"When it comes to equality and diversity, racism and sexism, I believe the underlying issue, and the most deeply felt pain, revolves around one word respect. For people of faith, the meaning of respect goes much deeper than mere tolerance or the granting of human rights. Respect is rooted in the universal and essential human dignity that comes from all of us bearing the very image of God. And even deeper, from the love that we owe to one another because of how we have been loved by God. But on the street, the word that often comes up is 'respect' as what is wanted and often not received. Respect is the thing we all want and need, and it is what is denied to people over and over again because of race, gender, and class. So many of the demands of protests, so much of the aggrieved voice in response to racism, and even the angry counterattack, is, down deep, a cry for respect. As Aretha Franklin once sang, 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out what it means to me.'
"There is also a cycle of disrespect that works like this: The disrespect begins with the obvious injustice, as massive an offense as racial or sexual slavery, or the more subtle yet cruel forms of racial or gender discrimination. The pain of disrespect is felt and it hurts. Then the response begins. We are undeservedly blessed when the response is in the form of a Martin Luther King Jr. calling us all to forgiveness, reconciliation, nonviolence, and higher ground. But the more human and common response is to return the disrespect with more disrespect.
"Sometimes it is visited upon members of one's own group, especially if the disrespect has been deeply internalized. How else do we explain the ugly racial and sexist language of too much (but not all) of contemporary urban hip-hop music and culture, or the black-on-black or brown-on-brown violence that has terrorized so many urban neighborhoods? The disrespect is also played out in both verbal and physical attacks on other oppressed groups, which ultimately results in the tragic gang violence that plagues our cities black-on-brown-on-Asian, and so on, often following learned patterns of disrespect: learned by being disrespected.
"The disrespect also works itself out as payback against the dominant group. But the relative powerlessness of the oppressed group, the lack of direct and equal access to the dominant communities and their people, and the much stronger police protection of the majority culture (as opposed to the relative weak protection of minority groups) all limit the impact of the countermove of disrespect directed back to those who have disrespected them. So it takes more subtle forms. At shopping malls, it appears in the behaviors of minority youth working in the shops or cruising the territory with a characteristically adversarial posture and stance. The stereotypes, rooted in both perception and reality, are remarkably set now in the majority culture: the sullen, angry, resentful, and unhelpful African American youth; the happy young Hispanic housekeeper; or the bright, very-eager-to-please Asian youth. These stereotypes represent tapes in our imagination and psyche, helping us make mental shortcuts for interpreting people and the world around us. But these stereotypes and behaviors can be coping mechanisms that result from a disrespect that comes from being disrespected and can harden into prejudice and bigotry.
"In the next part of the cycle of disrespect, those attitudes of disrespect come to define the minority group, and their worst behaviors are lifted up as normative. Other realities, such as the large number of young African Americans who are bright, hardworking, well behaved, and succeeding, are rarely lifted up either in the media (which loves to play on the mass stereotypes) or in the imaginations of the majority. And, of course, disrespectful behaviors are also often self-destructive and self-defeating, like the attitude among too many urban and minority students that being smart in school is 'acting white,' a charge that many black leaders have desperately tried to counter.
"Even the more acceptable behaviors of other minorities are also privately treated with disrespect Asians being regarded as annoyingly 'sucking up' or Latinos easily and invisibly taken for granted and said to love doing 'grunt work.' The slurs, jokes, and assaults (both verbal and physical) against women go on and on with the kind of cultural acceptance that would never be allowed if they were directed toward any other group.
"So disrespect breeds more disrespect in return, which is used to confirm the disrespect in the first place, which further increases the resentment and anger of the disrespected, and so on. All of this leads to deep and abiding group tensions and regular cultural collisions, which only take the wrong spark and the wrong time to erupt in major conflict. In America, the white majority remains on top with an increasingly racially diverse battleground at the bottom end of the society. The Oscar-winning movie Crash illustrates this vicious cycle in which racial fears, distrust, biases, and stereotypes set off a dangerous Chain reaction in society with dire consequences for everyone.
"There is only one solution to the cycle of disrespect. That answer is ultimate respect, meaning the showing of respect for the human dignity of a1l created in the image of God as an act of principle, and an act of faith. Respect for other people is not something they should be forced to earn, or to beg or fight for; it is owed to them by virtue of their very humanity. There is clearly a religious imperative to all this. We respect one another because God made us equal, views us as equal, and treats us as equal and expects us to treat one another the same way. We get respect when we give respect. But only ultimate respect, not respect just in return for respect, will break through the cycle of disrespect. Breaking the cycle requires the reassertion of our absolute equality in the eyes of God.
"I remember participating in several meetings to plan a series of 'gang peace summits' during the mid-1990s. Often I was the only white person in the room with dozens of young African American and Latino youth. Every time a new 'crew' from another city would walk into the room, I would get a look from the newcomers that would have killed me if looks could kill. They said, in effect, 'Why is he here? What's a white man doing here in our territory, our discussion!?' I could see other eyes silently shooting back at them with another message like, 'Okay, chill, hold up, just give him a chance, it's all right.' And it always was after a day of talking together. I learned with the leaders and 'defense ministers' of some of the country's biggest and toughest gangs that, in the end, we all pretty much need and want the same thing just a little respect, a little kindness, and maybe even a little love."