Friday, February 7, 2014

Polio, Jim Collins and Racism in America

The November issue of Wired magazine ran a story on the effort to eradicate polio from the world. Long story short, an amazing amount of progress has been made over the last twenty-five years but finishing off polio like we did smallpox years ago will require an incredible an incredible amount of money and human resources. We're talking millions of dollars for every life saved. So there's a choice to make. Polio is not the problem that it once was. We've made incredible progress. Do we commit the resources to eliminate it entirely or do we settle for where we are now and focus on other killer diseases instead?

This is a real world example of the dilemma Jim Collins poses in his classic book Good to Great. Collins says, "Good is the enemy of Great." We settle for what is good enough instead of going all out for what is great. There are times when settling for good is, well, good enough. As a pastor, if I have a sermon prepared that is good but not great and a parishioner dies suddenly late in the week tending to the parishioner's needs may take high enough precedence that the sermon never becomes what it could have been. My time needs to be spent elsewhere. While it would be wonderful to wipe out polio, it is good to debate about the best use of our limited resources to fight disease. I have no idea what the best course of action is. What is important in this case is to understand that stopping at good would only be acceptable because the same resources are being used for a greater good, such as fighting malaria or another fatal disease.

Earlier today I was listening to a local radio program while driving. I heard this snippet:
Host to caller: The biggest problem with racism today is that we can't admit how much progress we've made.
Caller to host: I agree. I tell you what, put me with the blacks. I like watermelon and fried chicken.

You need to know that I did not hear the entire context of the program. I heard a couple previous callers and part of the next caller before I reached my destination. But as soon as the shock of what I just heard wore off my mind turned to Jim Collins and Good to Great. If we compare the United States of 2014 to the United States of the 1800's or 1960's it is undeniable that we have made great progress on racism. It is equally undeniable that we still are a country that has forms of structural racism and individuals that hold overt and covert racist beliefs. If you don't think you some of the covert racism in society has worn off on you you might try one of these tests. I'll admit that I was embarrassed at the results when I took the weapons test.

Racism is entrenched like polio. It is largely invisible until we look very closely (less than 1% of carriers of the polio virus display symptoms), but when we do look closely we see the disease is still with us. Wiping it out will take intentional, hard work. Compared to where we've been, we're doing pretty well. But "good" is not good enough. We can do better. We need to do better.