Failing to tell a story in black and white

b w This is a strange moment for Black America. A major black celebrity frets about its values, while black Christian ministers worry about structural problems. Bill Cosby scolds black men for not being responsible fathers, while civil-rights era preachers encourage their flock to attend job training classes. I know, the picture is more complex; as The Washington Post notes, plenty of black deejays and new organization leaders are taking up the fight against discrimination. But the picture is not one-sided as Religion News Service makes it out to be.

RNS ran a story by Greg Garrison and Val Walton of the Birmingham News that focused entirely on black ministers' liberal ends and means:

Pastors in the civil rights era practiced social activism by leading marches to protest issues such as school segregation, separate but unequal public accommodations and unequal access to courts.

Although the federal government brought changes to remedy some of those injustices, remedies for current challenges are not as clear, ministers said.

"We have been able to accomplish and retain some of the civil rights," Woods said. "It looks like our silver rights continue to be elusive," he said, a reference to economic disparities.

Today, social activist pastors focus on economic empowerment, enhancing public education, job training and anti-crime initiatives.

The injustices often take the shape of problems such as getting loans or job opportunities, younger ministers said. The enemies are not as easily personified as was Birmingham's notorious public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor. "It's not as obvious as a billy club," said the Rev. Anthony Johnson, grandson of the late Rev. N.H. Smith.

Still, there is a need to address some of the problems with old-fashioned tools, such as marches and rallies, Woods said.

"We have to keep that in our arsenal because it raises the level of consciousness," he said. "I think marches will be in order as long as there is a human family."

But the complex problems facing black America today may require solutions other than marches, sit-ins and boycotts.

"The reason for marches was to bring attention to the issues, and they were successful," Franklin said. "There is new leadership with a new agenda that builds on the work of the civil rights era. It's a continuation of what Dr. King envisioned. The strategies may be different."

The Rev. Gerald Austin, former pastor of New City Church and founder of the Center for Urban Missions, has created programs that emphasize job training and technology.

"I believe that the movement that we are faced with is an economic movement," Austin said. According to the 2000 Census, the median income level for white households in Jefferson County was $45,262, compared with $25,469 for blacks.

Austin, 54, advocates the church taking the lead in tackling the issue of community and economic revitalization by helping its members understand how to take ownership of property and create vital businesses.

The Rev. Steve Green, pastor of More Than Conquerors Faith Church, has taken an active

My problem with the story is not its focus on the ministers' liberal agenda; for good reason, few observers dispute that black Americans continue to face discrimination and structural inequalities.

My problem is the failure to mention the conservative alternative. The story misleads readers into thinking that black America is unconcerned about family formation and values. In fact, Cosby has renewed a long-running, and heated, debate about this very topic. (The May issue of The Atlantic Monthly features an interesting and well-done story about Cosby's crusade; it is not yet available online.)

Some GR readers might protest that I want the reporters to write another story instead of theirs. Not necessarily; Garrison and Walton failed to address whether the ministers' work is religious. As I wrote Friday, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. viewed his ministry as a method of Christian witness, prophecy, and morality. Do today's black ministers see their work in similar terms or are simply as social work?

That's an important question. So is the one I alluded to in the lede: How is it that a celebrity is talking more about values and family formation than black preachers?

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