Wednesday, January 20, 2016

From Apartheid to Accompaniment States of America (Brian E. Konkol)

This reflection was written from South Africa, where I was co-teaching "The Struggle to Be Well", a study-away course offered by Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minn.) in companionship with local activists and intellectuals, which sought to examine the political, economical, ecological, racial, and religious factors that contribute to both individual and communal wellbeing. 

The following was published by The Huffington Post on January 19, 2016 and can be found at:

When Frederick Douglas assembled with other representatives at the National Colored Convention of 1853, they collectively condemned the nationwide epidemic of racial discrimination in the so-called United States of America. As the gathering intended to discuss the circumstances and possibilities of “coloreds” (as they were called then), they recognized the various ways that “scorn and contempt” were heaped upon them — for no justifiable reason — by the white-skinned racial majority. Douglas stated:

A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us, as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influences of a nation’s scorn and contempt.

Nearly 200 years after Frederick Douglas was born we recognize that racial ignorance continues to exist in the U.S., and among other things, it leads to a disturbing level of collective indifference and injustice. With all other demographic factors being equal (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), those with white skin tend to enjoy higher levels of income, better forms of education, more advanced access to healthcare, less interaction with the criminal justice system, and many other areas of social opportunity when compared to those whose skin is either black or brown. While there are many reasons that one can cite for such inequality, we can begin with the sociological fact that many racial groups continue to reside in physical isolation. While apartheid is typically used to describe pre-democracy South Africa, the term (which means, “separateness”) can also illustrate contemporary life in the U.S., for racial integration is — for the most part — alarmingly rare.  

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits all forms of housing discrimination, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that millions of instances occur each year, thus apartheid continues to be a common facet of U.S. life. Segregated neighborhoods are often reinforced by the practice of racial “steering” by real estate agents, or when landlords deceive potential tenants about the availability of housing or perhaps require conditions that are not required of white applicants. In addition, lending institutions often treat mortgage applicants differently when buying homes in non-white neighborhoods in comparison to their attempt to purchase in white neighborhoods. Furthermore, equivalent housing in white areas commands a higher rent than others, and through the process of bidding-up the costs of housing, many white neighborhoods effectively shut-out people of color, because those without white skin are more often unwilling (or unable) to pay the premium price to buy entry into such white neighborhoods. In total, as a result of such apartheid, not only do we witness a rise in racial ignorance and indifference, but it also leads to increased injustice in the form of disproportionate personal and public hostility directed at people of color.

In response to the ongoing realities of apartheid in the U.S., our response is to affirm that we are created to be connected as companions in community.

As a theological foundation of Christian faith is the affirmation that all people are created by God, a sociological implication is that every member of humankind shares a sacred identity, and a result is a spiritual connection that is expressed through companionship in community (Genesis 2:18). Therefore, whereas isolation leads to ignorance, indifference, and injustice, those who embrace being created to be connected as companions in community move past apartheid and instead accompany others in solidarity and mutuality for the pursuit of serving a common good. Those who affirm being created to be connected as companions in community are more likely to understand than ignore, serve rather than sever, and advocate instead of overlook. The implications of such affirmations are both countless and crucial.

While apartheid has no simple solution (as has been proven over the past twenty years in South Africa), one can argue that some steps are quite straightforward. In order for equity to become a reality, we must be committed to reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment, and such movements cannot take place unless people move from apartheid to accompaniment. Those with children in the same schools, appointments with the same doctors, walks in the same parks, carts in the same shopping aisles, jobs in the same office buildings, homes in the same streets, and seats in the same churches are more likely to put aside the labels of “us” and “them” and instead see others for who they truly are: Children of God. In order to broaden and redefine the “we” so fondly found in “We the People”, a key point is to move past our isolation and embrace companionship for the sake of restoring our communities and promoting life in its fullness.

The United States of America was founded as an apartheid state, and we continue to wander in the wildness as a consequence of this national original sin. But thanks be to God, life can follow death, thus the time is upon us to move past so-called racial tolerance, go beyond our traditional comfort zones, and actively seek out interactions and relationships that embody truth and reconciliation for the sake of justice-seeking accompanying communities. As we learn to accompany one another across racial lines through the twists and turns of daily life, we experience God as alive and well in the midst of our conflicts and searches for resolution, and the result is various opportunities to join together in ways that replaces exclusion and isolation with embrace and companionship for the promotion of open and free opportunity. In order to take these important steps from alternative to apartheid, we are called to transform the present, empower each other for the future, and through a commitment to companionship, boldly restore the human community into that which God has created us to be.