Class, Sexuality and Lessons Unlearned

Two of the most pressing social issues that black churches must address are sexuality and the class divide. Black church leaders and gay rights campaigns have at least this much in common: they could learn from the 1960s.

As black churches seek to maintain a central role in the flourishing of African-American communities – as more than just a symbol – the issue of class is as crucial as it has ever been. The Occupy movement has helped to clarify that growing income disparity (“the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent”) is a problem for the whole country, and the world. Yet stark class divisions have been a challenge for black churches for well over a century, and the gulf has only grown. Since the civil rights era, a hyper-visible black elite has emerged at the same time that scholars were documenting the formation of an “underclass” that is disproportionately black and brown. In this regard, it is perhaps a sign of hope that a number of black churches have recently mobilized around these issues, drawing upon the Occupy theme with “Occupy the Dream” — an explicit appeal to the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr After all, justice is justice — period.

While Occupy the Dream directs the activist energies of black churches squarely to issues of class, these same churches must also find more productive ways to engage recent debates regarding sexuality, and society’s growing understanding that sexual diversity is to be valued. While I am reluctant to uncritically link the drive for equality of gays and lesbians with the movement that King helped lead, the comparison is a fair one. After all, justice is justice — period.

The two movements are often pitted against each other in the news media, but they have at least this much in common: they could learn from the 1960s. It is now a common view that the opportunities made available by the civil rights movement were accessible only to African-Americans who already possessed a degree of class privilege. Just as black church leaders would do well to overcome their reluctance to address sexuality, gay-rights activists (including those working in religious contexts) ought to take seriously the degree to which both race and class converge to delimit their campaigns. If these two groups do not evolve, the offspring of the civil rights movement may find themselves on the wrong side of history, and the gay rights movement may win victories for the affluent (across lines of race and ethnicity) while unwittingly repeating a side of civil rights history it should not want to claim.

By Josef Sorett, assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University, New York, NY. Reprinted from Room for Debate The New York Times.

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