Monday, September 29, 2008

White Privilege is the Problem

Tim Wise provides a provocative piece on white privilege. This is a potent reminder that Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was correct when he prophetically promulgated his pastoral letter, "Healing Racism through Faith and Truth" (1998).

"Racism is a moral disease and it is contagious. No one is born a racist. Carriers infect others in countless ways through words and attitudes, deeds and omissions. Yet, one thing is certain - the disease of racism can and must be eradicated. … In short, racism and Christian life are incompatible" (Bevilacqua 1998).

"Racism has been condemned as a sin many times… For the truth to have an impact on us, for it to really set us free, it must become our truth. It must be operative within us. It must penetrate and ignite our minds and hearts" (Bevilacqua 1998).


This is Your Nation on White Privilege

By Tim Wise
September 13, 2008, 2:01 pm

For those who still can’t grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are constantly looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list will help.

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because “every family has challenges,” even as black and Latino families with similar “challenges” are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay.

White privilege is when you can call yourself a “fuckin’ redneck,” like Bristol Palin’s boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you'll “kick their fuckin' ass,” and talk about how you like to “shoot shit” for fun, and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law to be) rather than a thug.

White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got in in the first place because of affirmative action.

White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready to potentially be president, and people don’t all piss on themselves with laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and constitutional law scholar, means you’re “untested.”

White privilege is being able to say that you support the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance because “if it was good enough for the founding fathers, it’s good enough for me,” and not be immediately disqualified from holding office--since, after all, the pledge was written in the late 1800s and the “under God” part wasn’t added until the 1950s--while believing that reading accused criminals and terrorists their rights (because, ya know, the Constitution, which you used to teach at a prestigious law school requires it), is a dangerous and silly idea only supported by mushy liberals.

White privilege is being able to be a gun enthusiast and not make people immediately scared of you.

White privilege is being able to have a husband who was a member of an extremist political party that wants your state to secede from the Union, and whose motto was “Alaska first,” and no one questions your patriotism or that of your family, while if you're black and your spouse merely fails to come to a 9/11 memorial so she can be home with her kids on the first day of school, people immediately think she’s being disrespectful.

White privilege is being able to make fun of community organizers and the work they do--like, among other things, fight for the right of women to vote, or for civil rights, or the 8-hour workday, or an end to child labor--and people think you’re being pithy and tough, but if you merely question the experience of a small town mayor and 18-month governor with no foreign policy expertise beyond a class she took in college--you’re somehow being mean, or even sexist.

White privilege is being able to convince white women who don’t even agree with you on any substantive issue to vote for you and your running mate anyway, because all of a sudden your presence on the ticket has inspired confidence in these same white women, and made them give your party a “second look.”

White privilege is being able to fire people who didn’t support your political campaigns and not be accused of abusing your power or being a typical politician who engages in favoritism, while being black and merely knowing some folks from the old-line political machines in Chicago means you must be corrupt.

White privilege is being able to attend churches over the years whose pastors say that people who voted for John Kerry or merely criticize George W. Bush are going to hell, and that the U.S. is an explicitly Christian nation and the job of Christians is to bring Christian theological principles into government, and who bring in speakers who say the conflict in the Middle East is God’s punishment on Jews for rejecting Jesus, and everyone can still think you’re just a good church-going Christian, but if you’re black and friends with a black pastor who has noted (as have Colin Powell and the U.S. Department of Defense) that terrorist attacks are often the result of U.S. foreign policy and who talks about the history of racism and its effect on black people, you’re an extremist who probably hates America.

White privilege is not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is when asked by a reporter, and then people get angry at the reporter for asking you such a “trick question,” while being black and merely refusing to give one-word answers to the queries of Bill O’Reilly means you’re dodging the question, or trying to seem overly intellectual and nuanced.

White privilege is being able to claim your experience as a POW has anything at all to do with your fitness for president, while being black and experiencing racism is, as Sarah Palin has referred to it a “light” burden.

And finally, white privilege is the only thing that could possibly allow someone to become president when he has voted with George W. Bush 90 percent of the time, even as unemployment is skyrocketing, people are losing their homes, inflation is rising, and the U.S. is increasingly isolated from world opinion, just because white voters aren’t sure about that whole “change” thing. Ya know, it’s just too vague and ill-defined, unlike, say, four more years of the same, which is very concrete and certain…

White privilege is, in short, the problem.

(Red Room Editor's Note: This online community of writers welcomes all the new members who have found us by way of Tim Wise's thought-provoking entries and who have taken the time to comment. We encourage you to read Tim's follow-up here, and to discover all the other great writing on other Red Room blogs and original articles.)

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Great Article on Evolution and Catholicism

An Intelligent, Catholic Scientist shows that Catholic Faith and Evolution do not conflict.

Teaching Evolution: A Catholic scientist frames a national debate.

By Paul Cottle SEPTEMBER 15, 2008

There is no issue more visible and emotional in the field of science education today than evolution, and no state where the issue has been more hotly debated than Florida. For much of the last year, a committee of educators and scientists worked with officials from the state’s Department of Education to hammer out new standards for science education. Their decision to designate evolution one of the “big ideas” in the state’s science curriculum was opposed by groups like the Florida Family Policy Council and conservative lawmakers who objected to the teaching of evolution in the classroom. In the end a compromise was reached, and new standards were passed requiring the teaching of evolution, but the wording of the law was changed to call it a “scientific theory” (see sidebar for details).
I was a member of the standards committee. At the outset, we spent little time worrying about the potential controversy over the teaching of evolution. Instead, our goal was to apply the results of recent research on how children learn science to the state science education standards. Yet when we made public a draft of the new standards in October 2007, it quickly became clear that the debate over teaching evolution would dominate the process.

I am an “evolutionist,” as the opponents of evolution education would say. More to the point, I am a naturalistic scientist in that I believe that my mission as a scientist is to explain scientific observations within the framework of the laws of nature. Yet I am also a Christian, and as such I do not reject the supernatural. I believe in Christ’s resurrection.

The Debate in Florida

The debate over evolution education in Florida was rancorous and presented particular ethical dilemmas for me. For one, a majority of my fellow Christians were on the opposite side of the argument from me—indeed, most Americans are. As an evolution education advocate, I am on the same side as many atheists, including militant “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, who see evolution education as an opportunity to beat back religion in our society. As a result, I found that I was self-consciously vetting my own statements—both public and private—to make sure I was not denying my faith. I made several brief public professions of my faith during prepared statements, including during my talk before the State Board of Education on Feb. 19 and in an op-ed piece published by The Tallahassee Democrat. I was not alone: many of the other Christians on the standards committee also made their faith known during public meetings and to the media. Members of the public who followed the debate learned that there were several church officers and Sunday school teachers among the advocates of evolution education.
Unfortunately, I was in the minority among Catholics in my defense of evolution. It came as no surprise that according to a St. Petersburg Times poll published this February, a few days before the State Board of Education vote, 91 percent of evangelicals in Florida oppose evolution education. Yet that same poll reported that 79 percent of Catholics also took the anti-evolution education position. This is particularly disappointing given the church’s well-established position in favor of the teaching of evolution. David M. Byers, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Science and Human Values from 1984 to 2003, noted this stunning separation between the beliefs of the American faithful and church teaching in an article in America (“Religion and Science in Dialogue,” 2/7/05). He said that the Catholic Church “properly recognizes evolutionary theory as firmly grounded in fact,” but noted that the church’s “educational leadership has been very slow to correct the anti-evolution biases that Catholics pick up from prominent elements in contemporary culture.”

The fact that my opponents in the evolution education debate were almost exclusively my brothers and sisters in the Christian faith imposed certain responsibilities. To quote one of several scriptural injunctions on this topic, “So then, as often as we have the chance, we should do good to everyone, and especially to those who belong to our family in the faith” (Gal 6:10). This meant that my comments—both private and public—had to remain civil at a minimum, and respectful whenever possible. My working assumption was that my opponents were acting on the basis of their deepest convictions, even though there seemed to be a few cynical opportunists on both sides of the debate. Overall my evangelical opponents displayed both a deep commitment to their cause and a basic decency. One of the first people to congratulate me after my talk to the State Board of Education was John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council and a fervent opponent of evolution education. Only moments before I spoke, Stemberger had loudly warned the board that thousands of evangelical parents would withdraw their children from the public schools if the proposed standards on evolution were adopted.

In the end, the religious dimensions of the debate made it impossible to craft a resolution that satisfied everyone. Many Christians who were not committed to “young earth creationism” were attracted by the ideas of the intelligent design movement, which holds “that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection,” according to the New World Encyclopedia, quoted on the Web site of the Discovery Institute, a well-funded think tank formed to support the movement.

Intelligent Design

Some Catholics in Florida are among those intrigued by the notion of intelligent design. In the weeks following the board of education vote, I heard homilies by two priests who, in addressing the nature and meaning of God’s creation, acknowledged that parishioners held a variety of beliefs about the origin and development of life. But they did not mention the church’s acceptance of modern evolutionary biology. Meanwhile, as of this writing, no Catholic priests in Florida have signed a public letter endorsing the teaching of evolution in public schools, an initiative known as the Clergy Letter Project that has drawn 11,000 signatures nationwide.
This reluctance to take a public stand on evolution is not limited to Catholics in Florida. In June, I was stunned when Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a devout Catholic and holder of a bachelor’s degree in biology from Brown University, voiced his support during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in public schools. It is clear that despite Byers’s urging, the Catholic Church in the United States has not fully addressed the widely held misconceptions regarding church teaching on evolution.

In Florida, as elsewhere, the evolution education debate featured strongly worded volleys between vocal minorities at both extremes, between those who see the scientific clarity of evolution and religious conservatives who claim that evolution promotes moral decay. (If that sounds a little strong, consider this quote from the Truth Project, an educational initiative of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family: “Darwinian theory transforms science from the honest investigation of nature into a vehicle for propagating a godless philosophy.”)

The Discovery Institute has framed the evolution education debate as a struggle over academic freedom—in particular the freedom of teachers to challenge and even disregard the naturalistic approach to science and to argue that the existence of unanswered scientific questions on the origin and development of life provides proof of the existence of God. Politically, it seems prudent for supporters of evolution education to frame a competing vision for teaching science in public schools, one that appeals to many parents and voters in the vast middle ground. These include individuals (and many Catholics) who are neither committed to an anti-evolution position nor convinced by arguments for evolution.

Even though this group does not have strong opinions on evolution, I think they would endorse an educational approach that focuses on two principles: tolerance for students from a variety of backgrounds, including religious backgrounds; and the accountability of teachers and administrators for their adherence to state educational standards and their performance in helping their students learn science. Such a vision of the science classroom might provide a potent moral and political antidote to the dubious assertion that academic freedom should apply to the teaching of science in the K-12 classrooms.

Educating Catholics

Catholics not convinced by this argument might consider the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who recently called the debate over evolution “an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.” Catholics in Florida can also look to the guidance of their bishops. In February, Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando published an op-ed piece in The Orlando Sentinel endorsing the teaching of evolution while at the same time rejecting the notion that “evolution requires a materialistic or an atheistic understanding of the human person or of the entire universe.” “The Catholic Church does not have to reject the theory of evolution in order to affirm our belief in our Creator,” Bishop Wenski concluded. “As Catholics, we can affirm an understanding of evolution that is open to the full truth about the human person and about the world.”

Still, the task of educating Catholics on this issue remains a tricky one, not least because it could threaten the strong partnership the church has forged with evangelical groups to advance pro-life causes. (One need only recall the controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo in Florida to remember how powerful the partnership between Catholics and evangelicals can be.) Indeed, when during one of my prepared statements I read a quotation from a church source defending the teaching of evolution, my evangelical opponents expressed great surprise that the church held a position different from theirs.

Evolution education is a national issue, with heated debates taking place in legislatures and state education departments all over the country. The Catholic Church in the United States has an opportunity to lead the nation to a resolution of this matter by educating its own followers about the church’s embrace of modern science. They can also point out to their Christian brothers and sisters, as Bishop Wenski did, that the teaching of evolution need not go hand in hand with a materialistic atheism.

As a physicist and a Christian, I have learned that faith and science need not be antithetical, that a deeper understanding of the natural world can inspire awe at the workings of God’s creation. Yet I have come to this understanding by working within the intellectual framework widely accepted by the scientific community, a framework that includes the tenets of evolution. This framework should also guide the teaching of young people, in Florida and elsewhere. The Catholic Church and its partners in the faith have no reason to fear the results.

Paul Cottle is a professor of physics at Florida State University and a member of the committee appointed by the Florida Department of Education to draft new science standards for the state’s primary and secondary public schools.

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