Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What is a "dangerous" neighborhood?

I am reading Mary Pattillo's book Black on the Block. In the final chapter on violence she discusses briefly the concept of what makes a neighborhood dangerous or at least what causes it to be percieved as such.

Pattillo follows Sally Engle Merry by primarily considering the issue of danger around the concept of the "unknown". Contexts in which we don't know what to expect leave us fearful. We don't know how to expect people to act. That sense of unknown makes us fearful.

I think there is great merit in this. Often the various public housing communities in Chicago are labled as dangerous neighborhoods, yet in 8 years of regularly being in and around such communities I have never been physically harmed or threatened.

I read an article in the Chicago Tribune last year (I wish I would have saved it!) that compared two suburban communities. One black, one white. Other than race very similar demographics (median income, age of community, density, etc...) but the crime was higher in the white community but percieved to be higher (or presumed or prejudged to be) in the black community. This of course caused the appreciation of the real estate in the white (higher crime, more dangerous) community to far out strip the black (lower crime, safer) neighborhood.

So in my experience that the concept of a dangerous community is often more about perception that reality -- and labeling communities that way is unnecessary and harmful. When I discuss such areas with people from the burbs I often use positive descriptors of the community as follow up to the "dangerous" labels that my interlocuter has posited. Usually this changes their language to somewhat neutral and they seem to realize thier own lack of awareness of what actually goes on there.

Then again, there are truly high crime areas, high crime blocks, high crime corners. But on and around those corners are young children growing up. There are people celebrating, laughing, loving, spending time together. In other words to someone those places are home -- not "that dangerous place".

So what is a dangerous neighborhood? First, in Christian terms I have to say that it is a place in which people live -- "Beings" then who are by definition created in the image of God and therefore worthy of lables of dignity. Second, it is fair to say that these places are usually places that are widely misunderstood, marginalized and ignored. Third, they are places in which people reside who did not "make the neighborhood" that way. Fourth, they are usually places of rich and nuanced history combined with a crushing wieght of "the forces that be". Finally, again in Christian terms, they are places where sinners live, as is every other place.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Is there a movement more radical in US history than the Civil Rights movement?

There are many things in Charles Marsh book "The Beloved Community" that were new and challenging to me. Perhaps the thing that most jumped off the page at me was the way in which he described the work of Dr. John Perkins as substantively more radical than the civil rights movement.

This was not an off the cuff statement. The entire book traces what the subtitle suggests: "How faith shapes social justice from the civil rights movement to today". Marsh looks closely at the work of Dr. King, Clarence Jordan (Koinonia Farm) and SNCC. He looks at the way in which the ideas and dreams of beloved community that each of these held dear essentially died in the years following Dr. King's assassination.

He also traces Dr. Perkins work in a way that highlights his long standing work within the civil rights movement. Perkins brother was shot unnecessarily by a local law enforcement officer in the south and died in his arms because local medical rules and authorities perferred Jim Crow to mercy. They delayed treatment until it was too late. Perkins was jailed, beaten and persecuted as were other civil rights workers.

But Perkins work for equal rights was energized by his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through years of toil and a longstanding committment to the poor, Perkins developed 3 guiding principles: Reconciliation. Relocation. Redistribution.

When I read about the civil rights movement and African American history I have often felt a sense that I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have been a part of it, part of doing what was right that most of the US white church evaded, ignored and castigated. Marsh communicates similar sentiments when he says in the acknowledgements: "This book emerges as an expression of gratitude for the courage and conviction of black church people in the South. . . " In other words for Marsh the writing of the book is I think in part an act of repentance and association.

With Dr. Perkins I feel called to work toward the 3 R's. What Marsh has helped me realize is that this 3R vision is a movement whose legacy is squarely rooted in the civil rights but under Perkins thought process is far more radical. Even Dr. King didn't call for middle class people to be reconciled in love with the poor. There was no call for middle class Americans to move back into neighborhoods among the poor. And while the civil rights movement clearly provided a fore-runner to the call for reparations, the person to person movement of those with personal networks, financial and educational resources to open themselves and thier homes to those with less is something that goes beyond even the height and beauty of the civil rights movement.

Dr. Perkins has been a personal hero of mine for many years. I am a member of the Christian Community Development Association ( which Dr. Perkins and Coach/Pastor Wayne Gordon started many years ago. This international organization's annual conference is among the most exciting events I have ever attended (and remains so year after year). But for all of my study of civil rights and for all of my love for Dr. Perkins, I have never really realized that the joy here is a very real connection to that repentance needed for white evangelicals who missed (rejected) the civil rights era.

(All of the above is in no way meant to be a discredit to the wonder of the civil rights movement or the stature of Dr. King. Marsh speaks with great admiration of civil rights leaders including SNCC and clearly articulates the way in which the entire movements, in all of its parts, were rooted in the black church and in a desire to work for "the beloved community")