Your life and my life flow into each other

A look at race, class and personal, social responsibility

by Abby Ferguson

Abby Ferguson

One in three black men will face incarceration at some point in his life. Over 23% of Romans live below the poverty line. One of every 35 Americans lives under correctional supervision. Public education is floundering. Racism runs rampant.

What am I supposed to do? This question haunts my days and nights.

  • What am I to do about racism, about single-parent moms scraping out by on two or three minimum wage jobs?
  • How can I help innocent men lost in the penitentiary system serving time for crimes they did not commit?
  • What is my first step when I meet families living on $11,000 a year?

Compassion, certainly. And then? How do we solve problems when the only answer seems to be to scrap the whole system and start over? I have no idea. But finding the answer—or at least finding the first step—has become my goal.

So I’m starting with education. My own.

Same City, Worlds Apart

Like many middle-class, white Americans, I am tempted to reject notions of 21st century racism as unfounded. I can identify no racism in my past or present experiences, and based on my evidence, it’s high time we moved along.

Nevertheless, I am reading, looking and imagining that I am wrong. And as I read, I am drawn into a world and history of people whose lives are different from my own. More and more, the divide in social classes in the United States is fostering distinct ecosystems of society.

Sure, the top layer of citizens share some similarities with the bottom layer, just as the ecology of a savanna is not 100% distinct from that of a wetland. But by and large, social divisions in the United States are creating nearly incomparable social ecosystems whose populations now struggle to communicate.

Volunteers from the Community Kitchen of Rome serve hot meals five days a week.

The link between race and social divides is undeniable, as wealth stacks up on one side and dwindles away on the other. Across the board, white Americans make more money, live in better houses and receive better education than black Americans.

So why the difference?

Race seems to be a big part of the answer. It is not, however, merely an issue of blatant racism. This would be, if not easy to cure, at least easy to diagnose and treat.

Unfortunately, American racism today is much more subtle, painfully obvious to those on the receiving end and invisible to those on top. Our systems—societal, penitentiary, economic, educational—are shaped like pyramids, pushing people away from the median and back to the places they began.

John Henderson, left, Tiffaney Moore and Janice Henderson from Oak Hill
Church of Christ are some of the local volunteers who staff the Community Kitchen.

Instead of balancing the scales and giving all kids the same quality of education, better schools tend to go to those who already have more money and more education. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that works in both directions. The successful get an automatic boost up the ladder toward the success in which they were born, while the poor can rarely climb up the pyramid’s peak to get to the other side.

Young black men, for example, are stereotyped to be more aggressive, more criminal and more disrespectful of authority. As such, more young black men are reprimanded in schools, arrested for crimes and serve more jail time, perpetuating the stereotype.

Ignorance is bliss?

As I wrestle with the injustice of a system I did not create, I have to wonder what it is that strikes such a chord in me and assures me that this injustice is as much my problem as that of anyone else. To borrow from author Frederick Buechner: Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality—not as we expect it to be but as it is—is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily: that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love (Listening to Your Life).

The Community Kitchen serves five days per week.

Along with every American, I am implicated in charges of social injustice. No one has the luxury of living above or apart from the rest of the world. As wave falls into wave, the glitter of one life spreads onto the wet paint of the next, and the tears dripping from one face cover the hands of the life next door.

I have not experienced racism. I don’t even know where to look for it. I have been afraid to look too closely into these things, because if ignorance is bliss, then knowledge must surely come at an uncomfortable cost.

I am afraid of what I will discover in the months to come. I am afraid of the injustice I will witness that makes me want to curl inside myself and close my eyes to the world. I am afraid of being made a fool. I am afraid of my own cowardice. I am afraid of the stories I may hear in the coming months, and the people who may suffer at the hands of my ignorance and clumsiness as I retell their stories. Unfortunately, my fear does nothing to resolve these questions, so I am resolved to search them out.

I begin to think that I would rather suffer the weight of the darkness of my own heart and of the world than risk the comfortable complicity of my unawareness.

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