Growing up in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, I believed in hope and opportunity. The majority of my childhood was spent in the 1980s, a time when my heroes — symbols of success in popular culture — were diverse: Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Harold Washington, Hulk Hogan, Walter Payton, Dan Marino and an optimistic president who was once an actor. They convinced me that I could do anything, and that race was insignificant.
There is a different spirit today. Consider this year’s Oscars. After the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was heavily criticized for a lack of diversity among the nominees, Academy Awards host Chris Rock was faced with a monumental cultural moment and platform to address it. Unfortunately, the result was three hours of offensive joking that did little for social progress. Was some of it funny and relevant? Sure. Yet it mocked the struggles of the past in a way that served to further separate and highlight our differences, rather than to create constructive dialogue.
Race is still, unfortunately, a major issue in the United States. America’s inequality problem, one that maps heavily along ethnic lines due to a history of institutionalized preference, has never gone anywhere. Today it just may be a little more complicated.
True power in Hollywood comes not from asking for inclusion, but from creating opportunity.
Individual successes, like those of wealthy African-American celebrities like Rock, do not negate larger historic injustices. Yet they do provide opportunities for the constructive development of solutions. Artists like Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes display that true power in Hollywood comes not from asking for inclusion, but from creating opportunity for themselves and others. Rock, who has produced and written his own film and television shows, should be aware of the potential of this power.
In Jesus’ ministry, He called people to personal transformation. After His ascension, the apostles called converts into a larger community, in which their responsibilities were no longer simply to themselves, but to one another. This model applies to our current American dilemma. There has been much progress at the individual level. However, our issues must be also viewed through a greater lens. How can those who’ve had personal success create institutional opportunity for others? How can we make the societal treatment of the collective look as promising as the treatment of the individual? I believe that Jesus calls us to this full set of obligations.
America’s persistent challenges with racial and socioeconomic division will not be overcome easily. They will require doing the hard work of individual and collective reflection, while acknowledging uncomfortable truths from both ends of the political spectrum. In this way, maybe Rock’s Oscar reflections were necessary to begin a conversation. Ultimately, however, these issues are no laughing matter. We must approach race in a thoughtful, holistic, empathetic and solution-orientated manner, or we will only serve to further fan the flames of division. It is time for serious-minded and concerned people of all backgrounds to lead in taking on this important task.