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  • Writer's pictureNick McDonald

Changing the Conversation

I've had plenty of positive and negative feedback on racial issues over the past few weeks. Much of the negative feedback I've dismissed, as it doesn't really engage with what I'm saying or curating. But it has caused me to pause and wonder, "Is there a way I could frame this conversation more winsomely?" We have a curious obsession in evangelicalism these days with being winsome toward the Secular Left, but it's a matter of pride, I think, that we're not so concerned with winsomeness toward the Conservative Right.

I've always admired my former fellow Campus Minister Russ Whitefield for his brave and frank engagement on these issues, especially toward a heavily white-loaded ministry. One thing I've observed about Russ is the way he identifies and avoids trigger terms, and replaces them with phrases and words that would promote conversation.

As I've thought about this in my own ministry, I've wondered if there is a way to change my vocabulary to emphasize our common interests, rather than our differences. It seems even phrases like "systemic injustice" and "racism" are trigger words for my conservative friends. I can sympathize with that somewhat, as it seems many prominent authors using these phrases are talking about bias against black adults - looking at things like income disparity and resume discrimination - which has always felt to me, as liberal law scholar Richard Rothstein notes, "shallow attempts to examine racism in America."

As I thought about these terms this week, I ran across this article which felt like a ray of sun after a long storm. It's about child poverty, of all things. Yes, it's drawing from left/right policy (remarkably so), but leans left (I'd include also this recent Douthat article on Planned Parenthood's culpability in the issue) And no, it doesn't directly address racism or systemic injustice...or does it? The author writes:

"In talking with scholars over the past year, I’ve been struck by how many substantive reasons there are for focusing on poor kids—even more now than three decades ago. Neuroscientists have shown how much of a child’s developmental trajectory is set during the first few years of life, before children even start school. Economists have shown that even a brief episode of poverty, especially in early childhood, can have life-long consequences—leading to fewer years of education, lower earnings, and worse health in adulthood. It’s also become harder to excuse America’s exceptional child poverty by arguing that the US enjoys exceptional mobility compared to other rich countries—that the poor have more chances to rise."

As I read the article, I realized that for me, when I talk about racism and systemic injustice, what I'm meaning to talk about is just this: child poverty. It just so happens that child poverty in America is vastly disproportionately black, and there are historical reasons for that. But of course, as J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" demonstrated years ago, child poverty is equally traumatic for white kids (no, it's not the same from a societal perspective, but it IS the same from a child's perspective). This is what I mean to say: no child in America should grow up without safe housing, a safe community, a quality education, good health and career opportunity. This is something we can all agree to, isn't it? This, it seems to me, is the root of so many symptoms we see today:

  • Disparate black/white incomes start with child poverty.

  • Disparate black/white educational opportunities start with child poverty.

  • Disparate black/white social networks, and thus job opportunities, start with child poverty.

  • Disparate black/white health levels start with child poverty.

  • Disparate black/white crime rates, and thus police discrimination, begin with child poverty (not to say that police aren't responsible for their own discrimination, and don't need reform.).

  • Disparate black/white psychological health, and the behavior accompanying it, begin with child poverty.

  • Disparate levels of black/white incarceration begin (and end) with child poverty.

Disparity in the brokenness of families, the lack of workforce skills, the prevalence of addiction aren't caused by poverty, but are absolutely accentuated and enforced by it. As someone who lived under the legal poverty line for almost a decade, I can tell you that poverty adds a layer of shame, stress and psychological distraction that crippled me from so many healthy things I find natural today: personal health, study, emotional connection with my family, writing, proper sleep - all things I now attribute to success at work. I was also taken advantage of several times by employers, lenders and real estate agents because of our family's lack of means. I can tell you first-hand that if I grew up in the slums, I would be a very different person. I would happily find ways to cheat a system that was broken for me.

All that to say: I wonder if this is a way to change the conversation. I loved the way the above article combined both conservative and liberal policies to point to solutions that would increase opportunity, wealth, and future work for children. Maybe it's one way we can move the conversation away from guilty/not guilty, fragile/not fragile, toward solutions that address the root of the problem: "How can we give all kids the best chance possible to be healthy, independent, home-owning, working class adults?"

That seems like a question worth answering for all of us.

What to Listen to-

Some RUF Campus Ministers and I have been sharing favorite albums from the past year, and I've loved listening to our collective eclecticity. One album I've returned to is "The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding", which one a grammy for best rock album a few years back. It's simultaneously upbeat and chill, which is my favorite noise these day. The bassist and drummer are awesomely 80's, and the lead singer Adam Granduciel is quickly becoming a favorite of mine: he has a Dylanesque growl, Springsteen's energy and the whispy tenor range of Bryan Adams. So it's very retro, but feels modern and culturally attuned. Pretty fun stuff.

What to Read-

As part of my ongoing project to read only dead people and minorities this year, I'm making my way through the Harvard Classics. Benjamin Franklin's autobiography was an intimidating first read (mostly for being tedious), but I really enjoyed "The Journal of John Woolman". Woolman is a Christian and an early abolitionist who used his gifts as an attorney to convince men to free their slaves, as he writes their will. His wisdom, gentleness and courage are convicting and encouraging to read about. It's a very different sort of SJW than we see today, one rooted deeply in the gospel of grace. It's also free to read on Amazon.

What to Watch-

I really enjoyed watching these home movies and interviews with Martyn Lloyd Jones, a preacher - maybe the only preacher - I listen to regularly. I don't agree with his hot takes on culture in the interviews, but I'm everywhere these days.

A Quote to Ponder-

"Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity." - William Zinsser

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