He did it because he said he wanted to empower himself as a Christian, as an educator and as a minister himself who felt it was time to cross the cultural bridge that has blocked an appreciation for black clergy s perspective and practice by whites.
Dr. Crouch gazed upon a vision of campus diversity. He didn t just read the books, strategize with a few influential blacks to make it appear he was invested in the cause, he stayed in the midst. He stayed because he wanted transformative progress, for himself a man who felt powerless in affecting the racial wrongs he witnessed during his childhood, and also for the young minds who God had charged him with educating. Dr. Crouch is close to his goal of 20 percent minority population by 2015. He started in 2005 with just five percent. He s working to diversify the faculty and staff, which he admits, has proven to be a harder task. But, the point is, you create unity, you create diversity appreciation one William Crouch at a time. Georgetown College has provided full scholarships to high performing minority students, adopted a historically black college in Dallas, Texas that went bankrupt in 1986 Bishop College and provides scholarships for the descendents of Bishop College Alumni and created a Black Presidential Advisory Board of key business leaders to help him understand the African American perspective.
The paths to unity are vast and we each have to create our own way; find our own voice and be committed to being our brother s keeper, regardless of his or her color. And, if we go by Dr. Crouch s example we LIVE the change we want to see and labor tirelessly until it happens!!
To get to transformative progress, Kentucky and the nation need the voices and scholastic acumen of Dr. Jarvis Williams from Campbellsville University and a Doctor William Crouch from Georgetown College the academic race reconcilers.
We need to examine the visions of one of civil rights godmothers Marion Wright Edelman to help us when feel consumed by the political waves that crash our small boat in the wide sea. We can t let our capsizing emotions take our eyes off the ONE who sustains us in the storm. We must realize the wedded web of poverty and race and denounce the language and the language barriers who seek to wedge a deeper racial divide.
The work of unity requires all of us of every complexion and hue.
Let us be mindful of the labor of Martin Luther King and the warriors right here in Kentucky who fight on behalf of all people, not just those of kindred color.
Let us push toward progress that lifts the almost 25 percent of our children out of poverty; that will encourage the 6-thousand Kentucky kids a year who dropout of high school to learn and appreciate the value (literal and otherwise) of getting a high school diploma; and keep kids forced to learn in dilapidated school buildings contaminated with mold and crumbling ceilings out of those environments.
We each gaze on unity through different prisms and determine its shape, form and meaning through personal lenses that can t be defined by an outsider with one speech during one moment in time.
Transformative progress begins with not relegating the dream-weaver to a memory cast in stone. Transformative progress relies on each one of us to cast our vision beyond our four and no more. Transformative progress comes when we talk truth, not spit vitriol. Transformative progress comes when we decide that we are indeed our brother s keeper and we engage in that change in whatever way we can.
Transformative progress happens when we reconcile the sin of racism and send it right on to the devil for its proper resting place.
A true memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King is compassionate service --enduring service -- to each other regardless of the deepness of complexion. And, let us stand steadfast and immovable in those convictions to lead us on.