Lesson 6: Lamentations 5:1-22; Luke 23:26-31
I remember the lack of trees, shrubs, flowers and playgrounds — the barrenness. I was in high school traveling across the deep South with a large youth singing group. On our way into New Orleans, we passed through shantytowns and the impoverished landscape went on for miles and miles. I was disturbed deeply and could not shake off what I saw.
Our study asks us to think about what issues and situations are a cause for lament in our communities. For me, the answer is entrenched poverty and racism — not only because of what I have witnessed, but because Scripture clearly demands that we create a more just society.
I knew that segregation and Jim Crow laws created incredible poverty. I have also known that in the inner city there is a high concentration of Blacks who are poor. It is only within the last year that I have come to understand why cities were planned to have high-density poor areas where people of color live.
When the Federal Housing Administration began in 1934, it refused to insure mortgages in or near Black neighborhoods. Banks and realtors implemented the polices. Cities were broken down into neighborhoods and color-coded. Black and brown neighborhoods were outlined in red; the term “redlining” became shorthand for the practice. The value of property was reduced if you were Black or brown. Whites in non-redlined areas could get low-interest loans, whereas people of color were charged high interest rates when they could get a loan. Though redlining became illegal in 1968 with the federal Fair Housing Act, people of color are still denied mortgage loans at a rate more than two times higher that of whites.
When we look at many inner cities, Blacks were and are often relegated to low-wage jobs, which means that basic necessities like healthcare are often neglected in favor of paying the rent. In poor neighborhoods, the tax base is low, which means that there is less funding for quality public education. With little chance of upward mobility through education or employment, many cannot get out of poverty.
In 2019, the presbytery in which I serve asked all the ministers and elders attending its August meeting to read “Waking Up White” by Debbie Irving. Many of us were blown away by the chapter about the GI Bill.
After World War II, returning soldiers were eligible for the GI Bill. The GI Bill gave financial aid to veterans for education and low-interest mortgage loans. It created the middle class with its subsidies, which went overwhelmingly to whites. If you were Black, the GI Bill was available to you, but few colleges accepted Black and brown people, and banks often refused mortgage loans to people of color even if they were backed by the government.
Adding further injury, in the 1950s, close-knit Black neighborhoods were decimated as interstates were built through their neighborhoods. This happened all over the country (see the Atlantic’s 2016 article “The Role of Highways in American Poverty” by Alana Semuels). Ninety percent of the low-income housing was destroyed; the promise of new and better housing was never fulfilled. Currently, affordable housing is in short supply and at crisis levels for many cities.
This history is important because we have to understand what has produced systems of poverty and racism in order to effect change. Without understanding the history, we blame the poor for their station in life and do not focus on changes in policies that are needed in healthcare, housing, education and lending.
Ibram X. Kendi, a preeminent Black history scholar, thinks of racism in terms of policies and ideas that produce inequity between identified groups. Kendi believes we are either racist or anti-racist. To be anti-racist is to actively fight against racist policies, practices and ideas. Kendi contends that there is no category of non-racist or color-blind. If we accept the status quo, we accept the racism built into the fabric of our society.
Kendi’s definition of racism gets under my skin and makes me squirm. It means that it is not enough for me to be kind and accepting of every person I meet. It means I must fight racism in my attitudes and in the policies that I support.
Jeremiah 29:5-7 tells the people of Israel in exile that God wants them “to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” It is a call to us as well.
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