The demonic that is being manifest in America right now has been here since the beginning. But these spirits are uniquely acting out. Perhaps the best thing we can hope for, in such dark times, is that these are the convulsions of a spirit that, now that it is in the open, can yet be exorcised from our collective consciousness.
Equality: Rhetoric or Reality?
My keynote address to the Stand Against Racism rally at the Kalamazoo YWCA:
I’m racist. It’s important that you know that. I call myself ‘racist’ because, along with too many of my fellow Americans, I have internalized the rhetoric of equality without materializing the reality of it.
We internalize the rhetoric every year as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as we sing ‘We Shall Overcome’, and as we listen to a recording of the ‘I have a Dream’ speech. We internalize the rhetoric of equality because we find certain things distasteful: things like the N-word, Confederate flags, and the Ku Klux Klan. We internalize the rhetoric of equality whenever we ‘Like’ the Facebook posts of the NAACP and the YWCA. We have internalized the rhetoric of equality because we think of ourselves as “good people” who begin our sentences with the words: “I’m not racist.” We internalize the rhetoric of racism when we say, “I can’t be racist; I have friends who are black!”
But here’s the thing: we are still racist. I am racist. There is more to ending racism than simply saying “I’m not racist.” That is simply internalizing the rhetoric; the time has come for us to materialize the reality. Without that latter step, the words are nothing more than an empty hypocrisy, a farce of equality in a country where it’s okay to be racist, so long as you don’t say, “I’m racist.”
This hypocritical state of affairs reminds me of a passage from the New Testament, in the first letter of St. John, chapter 1, where the author writes: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins the God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
In other words, it would be far better for us to put away our hypocrisy (i.e. Saying, “I’m not racist”) and step into the light with some honest confession (i.e. Saying instead, “I am racist”). Honest confession is the first step on the path to healing and wholeness, to mercy and justice. This is how we will begin to materialize the reality of equality, rather than simply internalizing the rhetoric.
For seven years, from 2006-2013, I lived a fairly insulated and isolated life in an all-white rural village in upstate New York. I couldn’t name a single African American family in my neighborhood, but I could easily show you who proudly flew Confederate flag on shirts, hats, trucks, and houses. The church I pastored there had one African American teenager attending for about six months before he finished high school. The membership included one mixed-race family. During that time, I founded an ecumenical outreach ministry in a nearby city that is currently mostly made up of white, liberal Christians in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The clientele of my favorite café, bagel shop, and book store were… you guessed it: mostly white.
The only time during those years when I came into regular contact with people of another race is in my teaching job as a college professor, where I’ve noticed that my non-white students regularly got lower grades than my white students. I didn’t know why that was the case. Did I then stop everything and go to great lengths to find out what was wrong with my teaching style or my grading practices? No. Why? Because I was too busy with all the other stuff going on in my life to put something so big on my plate at an institution where I was just an adjunct professor. I chose instead keep my schedule as convenient as possible, rather than do the hard work necessary to adjust an imbalance of power that benefits people who look like me but damages long-term opportunities for others. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty racist to me.
Because I’m racist, I don’t have the right to order protestors to stay peaceful and nonviolent when entire communities are outraged at the verdict of a trial. I don’t have the right to slap you across the face and then tell you that it would be wrong for you to slap me back. A wiser person than myself once said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I don’t have the right to accuse my African American sisters and brothers of “playing the race card” because, as it turns out, I have a “race card” of my own and it’s an ace that’s permanently up my sleeve: it’s called being white and it gives me a distinct, unfair advantage over others whenever I walk into a place of business/worship/government, or even when simply walking or driving down the street.
Being white comes with its own set of privileges that are automatically, subconsciously bestowed upon those of us whose skin happens to be melanin-deficient.
White privilege is what gives me the luxury of changing the channel or looking away from the suffering of my fellow human beings. White privilege is what allows me to shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s too bad, but it’s not my problem.”
In the last fifty years, our American society has internalized the rhetoric of equality: we have declared that it is no longer socially acceptable to openly espouse views of personal prejudice against other people because of the color of their skin. But the job is only half-done.
White privilege is the other side of racism, which does not depend on one’s personal feelings about people of other races. White privilege is not about personal prejudice; it is about systemic oppression, which is much harder to see with our eyes that have been so blinded by individualism. We cannot see the forest for the trees; we have become fish who cannot perceive the water in which we swim… it is all around us and within us, but we don’t even know it’s there.
And if we refuse to raise our collective consciousness to the reality of systemic oppression, if we refuse to acknowledge the existence of this water, if we continue changing the channel and looking away from these inconvenient truths, then the current of this river will continue to sweep us downstream to where the riptides become rapids and the rapids become a waterfall, where we are swept over the edge to destruction and death. But for now, we still have time: We have this moment in which we can open our eyes to see the oppression and begin swimming against the tide.
We have today, in which we can still choose to show up, shut up, and listen to one another. We can educate ourselves: cracking a book instead of just changing the channel. We can say to each other this matters because you matter; you are a person, not a statistic. And together we are one people, made of one blood, in the divine image. Whatever our religion, we are living stones: bricks in the Temple of the Spirit where the light of glory shines forever.
This, we believe, is our common destiny. And that is why we have come here today: to materialize the reality of equality, instead of just internalizing the rhetoric. We have come here to make Dr. King’s dream come true because his dream is our dream and our dream is God’s dream.
Whatever our religion, however we understand that word God, we come together today with the faith to see this thing through, to open our eyes and change our fate before it’s too late: to stand up for freedom together, to speak out for justice together, and to work together until we move beyond the internalized rhetoric of reality and begin to materialize the reality.
Getting Serious About Racism
In the midst of public outcry over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, a lot of white folks have accused their African American neighbors of ‘being oversensitive’ or ‘playing the race card’. Part of us would like to believe that ‘we’re beyond all that now’ because of the Civil Rights movement. White people want to think: “We used to be racist, but then Dr. King came along and changed our minds with his ‘I Have a Dream’ address.”
Our unconscious script goes something like this: “Racists are bad people. I am not a bad person. Therefore, I am not racist.”
We justify this argument by saying things like:
- “I have no problem with black people.”
- “I even have friends who are black.”
- “I’m color-blind.”
- “I don’t see race.”
We have achieved a general consensus in North American culture that conscious discrimination based on race is morally wrong. Relatively few people are proud of being labeled ‘racist.’ However, that doesn’t mean we’re ‘over racism’. Despite claims to color-blindness, the following video paints a sobering picture:
The most insidious aspect of racism is not what we choose to believe, but how our unconscious assumptions shape the way we act without our realizing it. If we want this reality to change, we white folks have some work to do.
First of all, we need to undertake that good old spiritual discipline of repentance: We need to confess our sins. We should never let the words ‘I’m not racist’ escape our lips because the truth is that we are racist. I made my first attempt at this confession last year in the following post on this blog:
Read it and try writing your own. Get honest with God and your neighbor. Confession is good for the soul. Without it, we are little more than hypocrites and ‘whitewashed tombs’ as Jesus said. What we have now is a society where it’s okay to be racist, so long as we don’t say we’re racist.
We white folks need to be more knowledgeable about the truth of American society seen through the eyes of our African American brothers and sisters. I recommend the following books as a very basic starting point:
Race Matters by Cornel West
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
If you’re serious about fighting racism, you need to ally yourself with others who do the same. Join your local chapter of the NAACP. It’s not enough just to march in protest rallies. Go to meetings, serve on committees.
It’s also not enough to simply “have a black friend.” How about having some part of your week when you are the only white person in the room? Listen without passing judgment. When you hear the outcry against injustice, don’t close your ears. Don’t try to justify yourself or dismiss the grievances of the oppressed. Even if you’re not sure you agree with what is being said, show up and listen with an open mind. Resist the urge to put your two cents in before you’ve earned the right to be heard. Your silence in listening will speak louder than any words you might say.
Disarming the Powers: Subverting the KKK
Ignore the misleading YouTube headline. This is a story about nonviolent resistance and the power of love to overcome hatred.
I’ve sat with many civil rights and equality activists who continue to emphasize education and legislation as the key to overcoming injustice. I agree that both are necessary, but the core element that will change hearts is relational proximity. Some criticize him for what he is doing, but the proof is in the results he gets.
“Racism is like cancer: if you choose to ignore cancer, it metastasizes.” -Daryl Davis
(Youtube) ‘What Would You Do?’ – Anti Muslim Harassment
From ABC News via Upworthy.com
On the anniversary of 9/11, two years after the death of Osama bin Laden, this is what ‘never forgetting’ should look like. If we let Islamophobia, racism, and fear of terrorism conquer our souls and turn our country into the worst version of itself, then the forces that promote evil and terrorism have already won. As one of the participants in the video said, “We have to be better than that.”
The Most Durable Power
Another treat for the anniversary of ‘I Have A Dream’. This is one of my favorite preachers, Rev. Tamara Lebak, Associate Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you only listen to one sermon today, make it Dr. King’s, but if you listen to two, make this the next one.
I Have A Dream
50 years ago today, this speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Take just 17 minutes of your day today and listen to it in its entirety. Let Dr. King inspire and challenge you once again. His dream has not yet come true. May it come true in our day.
(Reblog) Americans of All Races Agree: We Are Racist
Follow-up to my previous post: I am Racist
Reblogged from Gawker:
We’re getting close to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which is, hell, as good a time as any to reflect on how racist we still are. Are we really, though? We are!
Harry Belafonte on Racism, Activism, Captialism, & Media
Harry Belafonte once again kills it in this interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
Click here to read the full article
Here’s an excerpt:
THR: Has the world changed for activists like you?
Belafonte: Definitely. Back then, the enemies were very clear, very precise. It is easy to fight oppression if it comes in [the form of] a swastika and a boot, and as a dictator, and you can see it and feel it and touch it. It is easy when there is a sign that says “No N—–s“ or “No Jews.“ Where it becomes the most insidious is when it buries itself and you can no longer touch it but can taste that yet it is there, fully blown, doing insane mischief. That is why I think the period now is the most challenging I’ve ever lived in. The power in many societies has become almost absolute. Those who have the power in the free-enterprise system start to crush societies and create wars that are unholy. What we did during the Bush period, what we still continue to do, even with Barack Obama, is the continuency of not changing the paradigm, of not changing the view. We still have laws that encourage torture; we did not change Guantanamo; we have laws that allow the police to arrest you at any time, not having to tell you why, and take you wherever they want. This kind of capitalism is taking us to the doorstep of [a] Fourth Reich, I think.
And here’s another one:
THR: Can you pin down what the enemy is nowadays?
Belafonte: Unbridled capitalism. The concentration of money in the hands of a very small group is the most dangerous thing that has ever happened to civilization. We are facing an oligarchy of force. Just look at who controls the press. We all witnessed how money and power squeezed out all essense of Rupert Murdoch and [Silvio] Berlusconi. Thank God for social media, which aids transparency. But even that becomes more and more restricted now, with companies like Facebook buying up all the roots of this technology.
I Am Racist
I’m racist. It’s important that you know that about me. I feel that it’s even more important for me to verbalize my racism, given my constant urge to keep up appearances. As a white American living half a century after Dr. King, I have internalized the rhetoric of racial equality without materializing the reality of it.
I like to think of myself as a “good person” and “not racist” but the fact is that neither of those statements is true. I’m actually a bad person and I’m racist.
I live a fairly insulated and isolated life in a just about all-white bedroom community in upstate New York. I can’t name a single African American family in my neighborhood, but I can show you who proudly flies Confederate flag on shirts, hats, trucks, and houses. The church I pastor previously had one African American teenager attending for about six months before he finished high school. The membership currently includes one mixed-race family. I founded an ecumenical outreach ministry in a nearby city that is currently mostly made up of white, liberal Christians in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The clientele of my favorite café, bagel shop, and book store are… you guessed it: mostly white.
The only time I come into regular contact with people of another race is in my teaching job at Utica College, where I’ve noticed that my non-white students regularly (but not always) get lower grades than white students. I don’t know why that is. Have I gone to great lengths to find out what’s wrong with my teaching and/or grading practices? No. Why? Because I’m too busy with all the other stuff going on in my life to put something so big on my plate at an institution where I’m just an adjunct lecturer. I would rather keep my schedule as convenient as possible than work to adjust an imbalance that benefits people who look like me but potentially damages long-term opportunities for people of other races. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty racist to me.
I am racist because I presume that racism was a problem for previous generations, but thank God Dr. King came along and fixed it all for us with one amazing speech in 1963. I am racist because I think having black friends makes me not-racist. I am racist because I think racism is confined to my personal feelings about black people.
I am racist because I benefit from living in a country where the following facts are true:
- Black youths arrested for drug possession are 48 times more likely to wind up in prison than white youths arrested for the same crime under the same circumstances.
- Black and Latino men are three times more likely than white men to be stopped by the police and have their cars searched – even though white men are four times more likely to have weapons or drugs.
- White men with a criminal record are more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men with no record, even when their education and experience are the same.
- Students of color are far less likely to be put in honors courses even after you take test scores and grades into account.
- Students of color are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school even though they are not much more likely to break school rules than whites.
- Black college men end up just a few dollars ahead of whites who went no further than high school.
- 45% of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 16% of white youngsters.
- From 1939 to 1959, the earnings of black men relative to whites improved by over one third. However, from 1972 to 1992, the relative earnings of black men tapered off—and this was the period of affirmative action.
- Black unemployment rates, for as long as records have been kept, have been at least double those experienced by whites. Today, the definition of unemployment has been sufficiently restructured (the figures no longer count people on welfare, those whose unemployment benefits have expired, those in jail or in the military) to become nearly meaningless. However, it is reasonable to claim that unemployment levels among urban youth exceed 60%.
- Black professors hold less than 5% of faculty positions. Less than 5% of the K-12 teaching force is black. About 85% of this group is centered in urban areas.
- Of all the doctoral degrees awarded in 1990, just 3.5% went to black men and women.
- The attrition rate of black university students at many prestigious universities is greater than 60%.
- Most NCAA universities refuse to release attrition rate for athletes. An NCAA study showed that nearly 75% of Division I black athletes failed to graduate.
- While black students represent 16 % of all public school students, they make up nearly 40% of those classed as learning disabled.
- There are more black men in jail than in college.
Note – I compiled this list from two sources:
All of these facts are true but I have made no effort to change a single one of them. That’s why I’m racist.
Because I’m racist, I don’t have the right to accuse African American people of “playing the race card” when entire communities are outraged at the verdict of a trial. I can’t even tell them to stay peaceful and not get violent. That would be like me slapping you across the face and reminding you that it would be immoral for you to slap me back. As it turns out, I have a “race card” of my own and it’s an ace that’s permanently up my sleeve: it’s called being white and it gives me a distinct, unfair advantage over others.
As a racist person, I have an ethical obligation to shut up, listen, and be ready to repent when there’s an outcry. I don’t get to offer my two cents. Not yet. Not while circumstances remain the same.
Yet, here I am: still writing and speaking, still spewing out a thousand or so words that will be read by dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the next few days. I still have this urge to say my piece in public when I should be listening. Why is that? Because I’m racist.