For some time now I’ve been of he opinion that if you want to put someone on the defensive, especially a white person, accuse them of being a racist. Well, I have a confession of sorts because I’m here to tell you I am a racist. But then I believe everyone is a racist: you, me, Hitler, Mother Teresa. We’re all racists. And the question is not “Are you a racist” because the answer is yes you are. A much more useful question it seems to me is: where do you place yourself on the continuum of racism on which we all reside?
Last September the corner forum had a discussion about Theology and we were talking about how at one end of the spectrum there are religious fundamentalists who don’t just believe in God, they know there is a God. No question. At the other extreme there are what might be called fundamentalist atheists who “know” just the opposite: there is no God. But pretty much everyone else can be charted on a continuum of agnosticism.
Well, in much the same way I am positing a continuum of racism, only in my world view everybody is on it. There is no one who is so pure of heart or mind as to not be somewhere on that continuum. I’m talking about adults now, not children.
I believe there is such a thing as relatively benign racism. But, what does that look like? Perhaps not being entirely comfortable around people of another race. Racial , ethnic pride that sometimes gets over zealous. Maybe preference for one’s own race when it comes to who you date, who you marry. Have you ever told a racist joke?
Now somewhere on this continuum you cross a line and get into acts that are clearly beyond the pale-vicious, discriminatory, not to mention illegal. And I would be preaching to the choir if I spent the next 15 minutes telling you about how that’s bad. We know that’s bad. What I’ll be talking about today are the gray areas, the more difficult, challenging aspects of racism we deal with both publicly and privately.
I was inspired to address this topic in part by an article that appeared in the Fall edition of the UU World entitled “The Gospel of Inclusion”. This article describes both the successes and challenges experienced by All Souls UU Church in Tulsa when virtually overnight they gained 200 new members, most of them African American Pentecostal Christians.
Some quick background on this: A few years earlier the Pentecostal Reverend, Carlton Pearson, had become increasingly disenchanted with fundamentalist doctrine and began preaching more of a Universalist message which did not sit well, to put it mildly, with conservative Christians who had been his supporters. So, over time his mega-church which had over 6000 members at its peak, dwindled down to about 200 members and as he put it: “We were hurting, scattered, and wandering through the wilderness like Moses and the Children of Israel.” They were looking for a spiritual home and they found it at the predominantly white All Souls.
The article goes on to describe how All Souls has handled cultural differences and mixed feelings about things like Christianity, musical style, biblical literacy, and “God” language. And as I read the article I found myself wondering how we would handle it if a similar, albeit scaled down experience happened to us..
One of the points made by All Souls senior minister, Rev. Marlin Lavenhar, is that the African American experience of God has been strongly influenced by slavery and racism. In fact I think its safe to say that the African American experience of a lot of things has been influenced by slavery and racism. For example according to one theory, and this is from an African American Professor, the misogynistic theme of certain rap and hip-hop songs has its roots in what often happened during slavery. Back in those days white slave owners were known to occasionally visit the slave quarters and have their way with the young African-American women. And if you were the husband of such a woman you basically had to step outside while the master did your wife. And as a black man in that situation you had basically two choices. You could go in there and kill the guy, and of course end up getting killed yourself, or you could do a psychological adjustment in which you told yourself “I didn’t like her that much anyway” or “sex, that’s all she’s good for anyway”. And in order to preserve their sanity, not to mention their lives, a lot of men made the latter decision.
So according to the theory this goes a long way towards explaining how white folks are at least partially responsible for the sexual objectification of women often heard in contemporary African American music.
Now I’m well aware of the fact that in a way I’m talking in kind of a vacuum here. I’m a white guy talking to a largely white group . And while I believe its possible for white folks to have an intellectual sophistication about racism but it is not part of our cultural DNA like it is with African Americans and other minority groups in this country, because our history is full of examples of discrimination against Asians, Hispanics, people of middle-eastern descent.
But it seems to me that at least in some respects the pendulum is swinging the other way. For many years white people, especially white males, have been the bad guys-the oppressors, the slave owners, the power elite. So now that women and minorities have gained more political power and economic/cultural influence, white men are more of an acceptable target than they used to be. And maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s part of the process we have to go through in order to achieve a lasting equilibrium. But as an example of what I’m talking about, take a look at commercials on TV. Invariably it is the woman or non-white person who comes off as competent/knowledgeable and it is the white guy who is the endearing goof-ball who needs to be set straight. Now I don’t have a serious objection to this but I do take note of it and I think, I hope its part of a cultural shift which will eventually get us closer to a level playing field.
There are several demographic realities that are worth noting: We are approaching a time in this country when white people will no longer be the majority racial group. Most estimates put this as happening around mid-century . In fact its already the case in California where at last count 57% of the population is non-white. And in spite of all the flaws and challenges of our diversity, and there are a lot of them, our diversity has been and will continue to be our strength . I recently read an article about World War II and one of the points made by the article was that early in the war : 1939,1940,1941, Hitler did not believe the United States was going to pose much of a problem in large part because he thought of the United States as a mongrel nation: lots of different racial groups, ethnic groups, religions, and he just didn’t believe the U.S. would be able to galvanize these various groups into a unified fighting force. Turned out he was a little bit wrong about that. Of course we were far from being paragons of virtue ourselves. We had a segregated military and internment camps for the Japanese. But even with all that unpleasantness it was our diversity that was an important part of our strength.
I said earlier that we’re all racists. Let me add that people have a right to be racist. There’s no law against it. I remember back in the ‘60s one of the leaders of the civil rights movement made the observation that if you are a racist you have a problem, and you have a right to that problem—but when you’re around me you better keep it to yourself. Two years ago during the West Virginia Democratic primary a reporter from NPR was conducting an informal exit poll and she asked one man who he had voted for. He gave her an answer I don’t think she was expecting which was: “Well, I don’t vote for no colored. I don’t believe a black man should be telling a white man what to do.” But that guy was expressing an attitude he has a right to have. The question becomes what do you do with your racism? However benign or malignant it may be. A good example would be a police officer who pulls over a motorist not because he has done anything wrong but because he fits a certain profile: Young, black male driving an expensive car. Hey, that car might be stolen. Better check this guy out. Time was when that kind of thing was not only allowed but encouraged. It was often department policy. The officer would be considered remiss if he didn’t pull the guy over. I think we call that institutional racism. Of course that kind of profiling is no longer tolerated, at least not officially. Now if the officer were to see a young, black male driving an expensive car and say to himself, “Hey, that car might be stolen.” but he doesn’t don’t pull the guy over, that’s arguably a racist attitude but he didn’t act on it so we’ll give him a pass on that, at least I will.
There is of course another profiling issue that resonates these days: The vast majority of terrorists are people from certain countries or of middle eastern descent. And some would argue that it only makes sense to give these folks a little more scrutiny when, for example, going through airport security. Now I don’t think that can be official policy but security officers do have discretion to perform random checks, they can use behavioral cues as a guide. And these assessments are admittedly subjective and have potential for abuse. But hey- we almost lost 300 people over the skies of Detroit last Christmas in part because of lax security, because maybe there wasn’t enough profiling.
And what about the recent shootings at Ft. Hood? Its beginning to look like some of the superiors of the man accused of the shootings were so concerned, so sensitive about appearing racist or discriminatory that they allowed this guy to be someplace he really shouldn’t have been. So at what point should safety and security trump cultural sensitivity and political correctness?
But a lot of us live fairly insular lives and may never or very rarely be put to the racist test in a significant way. As I was preparing this talk I asked myself when was the last time I faced a racially charged dilemma or situation? I have had unpleasant experiences with people from another race, but-at least I tell myself-it wasn’t the person’s race that was the problem, it was their behavior, what they were doing. Also it occurs to me that skin color, physical features-that’s superficial stuff, that’s cosmetic. Its often the cultural differences, differences in communication style, differences in personal experience that pose the most significant challenges. I often feel I have more in common with someone from another race who is in basically the same social-economic group and educational level as I am than I do with someone from my own race who is not.
I think most people have their heart in the right place and are genuinely motivated to seek harmony and understanding of other races, cultures, and ethnic groups. But it doesn’t take a lot of looking around to see there are malcontents out there from all points on the compass, and they’re not going away. These are people who for either personal or political reasons have their feelers out for any act or statement that could even remotely be construed as racist or perhaps reverse discrimination, and these folks for better or worse keep the pot boiling. I remember during the O.J. Simpson trial someone was testifying that they overheard a man speaking. They didn’t see the man, they just heard him speaking from around a corner or on the other side of a fence. And the testimony was that the person speaking sounded black, sounded African-American. And Johnny Cochran who was one of the defense attorneys for O.J. was all over that: “Oh really? You say the person sounded black, well that’s very interesting. What does a black person sound like? I’m black. Do I sound black to you.” I forget what happened next but it certainly gets us into the whole question of: Is there such a thing as an African-American dialect? I would say yes. Do all Blacks have it? I would say no. Is it racist to even bring up such a thing? I don’t know . Maybe. I think it depends a lot on the spirit in which the issue is being raised. At their best these kind of discussions can open a productive dialogue and put focus on things that need to be addressed. At their worst they can be self-serving, and at times an attempt to blame racism for personal failings. It also occurs to me that some truths are better left unsaid, especially in a highly political or emotionally charged situation. So before you speak your truth, consider the context.
So, what do we do about all this? UUs have a long tradition of taking a stand against racism and that will undoubtedly continue, and that’s good. But what do we do here- as individuals, as a congregation? And the answer of course is…I don’t know. I do know that I don’t like telling other people what to do, especially if its something I’m unable or unwilling to do myself. So for me to suggest we go out and march, protest, write our congressman—I’m not going to do that, so I’m not going to ask you to do it. You’re certainly welcome to do those things if you like but I won’t be joining you. I think I’m one of those people I mentioned earlier who is rarely put to the racist “test” in any big way. So my response to the race issue has been largely passive.
One thing I do though is I live in Houston, the 4th largest city in the country . And we are of course very culturally diverse. And its been my experience, my observation that Texas in general and Houston in particular is willing to take you in, willing to take a chance on you in ways that maybe some other parts of the country aren’t.
In my work environment there are a lot of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, other ethnic groups, and certainly more women overall than men . And I have had the good fortune to get to know some of these folks fairly well. At first glance some of them may seem unremarkable, but they’ve got their stories. One kindly old man used to be a Colonel in the South Vietnamese Army. Somebody else is a cancer survivor. We’ve got retired police officers, single Moms, and people who have come here from other parts of the country and other parts of the world to make a life here in Houston. And as I talk to these people and hear their stories I often find myself saying, “Really? You did what?!”
So for me its got to be personal, one-on-one. I believe we experience things that are consistent with the lessons we are meant to learn in life and part of my journey is to learn how to develop healthy relationships with the people I encounter. So you’re not likely to see me marching or joining a grass-roots movement in support of racial equality but hopefully you will see me making an effort to know and appreciate other people and letting them get to know me. Anyway, that’s my take on racism, and as we say in 12-step groups, take what you like and leave the rest.