Here’s a slight change of pace from our recent discussions on this blog. Today, like most days, I’m thinking about the nexus of relationships among justice, race, contemporary American consumer culture, and place. The “place” issue is the one that hits closest to home (pun intended), as my wife and I consider the ongoing implications of our decision two years ago to relocate from Philadelphia, PA to Cuyahoga Falls, OH. According to one website (a dubious assertion, I know), in Cuyahoga Falls “95.06% of people are white, 1.70% are black, 1.46% are asian, 0.28% are native american, and 1.29% claim ‘Other’.” Philadelphia, by way of contrast, has the following demographics, side-by-side with statistics for the entire U.S.-
RACE Philadelphia United States
White 42.86% 77.53%
Black 44.29% 12.35%
Asian 5.26% 3.58%
American Indian 0.30% 0.89%
Other 7.78% 5.65%
Hispanic 9.27% 12.73%
Non-Hispanic 90.16% 87.27%
So you can see that when we moved from Philly to Akron’s neighbor to the north (Cuyahoga Falls isn’t a true “suburb” as I understand the term, though it probably functions in many ways like one), we went from a city with slightly more black folks than white and a good mix of other races too, to one that is so white that it often gets called (pejoratively, in my view) “Caucasian Falls.” For a bit more context, Akron is 65% white and 30% black, while Cleveland- just a little further to the north, has a larger black majority than Philadelphia at 53% black and 39% white (and a notorious history of “challenging” race relations, to boot).
In any case, this change is one that we’ve struggled with to a surprising degree. It’s not just that there aren’t many non-white folks around (in Cuyahoga Falls, anyway), it’s that this fact affords the vast white majority the ability to not have to think about it. This often gets mentioned as one of the primary aspects of (white) privilege- the ability to ignore race as a primary controlling factor in your every-day life. In other words, if you’re black in Cuyahoga Falls, there isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t have to think about your minority status, as the heritage of cultural and legal racism and the entrenched institional racism that still persists to this day affects you- to one degree or another- each day. However, if you’re white in Cuyahoga Falls, you don’t really have to think about being white. It just “is,” and as such there are related privileges, opportunities, etc. that are also taken for granted.
I had a friend who once said that choosing where to buy a house is one of the most important theological choices a person could ever make, and these days especially, I have to agree. What does it mean that Kirsten and I chose to “put down roots” here, to see our son grow up (at least for a time) here? What message are we sending by surrounding him with such racial homogeneity, such that, to echo the Counting Crows, he can “step out (his) front door like a ghost into a fog where no one notices the contrast of white-on-white?” I’ve long argued that if the Church is to be the body of Christ, it must fully reflect the Imago Dei- the “image of God.” It is my humble opinion that while each of us bear the image of God, that image is best and most fully reflected by all of us together. To the extent that each of us choose to turn away from right relationship with God, the image of God in us is marred, but I’m also asserting that it is further fractured to the extent that we remain outside of right relationship with one another, especially as we are divided upon fault lines of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. I’ve long argued then that I know God best (and myself, too!) when I am in right relationship with those who are different than me- especially, given our society, with those who look or talk differently than I do.
At heart I suppose I’m talking about loving my neighbor, while saying that we should give careful thought to how we choose who our (geographic) neighbors are. Taking the good samaritan story, for example, what if you could choose to live in a place where the only folks on the highway were just other priests and Levites? It seems to me the story assumes being in a place where the occasional Samaritan passes by too. Moreover, while it may be that no place is fully a “melting pot,” I still believe that the ideal would be to live in a place where there isn’t just an “occasional” Samaritan, but where Samaritans, priests, and Levites- or whites, blacks, asians, latinos, etc. (or even, God help us, Republicans and Democrats or GLBT and “straight” folks)- have learned to live side-by-side and are working to love one another and better the world, whether they claim to do so for Jesus’ sake or not.
Obviously, Cuyahoga Falls is not such a place (and I know, most places aren’t), but what then am I to do? Do I stick around and try to be an agent of change from inside out? Is this realistic or possible? Is it possible that I’ll influence the white folks around me to somehow love non-white folks better? Is it likely that non-white folks will want to move to my neighborhood just to be around me, just because I want to be around them? Because class/socioeconomic status is so intricately tied to race, will my white-ness and middle-class-ness, along with my decision to live around other white, middle-class folks, so overwhelm my good intentions that I fall ever deeper into the prison of my own privilege, unable to choose less (stuff) for the sake of having more (right, diverse relationships)? Or should I vote with my feet, and plant myself and my family in a geographic community that better reflects the ideals I want to live up to?