The Common Good
November 2012

Racial Politics

by Jim Wallis | November 2012

It is contrary to Christian values to use attacks on welfare to win white votes.

RACE WAS THE issue that changed the direction of my life. Growing up in Detroit in the early 1960s, the realities of white racism upended the world and church that I lived in.

What I saw and heard as a teenager painfully showed me that something was terribly wrong with my country and my religion. Trying to confront it got me virtually kicked out of my childhood church, led me into the civil rights and student movements, introduced me to the black churches, and set me on a path that would eventually bring me back to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ—which calls for social, racial, and economic justice. The historical tragedy, the “original sin,” of white racism in the United States is still a fundamental starting point to how I see the world.

So when I look at this election involving the first African-American president in U.S. history, I can’t help but go back to the critical questions of race. Let me be clear: To disagree with policies of President Obama and his administration is not racist. Agreements and disagreements are just that, and should not be correlated to race. And regardless of how we vote, we should all appreciate the fact that the role model of the Obama family living in the White House has convinced millions of young black men and women, and youth of all races—many for the first time—that they are really a part of this country and that they too could someday be president of the United States.

But I am concerned about how race has again distorted our politics. I want to speak directly to what those racial politics are and how people of faith should call them out and oppose them, no matter how we vote or what we think of the policies of the president.

I am referring, in particular, to efforts that cast Barack Obama as “the other.” The contention of the “birthers” that the president wasn’t born in America and doesn’t have a birth certificate, or of those who suggest he isn’t a real American, and those who charge that he isn’t really a Christian but is secretly a Muslim—all these are racial messages. They should be confronted by people of faith, regardless of our political views and no matter how we will vote. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim, but Barack Obama is unquestionably a committed Christian, and other Christians need to treat him as a brother in Christ whether they agree or disagree with his policy decisions.

Many of the attacks on welfare or “the food stamp president” are deliberately aimed at white working-class voters, insinuating that their tax money is being spent on people who are lazy, irresponsible, and racially different from them. The racial attacks that Ronald Reagan invoked against alleged “welfare queens” have returned with new ads that accuse President Obama of “dropping work requirements” of welfare reform. That the ads are false doesn’t seem to be a problem for those running them. But we need to make sure that all the talk about welfare is not part of a deliberate racial strategy of dividing Americans from one another.

We should all agree that we need a reliable safety net to help those who can’t make it on their own; and we need targeted investments and programs that help people find the opportunity to lift their families out of poverty. Of course, we should make sure those efforts work effectively to increase opportunity and not dependency. But it is irresponsible and contrary to Christian values to use attacks on welfare, and on people who receive any government assistance, as part of a racially based strategy to win white votes.

I disagreed with many of the policies of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, but I respected his clear commitment not to use race or racial politics in his campaign against Barack Obama.

This year, I have appreciated those Republican officials and conservative commentators who have called for a “big tent” Republican party that is open to an ethnically changing America. In particular, I have heard some conservative voices make the effort to criticize the anti-immigrant messages in this campaign, particularly those aimed at the millions of undocumented people, of whom a large majority are Latinos, suggesting that they are not welcome in the U.S.—a message that is also often full of racial implications. Those same voices applauded the more-diverse group of speakers at their convention and lamented that the GOP convention floor was still overwhelmingly white and male.

Diversity in our politics is a value that Christians on all sides of the spectrum should support. In particular, efforts to suppress the votes of those who are low-income or from racial minorities should be vigorously opposed by people of faith, no matter what our politics.

Racial justice is a faith issue and should be a bipartisan commitment and a nonpartisan cause. This election, let’s make sure that as people of faith we are at least clear about that.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.

Image: Stop racism, Beror / Shutterstock.com

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