Racial Reconciliation

Social Justice for the Black Community in the U.S.A.

The following is the transcript of a sermon delivered by Judge Wendell Griffen during the American Baptist Churches USA Biennial Mission Summit on June 26, 2015 in Overland Park, Kansas. Judge Griffen serves as pastor of New Millennium Church, a CBF partner church in Little Rock, Ark.

Sisters and brothers:

Thank you for inviting me to take part in the Bienniel Mission Summit of the American Baptist Black Caucus today. I must pause at the outset to acknowledge the kindness and patience of the late Dr. G. Daniel Jones who invited me to be with you, and the gracious recommendation of Dr. Paul Martin. Like you, I was shocked when Aidsand Wright-Riggan phoned to tell me that Dr. Jones had died last month.

I must also acknowledge two other people today. My ministry has been encouraged and strengthened over the past five years because of my friendship with Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., Pastor-Emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California. Dr. Smith has been for me like Barnabas was for the young convert named Paul. I will forever be grateful for his prayers, gentle prodding, and fervent encouragement.

I have also been blessed by the friendship and counsel of Dr. Samuel Berry McKinney, pastor emeritus of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, Washington. Dr. McKinney became ill recently while attending the Hampton Ministers Institute in Virginia and had to be rushed back to Seattle for emergency surgery. Let us pray for him, his daughters Rhoda and Lora-Ellen, and his other family members and friends.

As Dr. Jones and I agreed, this keynote address is focused on the meaning of Social Justice for the Black Community in the U.S.A. Let us ponder that issue guided by the lesson found at Luke 16:19-31 about an unnamed rich man (who is commonly called “Dives” which is Latin for “rich man”) and a character named Lazarus. According to the lesson, the rich man enjoyed the benefits of privilege and wealth.  The rich man dressed in expensive and fashionable clothing, feasted sumptuously every day, and lived in luxurious comfort. Meanwhile at his gate was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, starving, and practically homeless. Eventually both men died. In the afterlife, Lazarus was comforted.  In the afterlife, the rich man was tormented.

The lesson of the rich man and Lazarus is a moral commentary about injustice, privilege, and indifference. This lesson is the last in a series of examples Jesus used to stress the need for people to be concerned about justice. Recall that Luke 15 contains the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost prodigal son. Luke 16 contains the parables of the dishonest manager and the rich man and Lazarus.

Taken together, these five lessons expose the moral danger of ignoring the plight of marginalized others. They challenge the common tendency toward moral complacency concerning injustice. They remind us that those who define salvation by material privilege and comfort while ignoring the plight of the marginalized must engage in the serious business of repentance. And in the lesson of the rich man and Lazarus, we are warned of the moral danger that comes to those who treat the moral teachings found in Scripture as irrelevant to the whole subject of social justice.

The situation facing the black community in the United States is comparable to the plight of Lazarus because black people, like Lazarus, have by and large languished at the gate of U.S. society. Black people were kidnapped, unpaid, and terrorized laborers from the earliest days of this society until the end of the Civil War in 1865 and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1866. Jim Crow segregation defined black people as second class inhabitants of this society until Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a century later.

Sixty-one years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, the black community remains, like Lazarus, marginalized.

  • Trayvon Martin’s death shows that black people risk being racially profiled, stalked, attacked, and killed by vigilante actors while walking home.
  • Black people are at much higher risk of being abused and killed by law enforcement actors.
  • Black children are at greater risk of being de-educated, mis-educated, and forced out of the education system.
  • We are still more likely to encounter racial discrimination at work, when looking for places to live, and in other ways.
  • The recession and investment bank crisis that happened during 2006 and 2008 practically erased the hard-earned wealth of many black workers and middle income earners.
  • The massacre of nine black worshipers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina days ago shows that racism and terrorism still operate to afflict black people because so many white people appear unable or unwilling to recognize and confront it.

The plight of Lazarus was not undetectable. Lazarus lay at the gate of Dives. Dives bypassed Lazarus as he went about his daily routine. Dives bypassed hungry Lazarus. Dives bypassed sick Lazarus. Dives bypassed impoverished Lazarus. Dives bypassed suffering Lazarus every day!

But Dives went about his affairs with studied indifference for the plight of his neighbor Lazarus. Dives was comfortable while Lazarus suffered. Dives was healthy while Lazarus was sick. Dives was wealthy while Lazarus was destitute.

Like Lazarus languishing at the gate of Dives, the issues that afflict and affect the black community in 2015 are in full view. As followers of Jesus, we must confront the Dives-like indifference of our time about the plight of marginalized people, including the black community, if Baptists are be faithful agents of social justice in keeping with God’s love and truth.

This is easier said than done. Sin causes people to become self-absorbed to the point that we become indifferent towards others. Because self-worship invariably leads to self-service, self-absorbed people develop practices, policies, and processes that automatically favor people with whom they claim affinity while disfavoring others.

Our challenge is to somehow hold a vision of justice that calls people out of self-absorption, self-worship, and self-service. Somehow, we must understand that God’s will for us as a society demands living that is larger than self-interest, deeper than personal privilege, and more than self-aggrandizement. The enslavement, dehumanization, systemic dis-enfranchisement, bloody emancipation, and long years of discrimination experienced by black people in the United States is the direct result of an abysmal failure by religious people to embrace that vision of justice, proclaim it, and hold people in charge of the various systems of power accountable for functioning accordingly.

So we must first demand that the wider community recognize the suffering of black people in this society. The wider culture must see the black community as Lazarus at the gate! People who have been blessed with privilege, social acceptance, and material comfort must not be allowed to define life by that privilege, acceptance and comfort at the expense of their suffering sisters and brothers.

Here’s an example of what that involves for faithful followers of Jesus.

The January 1969 issue of Playboy Magazine contained a lengthy essay I wish every follower of Jesus would read. You probably aren’t interested in reading current issues of Playboy Magazine, let alone trying to find an issue published forty-six years ago. But this essay was authored by a black Baptist pastor who dared to address social justice, both within the United States and globally!

That essay, titled A Testament of Hope, was written by a preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. I have not found it in electronic form anywhere. It appears in a book titled, appropriately, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., a collection of Dr. King’s books, speeches, and interviews that was edited by James Melvin Washington.[1]

A Testament of Hope is not only the title of that book but the title of an essay published in Playboy Magazine in January 1969, almost a year after Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.  The essay is Dr. King’s last published work. Yet I never hear preachers quote it. I never hear political leaders quote it. I never hear or read that seminary professors refer to it.

Here is how Dr. King characterized the state of social justice and civil rights in A Testament of Hope.

Whenever I am asked my opinion of the current state of the civil rights movement, I am forced to pause; it is not easy to describe a crisis so profound that it has caused the most powerful nation in the world to stagger in confusion and bewilderment.  Today’s problems are so acute because the tragic evasions and defaults of several centuries have accumulated to disaster proportions.  The luxury of a leisurely approach to urgent solutions—the ease of gradualism—was forfeited by ignoring the issues for too long. …Confronted now with the interrelated problems of war, inflation, urban decay, white backlash and a climate of violence, [the nation] is now forced to address itself to race relations and poverty, and it is tragically unprepared.  What might once have been a series of separate problems now merge into a social crisis of almost stupefying complexity.[2]

…Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful? The problem is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially. All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly.

…White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.

Stephen Vincent Benet had a message for both white and black Americans in the title of a story, Freedom Is a Hard Bought Thing. When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process.  Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care—each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct.  Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms.  This fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past … were obtained at bargain prices. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black public officials.

The price of progress would have been high enough at the best of times, but we are in an agonizing national crisis because a complex of profound problems has intersected in an explosive mixture. The black surge toward freedom has raised justifiable demands for racial justice in our … cities at a time when all the problems of city life have simultaneously erupted. Schools, transportation, water supply, traffic and crime would have been municipal agonies whether or not Negroes lived in our cities. The anarchy of unplanned city growth was destined to confound our confidence. What is unique to this period is our inability to arrange an order of priorities that promises solutions that are decent and just.

…If we look honestly at the realities of our national life, it is clear that we are not marching forward; we are groping and stumbling; we are divided and confused. Our moral values and our spiritual confidence sink, even as our material wealth ascends. In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society.  It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.[3]

…Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves on what little progress we Negroes have made. I’m sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day. It doesn’t matter where we are individually in the scheme of things, how near we may either to the top or to the bottom of society; the cold facts of racism slap each one of us in the face.[4]

…When a culture begins to feel threatened by its own inadequacies, the majority of men tend to prop themselves up by artificial means, rather than dig down deep into their spiritual and cultural wellsprings. America seems to have reached this point…. I think most Americans know in their hearts that their country has been terribly wrong in its dealings with other peoples around the world.  When Rome began to disintegrate from within, it turned to a strengthening of the military establishment, rather than to a correction of the corruption within the society. We are doing the same thing in this country and the result will probably be the same—unless, and here I admit to a bit of chauvinism, the black man in America can provide a new soul force for all Americans, a new expression of the American dream that need not be realized at the expense of other men around the world, but a dream of opportunity and life that can be shared with the rest of the world.[5]

Martin King saw and understood the Lazarus-like plight of black people in this society. And in doing so, he had the audacity to declare the unpleasant truth about the interrelationship of racism, classism, militarism, and materialism and the crippling effects of longstanding and studied indifference about those evils. He did so as a follower of Jesus. He did so as a Baptist preacher and pastor.

Forty-five years later, the evils have not been confronted. The Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders documented the effect of abusive law enforcement behaviors, the lack of meaningful employment opportunities, and pernicious race discrimination as factors behind the urban riots of the 1960s. Those appalling realities have not changed.  Racial tension is steadily building because of the deaths of unarmed black men, women, youth, and senior citizens at the hands of law enforcement officers.

As Dr. King acknowledged in A Testament of Hope, “there is no single answer to the plight of the [American black community]. Conditions and needs vary greatly in different sections of the country.[6] However, the ongoing violence against black people by agents of law enforcement is widespread. And I do not merely refer to physical violence. Black people also suffer injustice because of political, economic, and environmental violence.

The 2000 election debacle that involved the Supreme Court of the United States ordering an end to votes being counted in Florida was a colossal example of political violence. Voter identification laws that restrict voting based on fanciful notions of voter fraud are examples of political violence. The decision by the Supreme Court that gutted key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act is another example of political violence.

Mass incarceration is also political violence. There were fewer than 350,000 persons incarcerated in state, local, and federal jails in 1974. Today there are almost 2.3 million incarcerated persons. These politically dis-enfranchised people are the victims of what Professor Michelle Alexander has correctly termed “the New Jim Crow.” Black people disproportionately are represented in this exponential increase in the number of incarcerated people. During slavery we were denied political power because we were considered sub-human (three-fifths of a person). After the Civil War our political power was attacked by deliberate schemes that included intimidation, outright terrorism, murder, and fraud. The Voting Rights Act was passed to address the most egregious kinds of that conduct. But the effect of the so-called “war on drugs” has been to rob political power from black, poor, and other marginalized people.

While politicians and bankers boast about the nation experiencing a modest economic recovery, black unemployment and under-employment remains at the depression level state black people have suffered for years. That economic violence affects every facet of life.

I encourage you to go online and read an article by G. William Domhoff, Professor of Sociology at University of California at Santa Cruz, titled Who Rules America: Wealth, Income, and Power.[7] Professor Domhoff shares the following information.

  • In 2006, white households had median household income (earnings from wages and salaries) of $52,600 compared to $31,600 for black households and $36,800 for Latino households.
  • In 2007, white households had median net worth (total assets, including home value, minus total debt) valued at $151,100. The median household net worth for black households was only $9,700, less than one tenth of the median household net worth of white households.  The median household net worth for Latino households was slightly lower at $9,600.
  • In 2007, the median household financial wealth (non-home ownership wealth that can be immediately used to acquire other assets or investments) of white households was $45,900. It was only $600 for black households and $400 for Latino households.
  • In 2009, white households had a median income (earnings from wages and salaries) of $51,000, down $2,600 from 2006. Black median household income dropped to $30,000 (down $1,600 from 2006).  Latino median household income dropped also, to $34,000 (down $2,800 from 2006).
  • In 2010, white households had a median net worth (total assets including home value minus total debt) of $97,000 (down $54,000—about a third—from 2007). Black households had a median net worth in 2010 of $4,900 (down $4,800—almost half—from 2007).  Latino households had a median net worth in 2010 of $1,300 (down $8,300—almost three-fourths—from 2007).
  • In 2010, median household financial wealth (non-home wealth) was $27,700 for white households (down from $45,900 in 2007). It was only $100 for black households (down from $600—83%—in 2007), and $0 for Latino households (down from $400—100%–in 2007).

Professor Domhoff explains the significance of these numbers in the following words:

“Black and Latino households are faring significantly worse overall, whether we are talking about income or net worth. In 2010, the average white household had almost 20 times as much total wealth as the average African-American household, and more than 70 times as much wealth as the average Latino household. If we exclude home equity from the calculations and consider only financial wealth, the ratios are more than 100:1. Extrapolating from these figures, we see that 71% of white families’ wealth is in the form of their principal residence; for Blacks and Hispanics, the figures are close to 100%.”    

Plainly, black households have less wealth to transfer from one generation to the next.  Although these numbers give us a sense about the income and wealth disparities across racial lines in the United States they don’t explain the causes.

Wealth begins with the ability to convert earnings into assets. Any fair assessment of wealth disparity between black and white people in the United States must recognize that slavery cheated black people from the opportunity to obtain earnings. People whose households have been denied opportunities to earn for centuries are less able to acquire the marketable assets that make up the foundation for obtaining and building wealth.

Black slaves had no income during slavery. They left slavery without income, education, and any other means for acquiring wealth when the Civil War ended in 1865 after having contributed to the earnings that white people used in South and in the North to acquire wealth. Poor white persons who did not own slaves but who earned wages for their work were able, by virtue of being white earners, to gain income they could use to acquire houses and build wealth which they could pass to their descendants at death.

Slaves owned no wealth to pass to their descendants, only abject poverty and a future of racist oppression. White workers have never suffered that burden.

Income, when saved, can be used to purchase homes. Home ownership is the largest asset purchase made by most earners. After slavery ended, black workers earned fewer dollars for their work than their white counterparts so black workers had fewer dollars to save toward acquiring land and houses. Instead, black families spent more of their meager earnings for consumption items such as food and clothing.

Most black people were concentrated in the rural South until the northern migration during the early and mid-twentieth century. Wages were low and opportunities to acquire property were limited for black people in the post-Reconstruction South.  When blacks moved to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest during the twentieth century, opportunities to purchase houses were severely limited by racially segregated housing patterns. Banks and other lending institutions often refused to finance mortgages in black neighborhoods.

Even when blacks were able to purchase housing their opportunities to market their houses at appreciating prices were limited because of segregation. Consequently, blacks were substantially less able to build net worth through increased equity in their homes than were whites.

Substandard earning power, legalized discrimination that affected opportunities to acquire homes and market them profitably, race discrimination in public education, employment, and other forms of injustice have deprived black families from having equal opportunity to acquire and build wealth. The history of that inequality is the necessary starting point for any honest understanding and discussion about the wealth disparity in the United States between white and black people.  Black household income has never been equal to that of white households. Black opportunities for education, employment, and wealth acquisition have never been equal.

And as Professor Domhoff correctly observes, nonwhite households are affected worse than white households when the U.S. economy struggles. White household median wealth dropped a third in the recent recession.  Median black household wealth plummeted by almost half.  Latino household wealth practically evaporated. Hard work alone doesn’t correct those disparities. That reality, while inconvenient or unpopular to accept, is nevertheless true.

Public policy in the United States has never attempted to redress historical wealth disparities between white and nonwhite persons, but has instead systematically and consistently worsened or ignored them.  President Andrew Johnson made sure that black slaves didn’t receive “forty acres and a mule” after the Civil War. When Rutherford B. Hayes became president of the nation less than a generation after the Civil War ended, the former slaves were left to the worse vices of southern white supremacy as white southerners immediately pursued violent and pernicious assaults against black attempts at self-advancement lasting throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and for two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Black businesses were intentionally destroyed in many places across the United States by violent perpetrators. In most cases, local, state, and federal authorities did little or nothing to bring the perpetrators of that violence to justice, let alone see that the black victims of it were made whole. White armed terrorists destroyed the black business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma (Tulsa’s Black Wall Street).

Race discrimination in education, employment, political participation, business development, and public accommodation has been public policy in the United States longer than government policies on equal opportunity in areas of life related to earning power and wealth acquisition. Societal complicity in and sponsorship of race-based violence against black aspirations to acquire and build wealth has never been even admitted by public policymakers.

Despite all the proof about state-sponsored slavery, Jim Crow segregation, race discrimination, and the clear evidence that these injustices have contributed to disparities between white and black households in wealth acquisition, no local, state, or national policies have ever been seriously attempted to address those disparities. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him denounced economic violence but there is little evidence that we have been inspired by their example to confront that evil in our time and how it operates to torment the black community.

One of the painful ironies of the Obama presidency is that President Obama has repeatedly rejected pleas to establish public policies aimed at undoing the economic effects of that discrimination on black descendants whose ancestors were systematically robbed and cheated from equal opportunities to acquire wealth. Public policies and resources established, maintained, and nurtured the forces responsible for racial wealth disparities. Any true notion of justice demands that public policies and resources be used to redress them.  Sadly, President Obama, a black baptized follower of Jesus, has refused to even mention the need for such redress, let alone propose and attempt policies aimed at doing so.

Silence on the part of religious leaders about the blatant moral and ethical ramifications of this economic violence only works to validate the evil rather than expose and condemn it. We owe a duty to God and to people who, like Lazarus, are suffering at the gate of this society because of its legacy of systemic racism, materialism, classism, sexism (including religious based homophobia), and addiction to violence (militarism), to speak up about and advocate for radical change in policies and living so that suffering people will be delivered from economic violence and oppression. If the society, like Dives, refuses to heed our prophetic call for radical change (repentance) we will have fulfilled our moral and ethical duty to God and our neighbors. But we must declare that radical change is a moral and ethical imperative.

At the same time that we challenge and debunk the “prosperity gospel” mindset glorified by “preacher-tainers” such as Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, and Joel Osteen, religious leaders and congregations must nurture black people about financial literacy and the moral and ethical implications of how people use the resources they have. We must nurture black families and communities to embrace financial literacy and practice fair-minded behavior aimed at acquiring marketable assets and building financial net worth. 

For starters, we need to emphasize the relationship between education and earning power. People with higher education are more capable of finding, holding, and capitalizing on earning opportunities.

Runners who are forced to start behind and carry extra burdens in a race do not have a fair chance at winning, even if some of the burdens are removed, if they don’t run smartly and exert disciplined effort.  Black families cannot expect to build the earning capacity required for acquiring wealth without emphasizing education.  No parent, regardless of marital status, should subject any child to a higher risk of economic disadvantage because the child doesn’t’ obtain a good education.  Black people have a stake in public education not merely surviving.  We need it to thrive so that every child gets the best chance possible to enter adulthood equipped to become more healthy and wealthy.

Black churches were the first schools for former slaves. We need more black churches to sponsor after-school learning centers than we need choir rehearsals.  We need black teachers, preachers, workers, and others who help young people learn and become proficient in reading and other language skills, mathematics, science, technology, and the arts. Church buildings and campuses should be neighborhood centers where loving men and women volunteer to help children build strong minds and disciplined learning skills in those after-school centers. Black religious organizations, fraternal, and other social organizations need to devote time and effort toward advancing financial literacy and agitating for public policies aimed at addressing the historical causes and continuing effects of racial wealth disparities.

Two messages should be uniformly emphasized as we do so:  (1) no person or people ever became wealthy consuming all they produced; and (2) people who will not save more than they consume will always have less capacity to acquire assets needed to produce and build wealth while making other people wealthy in the meantime!

It is certainly true that black households have less wealth, and less capacity for acquiring more wealth, than white households. However, that does not mean black households are economically powerless.

During the September 2011 Congressional Black Caucus the analytics firm Nielsen and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (also known as the Black Press of America) jointly reported that black buying power is projected to reach $1.1 trillion ($1,100 billion) by 2015 , two years from now. The report also included the following findings.

  • With a buying power of nearly 1 trillion dollars annually, if blacks were a country, they’d be the 16th largest country in the world.
  • Blacks make more shopping trips than all other groups.
  • Blacks in higher income brackets spend 300 percent more in higher end retail grocers more than any other high-income household.

Boyce Watkins, a professor of business at Syracuse, said he was not surprised by studies with these kinds of results. “Unfortunately, when African-Americans make money, we spend it. We don’t use it to invest or produce,” he told BlackAmericanweb.com. “When we get our tax refund, we go straight to the store.”

Spending discipline, or the lack of it, is learned from parents and other elders. When elders practice financial discipline, thrift, emphasize setting aside money for savings, and then expose young people to the relationship between saving, investing, and wealth acquisition, the elders will leave more wealth to their descendants at death. Meanwhile, their children will learn to spend less money on consumption items and learn to conserve more money for savings and such investments as education, home ownership, stock and bond purchases, and starting their own businesses.

Real estate, business investments, stocks, government and private bonds, and other profitable capital acquisitions are marketable assets. Video games, home entertainment modules, mobile phones, automobiles, snack foods, and personal wardrobes are not.  Black earners are spending too much money consuming. We are not saving enough. And we have little to show despite all our buying power aside from lots of used consumer goods and expanded waistlines (with the costly health issues that come with obesity such as diabetes, hypertension, colorectal  and other cancers, and other life-threatening and wealth-stealing illnesses).

Followers of Jesus must challenge local, state, and national policymakers (whatever their ethnicity) to own and pay  the moral, social, and economic debt owed black people because of historical and continued racism and disparities associated with it. But we should also not allow people to feel entitled to squander the opportunities they have. Runners who start behind can complain about being forced to start behind and carry unfair burdens. That doesn’t justify sitting down on the track, wasting resources needed to run faster, and refusing to train to run smarter, faster, and stronger.

Disparities in wealth between whites and blacks have historical roots, continued effects, and influence the amount of wealth black families can transfer from one generation to the next. Religious leaders should call on public officials to create and effectively carry out polices that redress those disparities and their causes and continued effects. We should also develop ministries targeted for black families and communities, in the meantime, to promote and practice financial literacy and discipline so that we replace self-defeating tendencies of crass materialism and conspicuous consumption with a culture of financial discipline, thrift, and fair-minded investment in marketable assets capable of building financial net worth.

In all these things, let us always be inspired and guided by divine compassion, mercy, and fairness toward people facing unfair burdens. After all, the final test for every person, family, community, and society is whether we have used our power, including our wealth, to make life right for all, including the least privileged among us), not merely to make ourselves rich and comfortable (see Matthew 25:31-46).

I must not conclude these remarks without speaking with you about environmental violence and its impact on black people, particularly in the area of nutrition and health. In August 2012 the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report titled Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts.[8] The publication was based on a study of more than 6,500 food desert census tracts identified by analyzing 2000 census and 2006 data about the location of supermarkets, supercenters, and large grocery stores. The study found that census tracts with high levels of poverty are more likely to be food deserts, and that in all but very dense urban areas, the higher the percentage of the minority population, the more likely the area is to be a food desert.

You may wonder why this is important. The report answers that question as follows.

Areas with limited access to healthy, affordable food often lack access to other services as well, such as banks, health care, transportation infrastructure, and parks or recreational areas.  In addition to having poor access, residents of impoverished or deprived areas frequently face higher prices for food and other necessities. Poor education and limited health care services in conjunction with high prices for fresh produce and other healthy food may result in poor diet and adverse health outcomes for residents of these areas.  Access to affordable and nutritious food may also be important for the effectiveness of government benefit programs:  an analysis using data from an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) demonstration in Dayton, OH, concluded that improved access to large grocery stores can increase the welfare of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients by an estimated value of $2.78 to $7.76 per month. SNAP is the name of the former Food Stamp Program.[9]

Remember A Testament of Hope?  Although he didn’t use the term “food desert,” Martin King mentioned the very situation described in the 2012 USDA report I just quoted in the following words.

There is also the violence of having to live in a community and pay higher consumer prices for goods or higher rent for equivalent housing than are charged in the white areas of the city. Do you know that a can of beans almost always costs a few in grocery chain stores located in the Negro ghetto than in a store of that same chain located in the upper-middle-class suburbs, where the median income is five times as high?  The Negro knows it. …And what do you think this knowledge does to his soul? How do you think it affects his view of the society he lives in?  How can you expect anything but disillusionment and bitterness?  The question that now faces us is whether we can turn the Negro’s disillusionment and bitterness into hope and faith in the essential goodness of the American system. If we don’t, our society will crumble.[10]

King’s analysis and the USDA report should remind us of Lazarus. Lazarus was sick. Lazarus was poor. Lazarus was mal-nourished! Lazarus languished in a food desert while Dives feasted sumptuously each day!  The Lazarus-like plight of black people in the United States includes the environmental violence of food deserts. We cannot speak of social justice for the black community without addressing that environmental violence.

The plight of the black community in the United States is not an act of God, but the result of centuries of physical, political, economic, environmental and other forms of violence based on racism, classism, materialism, militarism, sexism, and techno-centrism. Our challenge as Baptists is to call this society and its leaders to rise from complacency and complicity about racial injustice and engage in the radical change King preached about. We must live up to our prophetic duty as followers of Jesus and rouse our society out of its Dives-like mindset and greed-induced notion that glaring inequality is morally and ethically acceptable.

Dr. King stated the issue with characteristic clarity and blunt eloquence in A Testament of Hope as follows.

“America has not yet changed because so many think it need not change, but this is the illusion of the damned.  America must change because twenty-three million black citizens will no longer live supinely in a wretched past.  They have left the valley of despair; they have found strength in struggle; and whether they live or die, they shall never crawl nor retreat again. Joined by white allies, they will shake the prison walls until they fall.  America must change.”[11]

Those words were a prophetic appeal to our society to engage in the radical and subversive process of repentance. As the rich man learned too late, the fate of the comfortable and privileged is always inextricably connected to the welfare of people like Lazarus. The issue for followers of Jesus is whether we will exhort our society to repentance for its studied indifference concerning black and other marginalized people.

Jesus of Nazareth called the people of his time and place to repentance.  Martin King called the people of his time and place to repentance. The fate of black people and our nation will turn on whether we have enough moral imagination, courage, and faith in the goodness of God to act as they did. If we exercise that prophetic imagination, courage, and faith the issue then is whether people who are privileged, comfortable, and powerful will heed our call for a radical re-ordering of priorities in keeping with God’s love, justice, and peace. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., [James Melvin Washington, ed.], Harper and Row, San Francisco, (1986 )

[2] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 313.

[3] A Testament of Hope, p. 314-15.

[4] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 321-22.

[5] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 323.

[6] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 325.

[7] http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html.

[8] Dutko, Paula, Michele Ver Ploeg, and Tracey Farrigan, Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts, ERR-140, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, August 2012. The report can be read online at http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/883903/err140.pdf.

[9] Supra, at p. 3.

[10] A Testament of Hope, supra, p. 327.

[11] A Testament of Hope, p. 328.

Copyright: Wendell Griffen.

2 thoughts on “Social Justice for the Black Community in the U.S.A.

  1. Pingback: Why racism persists in America | Occupy The Bronx

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