Crossing the Line: Coalitions for the Common Good Across Race, Class, and Gender
Guest Contributor: Tex Sample, Professor Emeritus at the St. Paul School of Theology
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” - Jeremiah 29:7 (NRSV)
I write this brief comment with every hope that George Floyd will not have died in vain. The violent and brutal act of his murder and that of so many others must not be forgotten and must by all moral and political force become the location for a societal current of change in police practice and a material commitment that Black lives matter. That human rights are crucial should go without saying, except for the fact that they are so often ignored and in so many systemic and structural ways, perhaps given voice, but substantively denied.
That human rights are crucial should go without saying, except for the fact that they are so often ignored and in so many systemic and structural ways, perhaps given voice, but substantively denied.
I want the above to be clear before I say what’s next in this comment, which is that civil rights will never be enough, that full integration of people of color into our society—as utterly crucial as it clearly is that they participate fully in the economic, political, and cultural wherewithal of this society, not to mention around the world—will not adequately deal with what is profoundly wrong with our country. I want to be thoroughly clear about my commitments above to make my next point.
A week before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was at a party at Harry Belafonte's house when he told Belafonte and a few other close associates that he was concerned that he was leading his people into a burning house, suggesting by this that to be integrated into the society of his time would be to become a part of a house that would continue its wretched inequalities, its peonage to wealth, its militarism, and its idolatry of empire as the appropriate role of the U.S. in the world. He addressed these matters on many occasions, and he often worried that it was not enough for Black people to be able to enter a restaurant if they could not afford to buy a meal there.
Currently, the Poor People’s Campaign points out that 140 million people in this society are poor and near poor. Basic to this poverty and financial struggle are the facts that we do not have nearly enough full-time jobs or jobs that pay a living wage, that we have moved from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, that the overwhelming number of jobs are in the underpaid service industries, and that money made in our country today is not primarily from production but rather from finance, with the result that inequalities of income and wealth are stratospheric. Beyond these conditions of inequality is the issue that concentrations of wealth now control our state legislatures and our national Congress.
One substantive study of 1,779 policy decisions found that the preferences of the American people have “a minuscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” To put it simply, we live in rapacious capitalism in service to the rich, where great numbers of the American people are in a deep struggle for their lives.
To put it simply, we live in rapacious capitalism in service to the rich, where great numbers of the American people are in a deep struggle for their lives.
I would be remiss if I did not mention rural and small-town America. Drive through the countryside and villages and see the way people are being drained by a predatory financial sector. There is wealth there, but it is going not to local families and farms; instead, it is going to big financial centers. As British author Nick Shaxson has observed, “mechanization, …genetic manipulation, information technology, and advanced management practices” generated two-and-a-half times the wealth since the 1950s, yet our farming communities are poorer. And, yes, there are more issues in rural America— fracking, the use of our natural resources, and more. Those of us in big metropolitan areas must not forget the substantive issues before rural Americans and our utter dependence on them as well for food and sustenance.
I can go on about a host of issues that plague our society today: housing, health care, education, childcare, our wretched immigration system, retirement income, and more. And, of course, add to these things the COVID-19 pandemic that is upon us and not showing signs of cessation as of this writing. It has starkly revealed not only the jeopardy of workaday Americans but that of the aged and other vulnerable people among us. And here— again!—the inequities of race show their demonic impact. We are in a helluva fix!
We must face the issues of production and distribution in our society; that is, we cannot avoid the issue of class.
Basic to my point here is that we must face the issues of production and distribution in our society; that is, we cannot avoid the issue of class. We know that the poverty rate of Black and brown people is extraordinarily high: 20.8 percent for the former and 17.6 percent for the latter. These represent 8.9 million people and 10.5 million respectively. Native Americans have the highest rate of poverty, with 23.7 percent or 600,000 people. What many people don’t know is that while white poverty is 8.1 percent, it nevertheless represents 15.7 million people (see https://talkpoverty.org/basics). The point is that there is a great deal of struggle and pain across the major racial and ethnic groups in our country. Add to these in each count those who are near poor, and one realizes that 42 percent of the American people fall in the poor and near poor categories.
We cannot address the issues of class without addressing those of race, and we cannot address issues of race and class if we do not address those of gender.
In pointing to the issue of class, we must not, of course, forget the matter of gender. The poverty rate for women is 12.9 percent, or 21.4 million people. And, not even counting housework, the majority of working-class jobs are now filled by women, so that once again, the critical issue of class appears. As someone has said, when we think of women in our country, we must consider not only the glass ceiling, but the concrete floor of the workplace and the sticky linoleum at home.
If there was ever a time for organizing in coalitions, this is it...This is not a time for silos, but a time for the great majority of the American people to organize and take action. Our lives depend on it.
So where do we go and what we do? We are in a time where there is a confluence of self-interest among not only the poor and near poor, but a great many in the middle class as well. So that if there was ever a time for organizing in coalitions, this is it. In fact, we cannot address the issues of race without taking on the issues of class.
We cannot address the issues of class without addressing those of race, and we cannot address issues of race and class if we do not address those of gender. Further, we can easily add those of others, such as LGBT+ people. This is not a time for silos, but a time for the great majority of the American people to organize and take action. Our lives depend on it.
This is a time for a renewal of that commitment to the common good in coalitions that cross the lines of race, class, and gender.
For those of us in the church, laity and clergy, I would remind them of the great teaching in scripture to seek the common good. Jeremiah’s word to the people of Israel to seek the welfare of the city, even in the city of Babylon where they were being taken into exile (Jeremiah 29:7). Or, Paul’s admonishment over and over again in his letters to seek the good of all (Philippians 2:4; 1 Corinthians 10:24). The common good, albeit finite and fragmented in its historical manifestations, nevertheless reflects the basileia, the kin’dom of God. This is a time for a renewal of that commitment to the common good in coalitions that cross the lines of race, class, and gender.
The Rev. Tex Sample is a specialist in church and society and a much sought-after lecturer, storyteller, workshop leader, and consultant. The Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at Saint Paul School of Theology in Leawood, Kansas, Tex pastors Trinity UMC in Kansas City, Missouri. He works with Urban Summit (an African American advocacy group), Jobs for Justice (an organization working with people of faith and labor), and the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity in Kansas City. He is author of more than a dozen books, including A Christian Justice for the Common Good and Working Class Rage (both by Abingdon Press).