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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

We swim in the waters of racism

It has been  while since I put anything here. I wrote the following piece intending to put it into our diocesan newspaper. I hope to get around to that one of these days.

We may never be able to overcome a feeling of discomfort between Blacks and Whites in the United States. This feeling depends on two facts, one historical and the other statistical. 

Historically, the feeling comes from the years when Whites were systematically taught to consider Blacks as intellectually and morally inferior. This thinking was necessary to preserve a system where Whites could make Blacks work for them without pay, and far worse, could buy and sell human beings as though they were property. When slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment, former slave-owners devised ways to continue the system under the laws which we now call "Jim Crow." No intermarriage, no sharing of drinking fountains, etc. etc. etc.

For Whites, the atmosphere created by that history is like the water in which fish swim. We swim in it without realizing it exists. 

The second fact is statistical. There are nine Whites to every Black person in this country. In northern rural areas the difference is even greater. That means that the average White person is 90% unlikely to meet a Black person and get to know that person. There are simply not enough Black people for most of us Whites to interact with on a regular basis. Without regular interaction, stereotypes and prejudices can continue without challenge. When we get to know one another, those stereotypes are gradually dispelled, though they may never get washed out entirely. I can see Black actors on TV and vote for a Black president, but until I interact with real people of color, I can continue with the two problems I just described. Most of us do. 

So what are we to do, as people of faith, people who follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ? 

One thing we can do is to recognize the handicap we face. Call it original sin, if you prefer. It is like our traditional idea of original sin in that we are born with it. 

The more active thing we can do is to practice treating people with respect. 

Respect is a set of learned behaviors. Parents drill these behaviors into their children. But often I as a white person am uncomfortable when I meet a Black person because I'm afraid of saying the wrong thing, and in my discomfort, I forget to be respectful. I may not look the person in the eye, or I might not address that person as warmly as I would a person of my own race. Most damaging of all, I might avoid the person, and just like that, I am practicing racial segregation and contributing to the problem. 

Being respectful is not, as they say, rocket science. It means approaching another human being with the behaviors that imply that I accept the other person as an equal, even if I may not feel that equality. It means simple courtesy. 

Recently some Black friends of mine described a reunion of their family that took place, in Georgia, in a vacation site that was not used to Black faces. My friends, who are "middle class," with educations and good jobs, had every right to rent the location. A neighbor came over and wanted to know why they were there. Implied was the neighbor's expectation that Black people do not belong in that place.  

That is lack of courtesy and respect. The courteous and respectful thing for such neighbors to do would have been to approach the newcomers with a smile and gestures of welcome, even if doing that might feel uncomfortable. Asking what the newcomers were doing there implied that the questioner was afraid that the newcomers would import poverty and crime.

I think we Christians are called to practice being respectful to every person who comes into our lives, regardless of that person's appearance or history or even behavior. If we want to be like Jesus, we might even look for people who make us feel uncomfortable.

In Jesus' day, anyone with a physical disability was something of an outcast. Poor people were outcasts because they did not observe all the rules that the religious leaders set up. (Jesus had some comments about that situation.) It was the poor and people with disabilities who flocked to Jesus. I can imagine people worrying about what that was doing to the neighborhood. 

Let us White Christians sigh, accept our own disabilities of prejudice, and practice being respectful. We are going to be living in our world of stereotypes and prejudice for a long time. An act of contrition would help.