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Friday, August 19, 2011

I am a racist

I am a racist.

I am a racist because I have lived for years--all my life in fact--in a racist culture.

“Racist” is a fighting word. I can use it to describe myself, and I can use it to describe my culture, but I will never use it to refer to another human being. Using that word shuts down the conversation.

I am not a racist because I want to hurt people who do not look like me. I go to the opposite extreme: I am so afraid that I might hurt such a person that I am tempted to keep my distance from him or her. I might say the wrong thing. It is easier just to avoid such people.

This is Effect Number One of Living in a Racist Society: because I am afraid of offending someone, it is more comfortable to stay away from the other group.

What are some other ways that living in a racist society affect me? Let me describe a racist society.

A racist society is a society where one group of people have treated another group of people unfairly for a long time. In order to justify to itself why it is permissible to treat other people unfairly, the dominant group had to invent theories. They could never treat people unfairly if those people were just like them. The other people must have been different. They must have done something wrong, or God must have punished them (“the mark of Cain”), or they must be “less developed” than the dominant group.

Charles Darwin gave the dominant group the perfect theory. Human beings evolved from lesser beings, and some human beings are more evolved than others. The dominant group is the more evolved group. They know this because they can make the other group do whatever they want. (We ignore the fact that the dominant group had the bigger guns.)

Slavery had existed for centuries, but the slaves were usually people who had lost a war. Everybody knew that the time might come when the slaves would win the war and then the tables would be turned. When the theory says that the slave group will never catch up because that’s the way evolution works, the perfect system was invented. The slaves were forever less developed, and therefore they could be forever dominated. Anybody who said otherwise was unenlightened and unscientific. They were also a public menace.

They were a public menace because when slavery married capitalism, slavery became very big business. To be against slavery was to be anti-business. When people stand to lose serious money if the system is changed, they bring in all the resources at their disposal to defend the system, beginning with the military.

The Civil War was fought because southern planters were convinced that Abraham Lincoln would destroy the system that had made them rich. After the Civil War, the southern planters used all the violence at their disposal to put the old system back into place as much as they could. We call their work “Jim Crow.”

Slavery was built on violence, and has left our country with a tradition of solving problems with violence.


Nobody today will defend the theory that people of color are less developed than people without color. But we all float in a sea of the effects of the old system. We dominant folks have been trained for so long to see others as less human that we experience a psychological jolt every time we see something that doesn’t fit that theory.

I will never forget the shock I got when I first saw a mannequin with dark skin in a store window. I was in Boston, walking along Summer Street. My first reaction was, “They shouldn’t do that. Something is wrong with this picture.”

My life has been a series of such shocks. I am startled when I see black people who do not look like the way I think black people should look. When black people get old some of them surprise me with how they look. (I am 76 years old myself, but I am sure that I do not surprise people with how I look. I check this every day in the mirror.)

So, Effect Number Two of Living in a Racist Society: because I am often startled when I associate with people different from me, it is more comfortable to stay away from the other group.

Effects Number One and Two are why housing segregation is still such an important feature of American life today.

Those effects are bad enough, and help to explain why I have to struggle to welcome black people into my living spaces. But there is a more powerful factor than those two that affects me: fear. I am afraid of what my white neighbors will think if they see me associating with black people.

For those of us who are sensitive to what the neighbors will think, this is a serious problem. I may be completely convinced intellectually that my black neighbor is my equal, but I just know that my white neighbor is not as enlightened, and I have to live with my white neighbor more than with my black neighbor, because my black neighbor is not as close a neighbor to me as my white neighbor. So I can visit with my black neighbor in the workplace, or play on a team with him, but dare not invite him to have a hot dog with my family in our back yard. I can just see my neighbors glaring over their fences or from behind their curtains. “Who does he think he is? What is he trying to do?”

The sad thing is that it is quite possible that in reality my white neighbors may think exactly as I do. They may think that I will be bothered if they eat hot dogs in their back yards with black people. We all think the other guy is more racist than we are, because the media are always telling us that white people are racist. We never talk about this with our white neighbors because we think those neighbors are racist and will get mad if we bring it up.

Effect Number Three of Living in a Racist Society: we all think other people are more racist than we are.


We white people (and I am sure black people also) cannot ever change the racism of our culture until we associate day to day with people of the other group. Even then we will never quit being challenged. There are too many patterns in our heads that need to be replaced with new patterns. The patterns have to be replaced one by one, often with a little discomfort or even pain. We accept the discomfort or pain because we believe that God calls us to love one another. Love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with each other. Such love is the result of decision, not of feeling.

This is not all grim news. It is delightful to see people in new ways, to hear their stories, and to learn from them. If we hang in there, little by little we create a less racist culture. Maybe we will never see the kind of culture we hope for (especially if we are 76 years old), but it is more important to be on the way.

This is what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God.”