By Bishop Michael Rinehart
Are you racist? I am.
If I asked you to find a photo of a racist person to accompany this article, what kind of picture would you choose? If I asked you to imagine a racist person in your mind, what would you picture? A hooded member of the Klan? A backwoods white supremacist with a gun and a Confederate flag?
It is no wonder people reject even the mildest hint of racism on the part of society, business, law enforcement, or even ourselves. “I’m not a racist. I’m not one of those people,” I hear from time to time. “I don’t hate people of other races. In fact, I wish them well. Don’t look at me. I’m not a racist.”
One of the problems is there are very different understandings of racism out there.
For some people, racism is a belief. Some people believe their race is better than others. We are superior. This is well documented throughout history. One example is the The Cornerstone Speech, delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens at the Athenaeum in Savannah, Georgia on March 221, 1861. Here are some quotes:
The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew…”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition…
They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man…
They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
This kind of mentality led to the phenomenon of lynchings in the U.S. States with the most black lynchings were:
- Mississippi – 539
- Georgia – 492
- Texas – 352
- Louisiana – 335
- Alabama – 299
States with the least black lynchings:
- Maine – 0
- Vermont – 0
- Delaware – 1
- New York – 1
- New Jersey – 1
The image of the lynching is vulgar. But consider the tool for lynching of the first century: the cross. The lynching tree is central to Christianity. Read more about this in James Cone’s book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”.
This kind of racism is a subset of bigotry (intolerance of other based on their ideas, race, religion, etc.) and prejudice (having preconceived ideas about someone or a group not based on facts or experience). This kind of racism is an outright belief that people of African descent are less human than lighter skinned people. They should therefore be subservient. It is a minority of people who consciously hold this belief today, though a significant number of people hold this belief unconsciously.
When it is overt, this kind of racism is obvious and easy to spot. Often times it is not visible. Like sexism, racism can be manifested in subtle ways. It’s is the taxi driver who passes a black customer to pick up a white customer, because he unconsciously feels safer. It is the white man who just happens to get the job instead of the black woman. The interviewer may not consciously dislike black people or consciously think less of women. He just simply “feels” that the white guy is better for the job. He’s a better “fit” for the current corporate culture. Just look at the CEOs of large corporations, the Senate, or even the Conference of Bishops to see this kind of racism and sexism at work. Black people are told constantly, in a myriad of ways, that they don’t add up in this white-dominated society.
This is what the Black Lives Matter movement is all about. It is an attempt to counter the lie that black lives are less valuable than white lives, our social structures notwithstanding. Sadly, even African Americans fall into this trap of believing their lives matter less than those of their white counterparts.
Another way to see racism is to understand it as privilege. Privilege is less obvious, but still visible for those with eyes to see. It’s popular to think we all have the same opportunities and are on a level playing field. This is not the case. Was your mom a stay-at-home mom? Did you have lots of books in the house? Did you have health care? Did your parents have money to pay for you to go to college? Your answers to these questions set up the amount of opportunities you have to succeed. Mr. Trump may indeed be a ruthless negotiator, but don’t forget that he received a billion dollar inheritance. That’s a significant starting advantage. Wealth and poverty cross generations. Some are lucky enough and bright enough to rise out of their early lack of opportunity, but this is extremely difficult. Women and minorities will tell you; you have to be twice as good as a white man to get the job.
Here is an exercise that might help people understand the reality.
Privilege is often invisible to those who have it. As a man I don’t receive sexist or suggestive comments. I rarely get talked down to or overlooked. No one asks me to get the coffee. I don’t usually even think about getting mugged or raped on my way to the car in a dark parking lot. These are not my daily realities, so it’s easy to believe they don’t exist.
Likewise as a white man, nobody ever asks me to show my papers to prove that I’m a U.S. citizen. I don’t get asked what country I came from. (Most Latinos in the U.S. we’re born here. Some families have been in Texas long since before English-speaking people came). No one makes racist remarks to me. As a result, it’s easy to imagine I live in a post-racial, colorblind world. I don’t personally experience discrimination, so I don’t think it exists. Certainly everyone experiences the world as I do, right?
The fix for this is to make friends across racial boundaries and listen to them. When we listen deeply, we learn what it is like. Ask any black person you know about getting stopped by law enforcement. Just listen.
The book to read, if you want to understand more deeply the reality of privilege is, Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan Johnson.
Incidentally, another matter of privilege is U.S. citizenship. I take it for granted that I can go anywhere I wish with my U.S. passport. I assume I could live and work in any country. If I were from Mexico, this would not be the case. It is nearly impossible for a Mexican to move to the U.S. without a wealthy job in hand or a spouse who is a U.S. citizen. We regularly try to bring friends from our companion churches in Peru and the Central African Republic. Their visas get turned down more than they get accepted. Being a U.S. citizen is a matter of chance. We didn’t earn it. We were born here. All too often we assume other have the same rights and privileges.
Being a straight, white, male U.S. citizen comes with privileges. Doors are open for us that aren’t open to others. I don’t apologize for who I am, but I am blind if I don’t recognize the inequity.
Another kind of racism, one that is far more complex is institutional racism. This kind of racism is built into our laws and social structures. Obviously, slavery laws fall into this category. It was against the law in the antebellum South to teach black slaves to read. Congress passed a law completely stopping Chinese immigration altogether. The Immigration Act of 1924 is one of the most racist pieces of legislation ever passed by congress. It made it law that people could only immigrate to the U.S. in the percentage that they existed in the U.S. at that time. So, if 10% of the U.S. was black, only 10% of all immigrants admitted could be black. This was passed to maintain a white majority.
These are obvious examples. There are much more subtle kinds of institutionalized racism. In order to keep blacks from voting, they had to pass a test. Here are some examples of voter test from the 60’s. Can you pass? These tactics are still being used today to keep minorities from voting. Additionally, congressional districts get redrawn to keep the current people in power.
It can be subtler yet. Institutions respond to blacks and whites differently. A black renter is asked by the landlord not to wear a hoodie at night. The white renter is not. His presence doesn’t trouble the residents. I could go on. We all know it happens.
What to do about it
If you are a person who enjoys some of these privileges of race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or anything else, what can you do? No, don’t sit and feel badly about it. Do something about it.
Read up. Racism is complex. We need to have a more sophisticated understanding of these social dynamics. We need to be aware that xenophobia, “fear of the other,” is built into our society. Europeans exterminated the native peoples of this land and enslaved the people of another continent for centuries. Jews, homosexuals, and dissidents were sent to the gas chambers in the 20th century. This may sound like ancient history, but it’s not all that long ago.
Wake up. It still goes on. James Byrd was dragged to death in Jasper County, Texas. Nine black worshippers were murdered in a Charleston Church in June, a church that has been burned down before. Since then, there has been a rise in the number of black churches that have been burned down. Since we elected a black president, the number of hate groups has exploded.
Own it. “I am racist, because I live in and enjoy the advantages and privileges of my race. I participate in a society that treats people very differently based on race. So I’m trying to do something to correct that and be part of the solution.”
Don’t ignore it. There is a mentality that anyone who talks about race is perpetuating the problem. This mindset believes if we pretend the problem is not there, it isn’t. “Stop talking about it and it will all go away” is a common white response. Don’t be colorblind!
Embrace diversity. Don’t be colorblind; be color amazed. It’s a joy to live in a country of people from everywhere. This is the U.S. experiment. Celebrate it.
Build bridges. Make friends across racial, national, and religious boundaries. Increase your DQ: diversity quotient. When you are in a relationship with others, you are much more likely to feel their pain and joy.
Step back. Let others move to the front of the bus. People who have privileges often want the same for minorities. They just don’t want to lose the privileges that they personally enjoy. But always being first means others get pushed back. Sometimes we need to forego privileges so others get a shot. Invite others to the stage. As Jesus says, “Do not sit at the highest place.”
Listen. Understand. Be a student. Ask questions. Walk alongside.
Speak up. When you start to notice privilege and racism at work, name it. Shed light on it. Point it out. Ask questions: “What’s going on over there? What’s that about?” Be an advocate for justice. Don’t be an upholder of the status quo.