Racism and Tribalism in NEPA

The church has an important role to play in the areas of racial justice and immigrant justice. Perhaps your ministry will be multicultural and multiracial (that would be awesome), but even if it is not, the church has work do to as we work to reconcile our past, the possibility of the future and the realm of God for which we all hope.

Write a reflection on the issue of cultural sensitivity, racial justice, or reconciliation and how you anticipate it will play into the work you do in a new ministry.

The Northeast PA region has a long history as a melting pot of immigrant cultures, but to an outsider’s eye it appears to be a hotbed of racism today. You don’t have to listen for very long before an average person in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metro area tends to make a generalization based on race, and often those generalizations aren’t good ones. Why is this?

One answer is tribalism. Human being have evolved to associate with relatives, those with similar interests or attitudes, people of the same ethnicity, and people who live nearby – and to do all of these things at the expense of people who are not relatives, think differently, look differently, and live far away. Adam Smith once posed this question: which would keep you awake at night, the deaths of hundreds of people in a far off country, or the knowledge that your little finger will be amputated tomorrow? Obviously the latter, otherwise we’d never sleep. It is important for people, on a social level, to look after the interests of the “in-group.”

This leads to another answer: history. In Northeast PA, this has meant that as Irish, Italian, German, Scotch, Welsh, English, Polish, and Russian immigrants entered the area, they tended to look after the interests of members of their own ethnic group. This is observable in the large number of ethnic churches: Irish, Italian, and Polish Roman Catholic churches (in addition to the Polish National Catholic Church) as well as Welsh and German Presbyterian churches. The deep religious and cultural divide between Catholics and Protestants is also worth mentioning. The segregation between these ethnic and religious groups caused deep tension and rifts that, to a large degree, remain today. So, as tempting as it is to call out racism against people of African, Middle Easter, or Hispanic descent, the truth is that the predominant culture of Northeast PA tends to be racist towards Caucasians of different ethnic origins as well.

Yet another possible answer is geographic location. New York City, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg all sit within a three hour drive from Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Allentown and Hazelton, both within an hour to the south of Scranton, both experience significant amounts of crime. Criminal elements in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre tend to be associated with one of these cities, and thus with outsiders. Since the region has been and continues to be very predominantly white (>90%), people of different skin colors are viewed as outsiders and therefore associated with criminal behavior. As I said above, skin color doesn’t always correlated with perceiving someone as a potential criminal: country of origin and religion are also factors. Criminality is also associated with lower income, so class discrimination plays a large role.

These answers are explanations, not excuses. But they beg the question: what are the negative effects of the racism (and ethnocentrism) described above? One obvious answer is that people with the wrong skin color tend to end up in prison more often. In Luzerne County, which includes Wilkes-Barre, almost one quarter of prisoners are black, compared with 5% of the general population. This suggests two possible issues: some black community members are in prison who should not be, and white crime is going unnoticed or not being pursued. Both of these possibilities are harmful to the community. Yet another possibility inherent in these two issues is that current legislation leads to greater punishment for crimes committed by people in black communities than for those crimes that tend to be committed by people in white communities. If our laws lead to disproportionate criminal punishment for black communities, do they also lead to greater difficulties in starting businesses, receiving home loans, getting fair wages, gaining political office, or receiving government benefits?

Beyond these practical consequences, racism and ethnocentrism make Northeast PA a generally unpleasant place to live. Like a middle school cafeteria filled with cliques, an ethnocentric and racist culture feels hostile and dangerous. It forces people to stay within their “clique,” which isolates people from each other and prevents community growth. It encourages people to be aggressive and put down people from out-groups without contributing anything positive to even their own in-group. And just as many middle schoolers would rather stay home than deal with the drama of the cafeteria, Gen-Xers and Millenials tend to stay home and watch Netflix rather than interact with a community that is so intent on destroying itself.

This should be terrifying for Christians. Jesus not only taught us to love God and to love our neighbor as our self, but to “be one” as Christ is one with God. Paul taught us that we are the body of Christ, and that our differences are not damaging, but essential. A community that is beset by racism and ethnocentrism is like a body where the eye refuses to talk to the foot, and so it keeps tripping over itself.

Learning to be sensitive to other cultures will be essential for the spiritual growth of Northeast PA, but also for its political, moral, and economic growth. This is a great advantage, because it means that learning to accept other cultures, dismantle racist systems, and love our neighbors as ourselves will not only build the kingdom of God – it will build more businesses, safer roads, and better schools. Becoming less racist and hostile to out-groups means that more children who grow up in the region will stay instead of leaving, and fewer people who move into the area will move back out, reducing the “brain drain” that plagues Scranton and Wilkes-Barre (The area’s population is projected to decline 1 percent over ten years, Hispanic population decline being a large contributor, while state population is expected to growth slightly). And it means that God’s love will be more apparent and accessible than it is today. This means more disciples of Christ and better churches, which is something explicitly desired by many people in the area.

Right now, churches are known as divisive forces and sources of corruption – but also as providers of economic aid and moral teaching. The negative perceptions of churches probably stem from the authority lent to them by the general population and the population’s dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the region, especially the failure of churches to remain vibrant and provide significant leadership and aid to a hurting community. Becoming less racist and ethnocentric will allow churches to work together better, which improves public perception. It will also allow churches to be authentic in their love for God and neighbor, with authenticity being a key value of younger generations.

How do we accomplish this? First, by trying. Rather than pretending that because there are so few black people, racism isn’t a problem; we must talk about racism, ethnocentrism, classism, and other divisions in our community. This can happen through book clubs, speakers, panel discussions, and small groups, as well as other venues. Second, information about racism needs to be made readily available. Awareness is a key problem in the fight against racism in Northeast PA. Making statistics available is a step in the right direction – providing up to date statistics and tracking specific stories and issues would be more helpful. Tours of prison facilities, greater participation in crime watches and civic activities, and hands-on local mission projects would also help. Finally, the church must find ways to hold each other accountable and commit to fighting racism on a personal level. If we cannot call out racist attitudes or speech, how can we prevent them? If we cannot encourage interaction and community building, how will it happen? When personal commitment happens, grassroots efforts follow – and those are ultimately more successful and important than any list of solutions.

Tribalism may have been the way of the past in Northeast PA, and those attitudes may have served their purpose in their time. But for this region to continue to be the immigrant melting pot that it used to be, for it to continue to thrive on the diversity that was behind its rise to power, then tribalism has to go. Instead, we need a new tribalism: a tribalism that brings together people of different backgrounds, attitudes, and stations in life into a church that lifts each other up and supports the community around it. We need a tribe that breaks down barriers instead of one that builds them up.-